Uganda is holding one-of-a-kind general election in which President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who is one of Africa’s longest serving presidents, is facing a formidable challenge in the presidential vote from 38 year old pop star turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine. Having made his debut during a parliamentary by-election in Kampala’s Kyadondo East Constituency, Bobi Wine’s limited political experience as a first time Member of Parliament pales in comparison when compared to President Museveni’s 34 year reign as Uganda’s head of state. Yet both local and international observers concede that Bobi Wine’s through his National Unity Platform (NUP) had given President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) a run for its money.
But why is this election so high stakes? And what makes this a turning point for Uganda’s politics?
The territory presently known as Uganda held its FIRST elections in 1957, during which exercise representatives from the Uganda Protectorate were elected into the colonial Legislative Council. Thereafter, a SECOND election happened in early 1962. Before the 1962 pre-independence election, Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) entered into a coalition arrangement with Kabaka Yekka, a royalist political party led by the Buganda monarch, Kabaka Edward Mutesa II.
The Obote’s alliance with the Kabaka controlled parliament, a state of affairs which resulted in Obote being voted to become Uganda’s first Prime Minister on 25 April 1962. But after Uganda attained independence on 9 October 1962, the colonial post of Governor-General was abolished. A ceremonial presidency was created in its place, a role taken over by Kabaka Edward Mutesa II, who became Uganda’s first President. Milton Obote was elevated to the post of Executive Prime Minister.
Following a series of disagreements with Kabaka Mutesi II, and in seeking to consolidate power within his political party, the UPC, in February 1966 Obote usurped state power and declared himself President of Uganda. In return, the deposed Kabaka Mutesa II attempted to fight back, a confrontation which resulted in Obote sending the Kabaka into exile in the United Kingdom. Obote ruled Uganda until January 1971, when he was overthrown by Idi Amin, an army Commander.
Amin ruled Uganda with an iron fist. But in January 1979, Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere deployed the Tanzanian People’s Defense Forces (TPDF) alongside the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) – a conglomeration of various Ugandan liberation groups – launched a counter attack, finally toppling Amin on 11 April 1979.
Following Amin’s ouster, a Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) conference held in Moshi, Tanzanian, appointed former Makerere University vice-chancellor Professor Yusuf Lule as President. Lule served from 13 april 1979 to 20 June 1979, a record 68 days. Lule was succeeded by Godfrey Binaisa, yet another Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) appointee. Binaisa, who was independent Uganda’s first Attorney General, served as President from 20 June 1979 to 12 May 1980, when the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) decided to hold elections.
And so the UNLF ushered in Uganda’s THIRD election in December 1980.
This was Uganda’s first presidential election since independence.
Milton Obote had the advantage of having served as both President and Prime Minister before being ousted by Idi Amin, and seemed to have an upper hand. His pre-independence political party, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), became the only party to contest for all parliamentary seats in all of Uganda’s 126 constituencies. As a result, Obote’s UPC won a total of 75 out of 126 seats, with 17 of its candidates getting re-elected unopposed.
Reuters February, 1962: Dr. Milton Obote Posing as Newly-Elected Prime Minster Of Uganda With Cabinet Members
Yoweri Museveni, who was 36 years old during the 1980 elections, had also been active within the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). Museveni had studied at the University of Dar es Salaam, where he was known for his Marxist politics, which advocated for pro-poor people’s policies. Being keen on seizing power just like most of his Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) comrades, Museveni formed a political party, the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), and ran for elections. However, he performed dismally in the polls, winning only one out of 126 seats.
Armed with his party’s single parliamentary seat, Museveni joined the rest of the vanquished political parties in claiming that Obote’s landslide victory through the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) was as a result of rampant electoral irregularities. Based on this sense of electoral injustice, Museveni resorted to armed struggle.
Leading the National Resistance Movement (NRM), a political liberation organization whose military wing was named the National Resistance Army (NRA), Museveni settled his fighters in Luweero Triangle in the outskirts of Kampala. From this base, Museveni fought Obote’s government from 1980 to 1985. In the course of the war, both the NRA and the Ugandan army were accused of using child soldiers and causing hundreds of civilian fatalities, among other war crimes.
Luckily for Museveni, Obote’s second stab at the presidency in 1980, popularly known as Obote II, was brought to an end by two Commanders who had worked with the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) to oust Idi Amin back in 1979. Tito Lutwa Okello, the then Commander of the Uganda Liberation Army, joined forces with his fellow Commander, Bazilio Olara-Okello, and overthrew Obote in July 1985.
Tito Lutwa Okello became President of Uganda for six months.
However, on 22 January 1986, Museveni’s NRA toppled Tito Lutwa Okello’s government after taking over Kampala. Museveni was sworn in as President on 29 January 1986. The NRA became the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
Keen on presenting himself as a democrat, President Museveni’s NRM government organized the country’s FOURTH general election in 1996. In a field of three contenders, Museveni’s main challenger was long time politician and Cabinet Minister Paul Ssemogerere, who had previously served as leader of the Democratic Party. During that election, political parties weren’t allowed to sponsor candidates, meaning Ssemogerere ran as an independent. Museveni easily retained his seat.
Uganda’s FIFTH general election happened in 2001, where President Museveni sought to defend his seat once more. Of the six contenders, Museveni’s fiercest competitor was Dr. Kizza Besigye, a medical doctor who had joined the NRM during the bush war in the 1980s, working as Museveni’s personal physician before rising to become a Colonel within the UPDF, later serving as a Minister in Museveni’s first cabinet. Besigye had broken ranks with the NRM government in 1999. Once again, political parties weren’t allowed to sponsor candidates for the presidential race.
Possibly out of the fact that they shared a long history from their days in the bush war, the Besigye versus Museveni duel of 2001 is remembered as one of the most volatile contests in Ugandan politics. It could be said that that particular election was ferociously contested since it was the first time President Museveni was facing opposition from someone with whom he had fought alongside during the bush war, as if brother was turning against brother. And it so happened that just like in 1996, no political parties were allowed to sponsor candidates during elections. Besigye was therefore an self-sponsored presidential candidate, vetted on his own merits.
All manner of personalized attacks and allegations of electoral malpractices were made by individuals on both sides of the divide, with Besigye accusing Museveni and the NRM of using state resources to create a patronage network, while the NRM painted Besigye as a disgruntled agent of enemies of Uganda. Museveni, whose electoral slogan was ‘‘Vote for Consolidating Our achievements’’, won the vote by 69%. Besigye, who was second with 28%, refused to concede, filing a case in Uganda’s Supreme Court challenging the results. In a majority decision, the Supreme Court of Uganda rejected Kizza Besigye’s petition.
It so happened that after the 2001 general elections, President Museveni had promised that he wouldn’t contest for the presidency again. But all that changed in 2006, when during Uganda’s SIXTH election – which can be counted as the third election since Museveni took power in 1986 – the head of state went back on his word when he offered his candidature for the top seat. By this time, Uganda had had some reforms, such that political parties were allowed to run in elections, making 2006 Uganda’s first multiparty elections since the NRM seized power.
President Museveni opted to defend his seat through the NRM, while Kizza Besigye presented his candidature through a new political party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). This was the second time Museveni and Besigye were facing each other as the leading contenders in Uganda’s presidential race, making the political campaigns more personalized and vicious, especially against Dr. Besigye.
To start it off, Besigye was arrested on 14 November 2005, accused of treason and rape. This, coupled with Besigye’s allegations of heavy handedness from state security agencies, hindered the opposition’s campaign and composure. Museveni won the election with 59% against Besigye’s 37%. Once again, Besigye resorted to the Supreme Court, this after thousands of his supporters took to the streets of Kampala to protest what they considered electoral fraud. On 6 April 2006, the Supreme Court rejected Besigye’s petition through a majority decision.
Five years later in February 2011, the Besigye versus Museveni duel proved to be a somewhat permanent feature in Uganda’s presidential races, this after the two emerged as the leading contenders for the country’s top seat in Uganda’s SEVENTH election. As had become routine whenever they faced off with each other, Besigye and Museveni went back to their talking points, with the NRM accusing the FDC of having no plan for Uganda while the FDC accused the NRM of ineptitude and all ills associated with incumbency. As if repeating the scripts from their last two elections, Museveni won with 68%, with Besigye getting 26%.
Reuters February, 2006: Besigye voting at the polling station in his home district of Rukungiri in western Uganda.
But then in 2016, as Ugandan went to the polls for the EIGHTH time, and much as it was a Museveni versus Besigye contest once again, the NRM had suffered a blow with the resignation of long serving Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. Mbabazi threw his hat into the ring, running for president under Go Forward, a new political party.
Speculation was rife that Mbabazi’s candidature could damage Museveni’s chances of re-election. But when it came down to it, it was once again a Kizza Besigye versus Museveni affair. It seems that after running against each other three times in a row, Ugandans had since reduced the presidential race into a two horse race, with Museveni and Besigye as the default candidates, one representing change while the other representing the status quo, or stability, as NRM would posits.
In the end, Museveni got 60% while Besigye received 35% of the vote.
By the time he was making his fourth attempt at the presidency, Besigye had acquired a new moniker, ‘The People’s President’. He had perfected the art of mobilization as evidenced by the huge rallies he attracted, with images of his supporters either donating money or foodstuff to him making rounds on social media. Besigye’s other tactic included leading urban protests included his walk-to-work campaign, in which he was protesting a deteriorating economy, which campaign was effective especially in Kampala.
However, the more popular he got, the more the state security agencies pursued Besigye and his opposition allies. It is out of this that for a long time, both Ugandans and foreigners have come to associate police excesses in Uganda with the person of Dr. Besigye, who was viewed as a regular victim of the same.
The 2021 Elections
As Uganda goes to the polls for the country’s NINTH election, one cannot ignore the conspicuous absence of Dr. Kizza Besigye in the presidential contest. After running as an independent in 2001 and thereafter being the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate in 2006, 2011 and 2016, Besigye finally opted out of the presidential race, thereby allowing room for the FDC to get a new leadership from within which a presidential candidate would emerge.
In the hotly contested race for the position of FDC party leader, engineer Patrick Oboi Amuriat, a long time MP, beat Major General Mugisha Muntu, the one-time commander of the UPDF. Thereafter, Major General Muntu exited Dr. Besigye’s FDC to form a new political party, the Alliance for National Transformation. Both Major General Muntu and engineer Amuriat are contesting for the presidency in 2021.
Despite the presence of politically experienced contenders such as Major General Muntu and engineer Amuriat, the presidential race has mainly been narrowed down to two individuals. These are the 76 year old President Museveni, who is once again defending his seat, while the other is 38 year old pop star turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine. According to opinion polls and going by the sizes of crowds he attracts and the electric responses he elicites from Ugandans, Bobi Wine emerged early as President Museveni’s most formidable political challenger, as if taking the relay race button from Dr. Kizza Besigye.
It is safe to say that Bobi Wine’s hard-hitting lyrics and the popularity he accrued over the years through his music, which was mainly targeted at uplifting the downtrodden, played a significant role in positioning him as one of the frontrunners.
Known as the Ghetto President courtesy of his humble background, having grown up in the Kyamokya informal settlement in Kampala, it is a no brainer to appreciate how Bobi Wine managed to capture Uganda’s imagination the moment he switched from music to politics. As a musician, Wine had already shown credible leadership qualities, daring to speak truth to power at a time when this wasn’t the norm.
But then there was COVID-19 to contend with during the campaigns, meaning tight crowd control regulations and other similar measures which couldn’t allow Bobi Wine the luxury of holding massive political rallies in the fashion of Kizza Besigye. And so deploying his youth as an advantage, Bobi Wine embraced social media as one of the main frontiers through which he pushed his campaign, including for international advocacy purposes whenever he or his family, his aides or supporters were harassed, attacked, injured or killed by Uganda law enforcement agencies.
Considering how much clout he wielded both on social media and in real life, it was becoming clear that in a free and fair contest, Bobi Wine would give President Museveni sleepless nights. And just as had happened with Kizza Besigye, Bobi Wine continuously found himself in tussles with the security agencies, which seemed to always target him whenever he was out and about campaigning.
As the election drew closer, the social media platform Facebook made a bold move by shutting social media accounts suspected to belong to sympathizers of the Ugandan government, profiles and pages which were allegedly being used to spread the ruling party’s propaganda. In response, the NRM government shutdown Facebook, and the internet was made largely inaccessible on election eve.
This set of circumstances naturally disadvantage Bobi Wine and his tech savvy constituency, preventing them from mobilizing and protecting the vote. Matters further escalated on election eve when Bobi Wine announced on Twitter that his phones had been blocked, meaning he couldn’t make or receive any calls. Much as the campaign period had been violent and turbulent, the circumstances surrounding the technological shutdowns before Election Day seem to be what will cast stronger doubts as to the credibility of one of Uganda’s hotly contested general elections.
But no matter the election outcome, what will remain undeniable is that just like President Museveni back in the 1980s, Bobi Wine has overcome the curse of youth by choosing to organize instead of agonizing. Like Kizza Besigye who ran against President Museveni four consecutive times, Bobi Wine may have opportunities to run for the presidency again if his bid is unsuccessful this time. age is on his side.
And if he retains the presidency, President Museveni should therefore expect a serious challenge from Bobi Wine going forward. Wine has tested his movement’s local and international influence, and now knows that he has a fighting chance to lead Uganda. In the meantime, Uganda has to pass its verdict on both President Museveni and Bobi Wine. Hopefully, the process shall be free, fair and credible.