“David Vs Goliath”: A Post-election Uganda Spring?

Ugandans are going to the polls on Thursday January 14th 2021 with heightened anxiety and fear. Beside the over 360 directly elected members of Parliament, there are 12 candidates registered to contest for the presidency. The two leading candidates are the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), and the charismatic musician-turned politician
Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine.
Bribery and buying favours: why Uganda's MPs want longer terms
Yoweri Museveni
Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (Bobi Wine) Accepts Freedom Award Nomination | fnst.org
Bobbi Wine
The incumbent has been in power since 1986, when his main opponent Bobi Wine was only four years old.
Museveni rode to power after winning a five-year guerrilla war that pitted him against a dictatorial second Obote government and the military junta that had overthrown Obote less than a year before Museveni’s capture of power. This election has so much at stake because, Museveni, who is running for the sixth time – the first two five-year terms were a period of good will and honeymoon –
is in Bobi Wine, and for the first time, pitted against the force that is the youth in Uganda today.
This is an election like no other that Uganda has had given the huge stakes both for the country and for the region. Youth Power Vs a Veteran’s Contradictions. Just to be clear, Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with more than 75% of Uganda’s population below the age of 30. Ugandans of Bobi Wine’s generation and below have, therefore, known only one President,
Ugandan youth must treasure land as a source of livelihood – Witness Radio
They are also facing many challenges different from those their parents and grandparents faced in the pre-Museveni “liberation” era of the 1960s to early 1980s. The biggest problem is youth unemployment, with the country having one of the highest youth unemployment rates at 13.3%—the number of youths actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Bobi Wine has crafted all this youthful force’s voices into one loud cry for freedom and hope, doing this not in the few months leading to his initial election to a parliamentary seat in one of the Greater Kampala constituencies in 2017, but over many years through his music. He grew up in the Kamwookya slum in the north-eastern part of Kampala, and he is a self-made and well accomplished musician who began his music career in the early 2000s. His music, mainly reggae, dancehall, and afrobeat by genre, has always had a socially conscious message. On the campaign trail he is basically repeating messages from his songs, main among them being that the conceited heroism of septuagenarian Museveni and his political party-turned liberation movement cannot make sense to such a young population unless it ensures them a secure future with guarantees for a good education, health care and jobs.
Kamwokya slum benefits from street lighting project - Nile Post
This is a new challenge to the long ruling Museveni. Many of his previous challengers have
been other veteran politicians, some defectors from his own ruling party like Dr. Kizza Besigye and Major General Mugisha Muntu. They had either been part of the older systems Museveni claims to have been fighting all his life, or part of a system that they were now claiming to be fighting. Bobi Wine is different. He represents over 75% of Ugandans who can draw ululations from post- independence-Ugandan history and demand for a better future. It is a burdensome history too.
By contradicting his own original stance that “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,” Museveni has arguably written his own legacy on the dark pages of this burdensome history; for he is all but surely and steadily ensuring that Uganda, even under a man once praised as the expression of a broad and
forceful vision for Africa’s future, may not yet taste a peaceful transfer of power.
Uganda goes to the polls in general elections - Vatican News
Statements from Museveni and some of his lieutenants in view of this and previous elections show that polls may actually be for him a mere exercise in gimmicks. He disparages his opponents, and he has been quoted as asking about stepping down during the last election five years ago: “How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?” Mr. Museveni has also increasingly muzzled and weakened the country’s key institutions such as the police and the judiciary, even the legislature, to ensure fewer challenges to his authority. But as Daniel Kalinaki, the Nation Media Group’s General Manager for Editorial, in Kampala says, “perhaps the most
significant factor in Mr Museveni’s longevity is the way that any potential opposition force has been neutered.”
Key electoral opponents, mainly Kyagulanyi, like FDC’s Col. Kizza Besigye before him, have been brutalized before and during presidential elections. Col. Kizza Besigye, once Museveni’s bush war physician and who has run against his former boss four times beginning with the 2001 elections, has been detained and prosecuted on numerous charges, including rape and treason, but has never been convicted. And now the youthful Kyagulanyi, who is mounting a serious challenge to the president’s rule, has faced treason charges, he and his supporters have been shot at, and after one of his arrests in late November, 54 people were killed, many of them believed to have been shot by the security forces. President Museveni told Channel 4’s  Lindsey Hilsum in a recent interview that the opposition are responsible because with the help of foreign agents they organized an insurrection like what had happened in Libya and Egypt.
Uganda: Stop killings and human rights violations ahead of election day | Amnesty International


So, we ask: is Museveni ready to give up power if defeated in a free and fair election? Will Robert Kyagulanyi’s massive, youthful support allow all the rigging that is for all intents and purposes already happening to stand and allow the Emperor to call it business as usual? Is the country headed for some million march and a Ugandan Spring?

Uganda, electoral history and frustrated hopes

Divisive Elections

Uganda’s electoral history has been murky in the strictest sense of the word. During colonial days, there had been a tactical and conscious ethnic separation of powers by the British. Divide and rule, as this complex, artificial division of the country into social identity groups along cultural-ethnic lines is known, was the seeds of horizontal inequalities. It would also mean that when Ugandans had to engage in electoral politics as part of the pre and post-independence political process, all activities including elections would be largely sectarian. The formation of the first political parties in the decade that preceded Uganda’s independence, for instance, as Mutiibwa (2008) notes, underlined these sectarian divisions. “The Uganda National Congress (UNC), the first political party to be formed in Uganda, was not only Buganda-based but was also predominantly Protestant in leadership, which made it unattractive to both the non Baganda and the Catholics, the latter being the majority among the Christians in Uganda.” Buganda, the tribe and the Baganda, the people, are the largest ethnic group in Uganda.


The baganda of Uganda - Uganda culture and tribes

Baganda, the people.

“When, in 1954, the Democratic party was formed, it too was not only Buganda-based in its initial stages, but was also staunchly Catholic in leadership.” The two political parties that would dominate Uganda’s politics for decades to come, the UNC later evolving into the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), had all been formed in Buganda, and with Buganda leadership. Later, KabakaYekka (King Only), another party, or movement, as it was referred to then, would be formed by the Mengo establishment, the seat of the powerful Kabaka (King) of the Baganda. This too, was very sectarian and formed with the sole purpose of fighting the politicians in the other two parties.

1962 – 1980 and the Obote Era

The first direct pre-independence elections were organized by the Colonial Government in March 1961, and the two main political parties, namely, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) contested. Buganda Kingdom boycotted the elections, and insisted on its demand to have its representatives elected by its own local legislative assembly, The Lukiiko. DP won the elections with 43 seats, while UPC got 37 seats; hence DP formed the first ever internal self-government, headed by the Chief Minister, Benedict Kiwanuka. The elections were, however, considered unrepresentative because of Buganda’s boycott. The Colonial Government thus organized fresh elections for April 1962. The Buganda Kingdom was granted its request to hold indirect elections and its local assembly nominated 21 representatives to the National Assembly, who represented the Kabaka Yekka (KY) Party. This time DP won 24 seats, while UPC won 37 seats. UPC made an alliance with KY Party who had 21 representatives, and formed a UPC-KY government, headed by UPC’s Milton Obote as the first Prime Minister of Independent Uganda. Obote, a master tactician from the Langi tribe in Northern Uganda, had entered an unlikely alliance with Buganda-leaning politicians. He would even later appoint the Baganda King, the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa, as head of state in 1963, only to subjugate him and his kingdom later in 1966 in a move that was soon to tear Uganda apart, leading to what was termed the “Buganda Crisis.”


Milton Obote | president of Uganda | Britannica

Milton Obote as the first Prime Minister of Independent Uganda


Some historians have given Obote the benefit of the doubt and interpreted his actions as a sincere, if rather ambitious attempt, to use an election and accommodate the disparate ethnic groups on which Uganda was built. That he wanted to heal the divisions between the Bantu groups to the south, especially the Baganda, and the Nilotic and Sudanic groups of the north, such as the Acholi and Langi, to which Obote belonged. His critics however say that he had intentionally used the Kabaka and Buganda for the temporary necessity of a peaceful transition to independence, and was now isolating and eclipsing them. That he was instrumentally exploiting the tribally divided state of the nation for his political ambitions, and to advance group interests.


Uganda's Slow Slide into Crisis | Crisis Group


Obote’s disastrous intervention in Uganda’s elections would be repeated in 1980, on the only occasion Ugandans had gone to the polls since the 1962 independence elections. Although the 1962 Constitution had provided for holding elections after every five years, this did not happen; post-independence elections scheduled for 1967 were not held because of the effects of the political crisis of 1966, which saw the abolition of kingdoms in Uganda and establishment of a Republic. The anticipated elections of 1971 were cancelled by Idi Amin when he took power through a military coup, and abolished the Constitution. From 1971 until 1979, Uganda was ruled by decree. In the 1980 elections, organized after the overthrow of Idi Amin’s military regime by the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) earlier in 1979, Obote surprised many Ugandans when he came back from exile in Tanzania to contest on the UPC ticket.



When Idi Amin expelled 50,000 'Asians' from Uganda — Adam Smith Institute

Idi Amin Dada

Four political parties participated in this election held on 10th and 11th December, 1980, namely, the Conservative Party (CP), formally KY, the Democratic Party (DP), the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) led by now incumbent Yoweri K. Museveni, and the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC). The election was almost certainly rigged, and Obote returned to power after nine years; for at the closure of polling, Mr. Muwanga Paulo, the Chairman of the ruling Military Council, took over control of Electoral Commission, and declared he was the only one to announce the final election results. UPC was eventually declared winner of the elections; however, DP and UPM disputed the results, and the country was plunged once again into an anarchic civil war as Obote was to spend most of his second term (1981-85) fighting his rival Yoweri Museveni and other guerrilla groups who had launched an armed opposition to what they saw as Obote’s fraudulent regime. Obote’s UPC government was overthrown in a military coup on 25th July 1985, just as preparations for General Elections were underway. And in January 1986, the National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, overthrew the military government and established the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government.


The forgotten original NRA 27


The Museveni Era

The 1986 revolution that brought the incumbent Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement to power had promised so much in terms of security, individual freedoms, equality and sustainable development across the ethnic and political divide. NRM came up with the famous Ten Point Program, that included among other things: restoration of democracy, transparency and accountability, an end to sectarianism, unity, and an integrated and self-sustaining economy. The initial NRM government’s five-tier Local Council (LC) system had been seen as a transparent, honest and participatory, decentralized system of government. In the long run, however, the focus moved away from the socio-political empowerment of the grassroots to the LCs as the primary vehicles for popular participation in the ruling National Resistance Movement’s politics.

Uganda’s first general election in 16 years was held in 1996, under a no-party constitutional framework that came into effect in 1995.These were also the first direct presidential elections in the country. All candidates were independents under the rubric of individual merit, as political parties were banned at the time. Voter turnout was 72.3%, and the incumbent Yoweri Museveni won 75.5% of the vote. To be clear, not many Ugandans wanted to entrust the country to anyone other than Museveni given the direction the country was going at the time.


May 11, 1996: Museveni sweeps Uganda elections | Today History – Gulf News


Uganda’s electoral exercise entered its current and ever worsening phase of fraudulent malpractices, intimidation and violence during the 2001 elections when Dr. Kizza Besigye, a former guerrilla and NRM cadre gave Mr Museveni his first real challenger in 15 years in office. Besigye had quit government and the army in protest, accusing the government of widespread corruption and diversion from the original objectives of the NRM. He also called for an end to Museveni’s “Movement” system, which he said had served its purpose as an instrument in Uganda ‘s political transition to multiparty democracy. Museveni was awarded over 70% of the vote although Besigye’s camp said “the overall picture is that this election has been grossly rigged by the incumbent – helped by the incompetence of the electoral commission.” Despite protests against the results, the outcome was accepted by the Supreme Court of Uganda. Besigye would challenge Museveni three more times in 2006, 2011 and 2016, all along as the flag bearer of the main opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which he formed following the Political Parties and Organizations Act of 2005 which provided, among others, for the registration, regulation and organization of political parties and organizations.


Uganda's Kizza Besigye - veteran opposition leader profiled - BBC News

Dr. Kizza Besigye,

There have always been other multiple contenders, although only Besigye had a real shot at the presidency. Likewise, he, more than any other contender, “has incurred the wrath of the NRM regime with trials, teargas, constant arrests, torture and blockades on his home.” In the intervening years Yoweri Museveni has deviated more and more from his youthful philosophical grasp of what Africa’s real problem is: “not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” He has twice either instigated amendments in the constitution to allow him to stay in power, or stood by as the majority NRM MPs endorsed the ideas of removing both presidential term limits in 2005, and the 75-year age limit in 2017. It has also been widely alleged that ruling party MPs were bribed in both cases to endorse the amendments. The latter move ensured that Museveni, even at 76, could stand for a sixth elective term. Critics say this was ultimately the NRM’s way to allow Mr Museveni to become president for life. But it also gave rise to the star of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, who represented the accumulated anger, frustration and desperation of all forces, that have been unsuccessfully battling Mr. Yoweri Museveni clinging to power.

The youthful MP, fresh in parliament as an independent, was one of the leading opponents of the move to amend the constitution to remove age limits. Parliament passed the bill on December 20, 2017, but Kyagulanyi has never looked back. He has continued to campaign against corruption, patronage and the lack of clear policies by government for the future of over 75% of Ugandans under the age of 30. Kyagulanyi has, as expected, drawn the ire of Museveni whom he repeatedly and openly brands a dictator. As the main challenger to the president in the January 14th 2021 elections, Kyagulanyi continues to face the wrath of multiple security agencies. The question is, where does he and the country go from here?


Bobi Wine's roaring campaign


2021 Elections and what lies ahead

It is persuasively clear that even though there are other serious contenders for Uganda’s presidency during the 2021 elections, the tightly contested race will eventually be between Mr. Yoweri Museveni and Mr. Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi.  From the anecdotal evidence on the ground and recent events of violence, the electoral ground is not level and most likely there will be massive rigging and voter intimidation. If we were to judge by history, Mr Yoweri Museveni is neither prepared nor willing to hand over power. This is a worrying situation given that the youthful Mr. Robert Kyagulanyi with his army of disgruntled youth is not likely to accept a fraudulent election. It is also likely that the other contenders like Mr Patrick Amuraiat of FDC, Major General Henry Tumukunde and Major General Mugisha Muntu, might add their discontent to the cry on rigged elections. This scenario might bring back the memories of the 1980 rigged elections that provoked an armed rebellion that Mr. Yoweri Museveni led.


Bobi Wine: The changing face of Ugandan politics | Africa | DW | 26.09.2018


The difference between now and then is that there does not seem to be appetite for an armed rebellion, but rather the politics of massive uprising akin to the Arab Spring. The possibility of a Ugandan Spring cannot be ruled out, whose trajectory is difficult to predict right now.  Dr. Besigye tried some street protests some taking the form of walk to work, but they did not deliver  much in terms of electoral justice.  The difference between Mr. Robert Kyagulanyi and Dr. Besigye is that the former has a massive following youth who have nothing to lose except their poverty and unemployment. And most of these youth are strategically located across the entire country, and can easily pull off a Ugandan Spring with ease.


Kyagulanyi's Return Excites Ugandan Youth | Voice of America - English

The regional and international stakes of these elections cannot be underestimated.  Uganda is situated at the centre of the Great Lakes Region, known for intra and inter-state armed conflicts.  It is not clear whether any of the regional neighbours of Uganda have some vested interests in the upcoming elections.  But for sure the international community that has hitherto been supportive of Mr. Yoweri Museveni’s earlier reformist ideology, are now interested to see a smooth transition to a genuine democratic dispensation.  At the regional and continental level, there are protocols that call for rule of law, good governance and democracy among member states.  Will Uganda’s 2021 elections ensure a smooth transition from Mr. Yoweri Museveni’s 34 years rule? We will only know after 14th January 2021.


*Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also teaches social and political philosophy.


*Vick Lukwago Ssali (PhD) is a lecturer at the Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University, Japan.


*Both authors belonged to Thomas More Writer’s Association during their undergraduate studies at Katigondo Major Seminary in Uganda.  Their joint articles are a tribute to this association and its members that shaped their literary interests and skills at an early age.





[2]Mutiibwa, P., The Buganda Factor in Uganda Politics, 2008 (p. 24).


[4]Meredith, M., The State of Africa.2011


[6]Francis and James, 2003; Mwenda, 2007; Ottaway, 1999; Tripp, 2010.

[7]Uganda’s Museveni leads in ‘rigged’ elections | World news | The Guardian


[9]THIRTY YEARS: Museveni vs Besigye (independent.co.ug)


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