After a violent election, Uganda’s government faces three big challenges

Security forces gather on election day in Kampala, Uganda, on Jan. 14. Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine on Monday released a list of 243 people who have allegedly been abducted by the security forces, piling pressure on the government to find those missing amid continuing political tensions after last month’s elections. (Jerome Delay/AP)
Security forces gather on election day in Kampala, Uganda, on Jan. 14. Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine on Monday released a list of 243 people who have allegedly been abducted by the security forces, piling pressure on the government to find those missing amid continuing political tensions after last month’s elections. (Jerome Delay/AP)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won a sixth term with 58.6 percent of the vote last month, in an election marred by unprecedented violence and repression. Measures supposedly aimed at enforcing covid-19 regulations de facto criminalized political competition, preventing or banning the opposition from electoral campaigns. Security forces targeted opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, known popularly as Bobi Wine, and his supporters, in particular.

Kyagulanyi and his National Unity Platform party firmly rejected the election results as fraudulent. The United States and European Union noted concerns over the credibility of the Jan. 14 election, and the United States called for an audit of the returns. While Museveni appears likely to rule for another five years, the regime’s growing legitimacy problem presents stark choices for the government and for foreign donors. Here are some likely areas of conflict.

Young Ugandans care about jobs — not the 1986 liberation story

Museveni came to power 35 years ago, hailed as one of Africa’s new generation of leaders. After years of military rule, wars and instability under the regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, Ugandans welcomed Museveni as a liberation hero, and his National Revolution Movement as the revolutionary party. Museveni also gained legitimacy within the World Bank Group and other foreign donors such as the United States, who invested heavily in the new government.

But his liberation hero image grew tainted over the years, amid endemic corruption and controversial maneuvers to stay in power. Museveni’s legitimacy problem has become more acute with Uganda’s shifting demographics — 77 percent of the population is younger than 30, according to the most recent census. Many Ugandans have never known any president but Museveni, whose reputation of bringing “peace and stability” may mean little to those born after the 1986 liberation.

Instead, younger Ugandans are focused on jobs and public services, as the latest Afrobarometer surveys reveal. Each year, 700,000 Ugandans reach working age. But as a recent World Bank report shows, there are only jobs for 75,000 of them.

Originating from Kampala’s “ghetto,” Kyagulanyi symbolizes this disenfranchised group of the young and economically marginalized. A longtime cabinet minister who lost her parliamentary seat to a musician running for Kyagulanyi’s party conceded that the government was paying the price for failing to include youth, and staying in power too long.

‘Big tent’ politics, or bullets?

How will Museveni maintain his hold over a such a large disenfranchised population? Massive supplementary military budgets and excessive use of force ahead of the polls suggest a further militarization of his rule.

The government will probably continue to contain Kyagulanyi and his inner circle through repression and isolation — a strategy it deployed to contain former opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Many of Kyagulanyi’s supporters seemed unintimidated by government crackdowns during the campaign. But a recent spate of kidnappings of opposition supporters by armed government groups is spreading fear: At least 31 people remain unaccounted for.

Kyagulanyi alleges that as many as 3,000 of his supporters have been unlawfully jailed or “disappeared.” On Monday, he circulated a list with the names of 243 people he claims security forces abducted. Unlike the brutalization of prominent figures, these forced disappearances have made few international headlines — but they do conjure up the ghosts of past regimes.

Museveni has tempered an iron fist with post-election speeches indicating his openness to “dialogue” with those who disagreed with him. He has since repeated the need for reconciliation with the opposition in almost every public address. This may signal a reinvention of his party’s “big tent” politics — aimed at including individuals and groups from across the political spectrum.

It remains to be seen whether such dialogue may result in more than the offer of government positions to opposition leaders and “brown envelopes” — the cash handouts that have become a staple of political culture under Museveni’s rule.

Will Museveni attempt to reset relations with foreign donors?

Museveni’s government has historically relied on donor support, and has presented itself as a useful U.S./European partner in maintaining regional stability. Museveni always took exceptional care when engaging the donor community — but this changed in recent months.

During the campaign, he adopted aggressive language toward Uganda’s donors, blaming the country’s riots in November on foreign groups and gay people, for instance. In Museveni’s words, “foreigners, especially the Europeans, are full of arrogance” and “want us to be your puppets.” He also claimed that “Western elements — press, some diplomats,” supported “an insurrection, similar to what happened in Libya or Egypt.”

In early January, Museveni ordered the suspension of the Democratic Governance Facility, a European- and British-financed donor fund supporting both Ugandan government and nongovernmental efforts in areas like democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Although Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda had praised the fund’s work, Museveni accused it of operating without oversight, claiming the funds were helping to “to subvert Government under the guise of improving governance.” After the polls closed, the government accused the United States of interfering in the elections.

What do these accusations mean for international donors working with Museveni? It is not only the Ugandan government criticizing donor activities: Opposition leaders and analysts of Ugandan politics caution that donors may be propping up a corrupt regime. Being under fire from two sides may prompt some donors to rethink their position. And Museveni’s age — he’s 76 — will probably make donors keen to see Uganda’s government commit to a peaceful, democratic transition of power. Thus far, Museveni has refused to entertain such conversations, either internally or with donors.

Instead, Museveni remains adept at showcasing how much the international community depends on him. A week after the elections, Ugandan troops in the African Union Mission to Somalia reported killing 189 militant fighters. That would make it the most lethal attack against Al Shabaab militants on record. The story was later reported to be incorrect but may have served as a reminder to Uganda’s foreign donors: Who would want to take measures against such an important partner in the war on terror?

Kristof Titeca (@KristofTiteca) is an associate professor at the University of Antwerp and the author of “Rebel Lives — Photographs from inside the Lord’s Resistance Army” (Hannibal Books, 2019). Anna Reuss (@reussae) holds a PhD in political science from the University of Ghent.

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