As Uganda struggles to democratize, a playbook of authoritarian tactics defeats a promising new leader. Political scientist Kai M. Thaler traces the rise and hope of Bobi Wine.
By Kai M. Thaler
In January, Uganda held national elections after months of tension and increasing violence. International attention was higher in this election than in other recent polls, thanks largely to the emergence of a charismatic newcomer, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, as the principal opposition leader. Better known by his stage name Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-politician has built a new political movement, based especially among discontented urban youth.
Despite Kyagulanyi’s rise, however, the victor in the presidential race was unsurprising and familiar: President Yoweri Museveni won another term, positioning him to lead Uganda until 2026, when he will have been in power for four decades. Long a favored regional ally of the United States and Western European countries, Museveni’s status may finally be in question after his reliance on a heavy security force deployment, lethal crackdown on opposition supporters, and unwillingness to allow transparency and free monitoring of the elections. How did Uganda get here and where does the country go next?
Uganda’s Fragile Democratic Institutions
Museveni is a former rebel leader who gained power at the head of the National Resistance Army (NRA) and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), after the 1981–1986 Bush War. After taking the reins in 1986, Museveni strongly criticized African leaders who hold onto power too long, saying, “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” This sentiment and a pragmatic embrace of free-market capitalism led US and European observers to see Museveni as part of a “new breed” of African leaders. Yet over time, Museveni has become what he once disparaged: an apparent ‘president-for-life.’
Democratic institutions in Uganda are relatively young. Museveni and the NRM took over the country after two decades of centralized, authoritarian rule advanced by the country’s first president, Milton Obote, then the tyrannical military dictator Idi Amin, Obote again, and a brief military government. Though the NRM did not implement national electoral democracy from the beginning, like many rebel victories the NRM’s takeover was democratizing, creating representative local governments in the Resistance Council system and incorporating previously excluded populations. There was a gradual expansion of elections under the NRM’s system of ‘no-party democracy,’ including the first postwar presidential elections in 1996 (won handily by Museveni), and finally a transition to multiparty elections starting in 2006 to ease growing popular discontent.
Even under this new political system, in which subnational and legislative elections have become more competitive and seen opposition gains, Museveni’s challengers have been unable to defeat him due to a combination of factors. There is the usual difficulty of challenging an incumbent and asking people to give up the familiar for the unknown. Museveni has had enduring popularity in some parts of the country where he has delivered economic and security gains. Despite one major challenger usually emerging in each election, the opposition has faced difficulties in unifying and avoiding different actors and parties being coopted by Museveni and the NRM. And like in other countries, there has also been the exploitation of the state’s resources, coercive power, and control of the electoral authorities to harass, attack, undermine, and obstruct opposition candidates, their supporters, and their electoral prospects. Despite the democratic façade provided by elections, Uganda under Museveni and the NRM has all the hallmarks of a competitive authoritarian regime, with the political playing field still tilted heavily in the government’s favor. And having held onto control after facing tens of armed insurgencies and attempted uprisings, why would Museveni be willing to give up power at the ballot box?
What Changed—and Didn’t—in 2021
Notwithstanding all of these factors and past defeats, there was a renewed optimism among the opposition going into the 2021 elections. This can largely be chalked up to the newcomer Kyagulanyi and his People Power movement, competing electorally under the banner of the National Unity Platform (NUP). Kyagulanyi represented a fresh face after several election cycles of the Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) Kiiza Besigye leading the opposition, and in a country where 85 percent of the population is under forty years old, Kyagulanyi—at thirty-eight—presented a stark contrast with the seventy-six-year-old Museveni. Initially gaining popularity as a more mainstream dancehall artist, Kyagulanyi gradually became more political in his music, trying to stand up for the people of the ‘ghetto’ in communities like Kamwokya, the Kampala neighborhood where he grew up. Free concerts, philanthropic efforts, and the finances and media presence afforded by his music career helped Kyagulanyi become known as the ‘Ghetto President’ and cultivate a strong following among urban youth in a country that’s rapidly urbanizing.
There had already been warning shots across Kyagulanyi’s bow, some of them quite literal, with his driver Yasin Kawuma killed by police after a rally in 2018. That year, Kyagulanyi was arrested, charged with treason, and tortured. Ahead of the 2021 elections, though, Museveni clearly felt the pressure of his new, younger competition. The president tried to prove his fitness and remind voters of his revolutionary credentials by undertaking a six-day march retracing the route he and the NRA took to the capital in 1986—and then demonstrating his indoor workout routine for reporters at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and Uganda’s early lockdown. The playbook for ensuring electoral victory, however, took the same form as in past campaigns, simply escalating in degree, and with an assist from the pandemic in offering a convenient justification for restrictions and crackdowns.
Preventing opposition rallies and campaigning was nothing new. In 2016, a planned Besigye rally at Makerere University was disrupted as the government detained Besigye en route for allegedly disrupting traffic and then began attacking his supporters in the streets outside the university, killing one person, and shooting teargas into the campus where I and others were gathered. Journalists were restricted and harassed in trying to cover opposition politicians. A military police encampment sprouted up at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, remaining for months, and armored personnel carriers were stationed at central intersections in the capital, while protests and clashes after the elections killed dozens around the country. In spite of evidence of fraud and Besigye’s continued protestations and persecution, Museveni held onto power.
In 2020, while campaigning, Kyagulanyi was arrested and his supporters persecuted for allegedly violating COVID-19 regulations. In subsequent protests against Kyagulanyi’s arrest, at least fifty-four people were killed, with live ammunition used loosely, soldiers deployed in Kampala, and Security Minister Elly Tumwine arguing that security forces “have a right to shoot you and kill you if you reach a certain level of violence.” Interference with and violence against members of the media were still common. Election monitoring and social media were once again restricted, amid widespread allegations of irregularities and fraud. Like Besigye in 2016, Kyagulanyi was placed under arrest and house arrest on multiple occasions and has faced barriers in his attempts to take legal actions to contest the election results.
In a shift, however, Kyagulanyi alleged that hundreds of his supporters have been disappeared, and some supporters who were released in mid-March reported suffering torture, recalling the dark days of the Idi Amin regime. The 2021 election also featured quicker and stronger international criticisms of the government’s electoral manipulation and violence, yet the end result appears the same as 2016: Museveni remains in power, content to keep security forces in the streets and to wait for post-election passions to burn themselves out, in preparation for five more years in charge.
Where Does Uganda Go from Here?
For Museveni and the NRM, the 2021 election is just one more in a long history of hurdles overcome to gain and keep control. There is a need for a new approach to try to win back urban support, or else rely more completely on coercion. Museveni’s endgame remains unclear as he approaches his eighties. The example of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, shoved aside by former allies and the military amid popular protests in 2017, offers a stark reminder of the perils of hanging on too long. There has long been speculation that Museveni might be preparing to turn over power to his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a general who rose rapidly through the armed forces and in 2017 was made a ‘special adviser to the president.’ Solidifying control over the security forces has long been a preoccupation for Museveni. Having commanded Uganda’s special forces and now promoted to lieutenant general, Muhoozi Kainerugaba is well-positioned to keep the military on Museveni’s side and ensure they would go along with a turnover of power if he’s officially named his father’s successor. There are not yet any indications, though, that Museveni has any plans to step down or to hand over the NRM party apparatus.
Kyagulanyi and the NUP, with their growing young, urban base, are not going away, having replaced Besigye and the FDC as the vanguard of the opposition. Police and legal harassment are almost certain to continue, and it is important for international actors to continue to speak out against such political persecution. However, as political scientist Moses Khisa and journalist Andrew Arinaitwe, among others, have cautioned, it is important for the international community not to be seduced by the vision of a charismatic savior—no matter how admirable their personal sacrifices—with Kyagulanyi eagerly courting international support and the persecuted feminist scholar-activist Stella Nyanzi also becoming an international cause celèbre.
Kyagulanyi would represent a change from Museveni and NRM rule after almost four decades, and many Ugandans are hungry for change. In Uganda and elsewhere, though, politicians’ promises of change and popular new policies are rarely fulfilled, especially when those politicians sweep to power with relatively weak party bases. For example, after prior failed candidacies, football (soccer) star-turned-politician George Weah became president of Liberia in 2018, based largely on a desire for change and Weah’s appeal to poor urban youths as one of their own made good. It did not take long, however, for Weah to display antidemocratic tendencies and for much of the population to sour on Weah after his failure to deliver hoped for economic transformation and opportunity.
This is not to say that unpopular or authoritarian leaders should remain in power, but rather that international support should not be based on the possibility of leadership change alone. As Khisa argues, Uganda faces major social, economic, and political questions and cleavages whether or not Museveni is still president, and so, like in many longstanding authoritarian regimes, the opposition needs a positive program for what it would achieve with power, not just a negative program of being not Museveni—which is a recipe for disappointment or opposition fragmentation in the event of ever taking office.
Kyagulanyi is certainly not a foreign puppet, but regardless of that truth, international criticism and interference offers an easy target for a leader like Museveni to justify a crackdown on supposedly compromised opposition, and to make nationalistic appeals to solidify support. In contrast to the situation in other African regions, democracy has been on the decline around East Africa, so there is little regional pressure for political change in Uganda. Holding onto power is coming with increasing costs in lives and international reputation, but even if Museveni loses more US and European support, this is no longer the unipolar world of the 1990s and early 2000s, and it is easy to rely more on China, Turkey, and Middle Eastern states, which have had growing ties with Uganda.
Especially in light of the US and European countries’ own struggles to maintain liberal democratic institutions and the decline of democracy worldwide, international actors should be extremely cautious and self-critical in engagement in trying to support greater democratization in Uganda. Kyagulanyi should not simply be supported as an alternative to Museveni, but rather on the condition that he offers the best hope for fulfilling the majority of Ugandans’ aspirations for a better future for their country. Opposing undemocratic behavior is the necessary, but easy part. Rebuilding a political system and society after decades of authoritarianism and conflict is far more difficult. Just ask the NRM.
—Kai M. Thaler, Assistant Professor of Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Kai M. Thaler is assistant professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a Graduate Student Associate at the Weatherhead Center when he received his PhD in the Department of Government at Harvard University in 2018. A political scientist and sociologist by training, he studies conflict and violence, protest and repression, statebuilding, and regimes and regime change, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. His current book project, When the Rebels Win: State Power and Public Interests after Civil Wars, examines how ideology and goals affect statebuilding and service provision after rebel victory, including in Uganda. Learn more at https://www.kaithaler.com, and follow him on Twitter @kaimthaler.
Francis (Frank) Senteza Kalibala (left) and Bobi Wine during campaigns, January 10, 2021. Frank was on Bobi Wine’s security team. While the army says Frank fell off a fast moving car, Bobi Wine said he was deliberately run over by a military-police truck, No. H4DF 2382. Credit: Wikimedia, The Independent (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Posters of the two most popular candidates for Uganda's Presidential election, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni (yellow) and Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the pop star-turned-opposition leader, are seen along a street in Kampala, Uganda, on January 6, 2021. Uganda gears up for presidential elections which are scheduled to take place on January 14, 2021, as President Yoweri Museveni seeks another term to continue his 35-year rule. Credit: Sumy Sadurni / AFP via Getty Images
Buju Banton & Bobi Wine, Ballot or Bullet, Ugandan Music 2020 HD, YouTube. Accessed on March 30, 2021. Credit: Bobi Wine
A Ugandan Military police officer enforcing COVID-19 rules chasing a journalist who was covering Bobi Wine when he had taken a petition to the UN human rights Kampala office protesting continued human rights violations and the illegal detention of his supporters, February 17, 2021. Credit: Wikimedia, Lawrence Kitatta (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A supporter of Ugandan musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, carries his poster as they protest on a street against the arrest of Kyagulanyi during his presidential rally in Kampala, Uganda, on November 18, 2020. Ugandan police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on November 18, 2020, at large crowds of protesters supporting popular presidential candidate Bobi Wine, who was earlier arrested while campaigning. Kampala police commander Moses Kafeero said that the pop star-turned-MP had been arrested for violating coronavirus measures at his rallies. Credit: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images