Soldiers and police are on the streets as Ugandans prepare to vote

An example of the ballot for the upcoming elections is displayed on a wall at the electoral commission headquarters in Kampala, Uganda. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)
An example of the ballot for the upcoming elections is displayed on a wall at the electoral commission headquarters in Kampala, Uganda. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)

In Uganda, the military deployed to opposition strongholds in Kampala and the government blocked all social media going into Thursday’s elections. On Jan. 14, millions of Ugandans will vote in the country’s presidential elections. To many, the day may seem like politics as usual as incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) again seeks to extend his rule.

Museveni has been in power since 1986, and this week’s election won’t be free or fair. Here’s why Ugandan politics now seem to be diverging from the typical script, and how the political landscape has changed.

The opposition has changed even as the regime’s repressive tactics remain the same

This is the first time in the past two decades that Kizza Besigye of the leading opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is not challenging Museveni. Besigye has run in each of the last four presidential elections, and claims to have been arrested 43 times since 2000 for leading the opposition again Museveni.

Patrick Oboi Amuriat is the FDC’s new candidate, but the main opposition candidate — and the primary target of surveillance and abuse by the Ugandan government’s security forces — is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known popularly as Bobi Wine.

Wine remains the opposition front-runner on a slate of 10 candidates challenging Museveni, despite having faced multiple assassination attempts, repeated arrests and police intimidation. Ugandan security forces have killed dozens of his supporters since his transition from musician to a member of parliament in 2017.

While Museveni has typically relied on election violence and repression to defeat his opponents, he escalated repressive tactics during the current election cycle, even using the coronavirus pandemic to justify coercion against political opponents and limit political campaigning.

After Wine was arrested for the second time in November, protesters took to the streets across the country. Security forces — including members of military, police and Local Defense Units — killed 54 people during these protests. The government-sponsored violence against Wine continued into December with security forces attacking him on the campaign trail. On Dec. 27, Francis Senteza — one of Wine’s bodyguards — was killed and two journalists were injured after police fired tear gas into a crowd of opposition supporters.

Since independence in 1962, Uganda has not had a single peaceful democratic transition of power. Rather, power was transferred through a series of coups until 1986, when Museveni and his National Resistance Movement took control. Leaders around the world heralded him as a revolutionary and reformer, and many Ugandans thought Museveni might bring in a new era of democratic politics.

That did not happen. While the 2005 constitutional referendum restored de-jure multiparty elections, Museveni and the NRM continued to rely on authoritarian tactics, including revising the Constitution to remove term limits and then age restrictions — two moves that enabled Museveni’s continued grip on power.

What does the increased repression and election violence mean for Ugandan politics?

My research shows that when rulers politicize police and use them to suppress opposition leaders and movements, the public has increasingly negative perceptions of the police — even among citizens who support the ruling political party.

In one study of excessive police violence in Uganda, my co-author and I show the powerful backlash effectsexcessive police force decreases support for the government, and increases public criticism and dissent. In a related study, I show that police abuse of opposition protesters matches a shift in attitudes toward the Ugandan government after the arrests of Bobi Wine right when he entered politics.

In short, what we are observing in Uganda is that police abuse and repression reveals government weakness, not strength, and probably drives opposition support. The more the Ugandan government relies on police abuse, the more Ugandans are showing up to support pro-democratic leaders such as Wine.

Even if that support is masked at the polls through electoral malfeasance — including violence and election fraud — the past three years have given rise to Uganda’s largest pro-democracy movement. While Wine has become the international face of the opposition, others like academic and activist Stella Nyanzi have also faced down relentless oppression by the regime, and continue to demand change. My research suggests that repression reveals the weakness of the existing government, and in the face of this weakness, Ugandans continue to seek change.

U.N. officials caution that Thursday’s election is unlikely to be free or fair. Opposition leaders, thousands of protesters and voters themselves risk their freedom and lives to demand a more democratic future. Bobi Wine and the other opposition candidates are unlikely to win the election and a peaceful transition remains doubtful.

Yet in many ways, this election cycle already reflects a resounding defeat for Museveni. Many Ugandans — journalists, civil society organizations, opposition leaders and protesters — have overcome tremendous barriers and ongoing political intimidation to demand a more democratic Uganda.

Travis Curtice is the Niehaus postdoctoral fellow and U.S. foreign policy and international security fellow at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College. His research examines the politics of policing and political violence.

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