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Uganda: An Opposition is Born
Uganda: An Opposition is Born
Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest
Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest
Op-Ed / Africa

Uganda: An Opposition is Born

Originally published in The Africa Report

Crowds queued patiently in Jinja, a sleepy town on the shores of Lake Victoria, to vote in Uganda's third multi-party elections. Prospective voters remained at polling stations, which were often little more than open grassy spaces with a tree providing shade for election staff underneath trees Like many places in the country, voting materials were delivered late several hours late. But that didn't affect the determination of millions of Ugandans to register their vote, underlining an established belief in electoral democracy as the only method to decide the political future of the country.

On 18 February Yoweri Museveni's was re-elected as president with almost 61% of the vote, ending a dramatic few weeks that at times threatened the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) with a serious crisis. Ultimately, the party's spending power, control of government institutions – notably the security services – and enduring popularity in rural areas was enough to fight off a resurgent opposition campaign under the revitalised Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), led by Kizza Besigye. Museveni will remain a regional strongman, eagerly engaged by many international actors; for his part, Besigye re-emerged as the undisputed champion of anti-Museveni politics.

Opposition inroads

Six months ago it had all looked quite different when the early running was made by Amama Mbabazi, the former prime minister and founding member of the NRM. But Mbabazi's attempt to position himself as the NRM flag-bearer in 2014 precipitated an intra-party split, and led to his independent presidential candidacy. In the end his GoForward campaign only obtained 1.5% of the presidential vote, demonstrating that there are only two serious political positions in Uganda: for or against the NRM. This increasing political polarisation is a dangerous prospect.

Besigye's campaign focused on ousting Museveni and a generation of politicians seen as corrupt and self-serving by the increasingly young urban electorate – notably in the capital Kampala where Besigye won 65.75% of the presidential vote with Museveni a distant second on 31%. Many NRM ministers lost their parliamentary seats – an indictment of a movement that is increasingly failing to deliver on healthcare, education and jobs – an estimated 80% of Uganda's 15 to 24 year-olds are unemployed. If Besigye is to provide a credible alternative he must now move beyond his confrontational election-time rallies and other stunts and help the FDC build its national infrastructure, currently very thin at the village level, so it can compete with NRM outside of traditional urban strongholds.

Free(ish) but unfair

Although Museveni ultimately won quite comfortably there were moments of real danger, especially during the campaign and the 48-hour vote count. Many feared Kampala and other opposition-leaning areas would see Besigye's FDC supporters taking to the streets leading to scenes reminiscent of the 2011 "Walk to Work" protests, and a heavy-handed police response. An election-eve FDC rally in central Kampala was broken up by police with tear gas and one FDC supporter was killed – shot in the neck by anti-riot police with a rubber bullet. Further tensions grew early on election day when voting materials were delivered very late, mostly to polling stations in FDC strongholds. But this turned out to be due to poor planning – a further blow against the Electoral Commission's already weak credibility - and the voting period was extended until 19 February for those locations affected.

During the vote count, Besigye was detained by police and held at his home after he claimed to have discovered an NRM "rigging centre" in a private house. The FDC headquarters in Kampala was later stormed by police suspecting that the party was about to release its own vote tallies. Neither accusation was proven. When Besigye announced that he would go to the electoral commission to pick up an official version of the results he was immediately detained, taken to a rural police station and then returned home for a continuing period of house arrest.

The government had also prepared carefully, clearly anticipating opposition protests. For example, mobile network providers shut off Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – social media tools through which opposition activists could coordinate their activities – at a critical moment, and the streets were flooded by a combination of regular army, military police, special forces and armed plainclothes individuals. As a consequence, Kampala mostly remained eerily quiet during and after the vote count.

The European Union Observation Mission found little to substantiate FDC's accusations that there was large-scale vote rigging on and around polling day. Nevertheless, its 20 February preliminary statement asserted that "enthusiasm for [the] democratic process [was] eclipsed by [an] atmosphere of intimidation and ruling party control of state resources." Localised ballot stuffing may well have occurred. But even without intimidation, with no legal spending limits on campaign finance, NRM had far deeper pockets than FDC or GoForward – a fundamental weakness with Uganda's democratic credentials.


Besigye's very creditable 35% poll will give the NRM pause for thought, not least about how much harder, and more costly, it may be to win the next elections in 2021. The constitution's ban on candidates over the age of 75 will have to be changed again to allow a by-then 76-year-old Museveni to stand. Another scenario is "the Mohoozi Project" – a much-debated dynastic transfer to his son – but this would be equally costly and further destabilise the NRM. Neither option is without major difficulties, but no genuine alternative candidate is currently apparent. In the meantime, Uganda's heavily patriarchal system of business and politics will likely increase – with proximity to the Museveni family of critical importance – since many now see this as the president's likely final term and the last chance to make personal relationships pay.

For the East and Central Africa regions, Museveni's no-fuss re-election will come as a relief. The campaign was a severe impediment to Uganda's ability to pursue its interests in a region where the president is seen as an experienced power broker. During the campaign, he became relatively disengaged in the negotiations over the political transition in Burundi, where he is officially the chief mediator from the East African Community. Additionally, both Juba and Khartoum will welcome Museveni's renewed focus as both players see him as vital in the implementation of the South Sudan Peace Agreement. Western embassies also continue to look to Uganda to reassert its influence in both theatres of conflict.

Deepening democracy?

Besigye's 2016 performance has vindicated his FDC leadership, but both party and electoral reform are needed for a credible opposition challenge. The international community can assist by pushing hard for both reform tracks -- particularly in encouraging regulations on campaign spending and strengthening the electoral commission. Any tipping point that could reverse the NRM's demographic advantage is unlikely to occur for a few more years. For now, the FDC has been shown to be largely a party of urban protest, while the majority rural vote has been shown to be stubbornly in favour of Museveni's NRM.

Op-Ed / Africa

Bit by Bit, Uganda Is Laying the Groundwork for Future Unrest

Originally published in African Arguments

Economically and politically, Uganda's government’s actions are leading to growing frustrations and lawlessness.

After 30 years of President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s system of government has shifted from broad-based and constitutional to one increasingly reliant on authoritarian power and patronage.

Although Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has won elections – most recently in 2016 – allegations of rigging and vote buying abound. The president’s popular support is waning, while the arrest of political opponents and activists has significantly undermined his international legitimacy.

As detailed in a recent International Crisis Group report, Uganda faces a growing crisis of governance on numerous fronts. Politically, economically and socially, the government’s actions could be laying the groundwork for future civil strife.

Staying in Power

Museveni will likely run for re-election on 2021. But in order to do this, the 73-year-old president will have to modify the constitutional provision that bars presidential candidates older than 75. A proposal to make this change was introduced to parliament this October. It was put on hold following protests, but despite its unpopularity, it will likely be voted through eventually.

Museveni’s early years restored stability after years of civil war. But alongside his use of clientelism and political authoritarianism, he has buttressed his position by tightening control over key institutions, including the army and police. The president has centralised political power into his own hands and those of his family.

For many Ugandans [...], a political transition is not the priority. They are more concerned with the daily struggle of poverty, unemployment, food shortages, the rising cost of living and lack of access to land or social services.

What an eventual transition might look like, or how it could come about, is yet to be determined. The opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) looks too frayed by repression and its leaders’ rivalries to take the lead. Instead, the emergence of new political actors and youth protest movements may represent a greater challenge for the president. These include the reggae star turned MP Bobi Wine, who offers hope to those suffering from the inequities of Museveni’s era.

International partners and donors concerned about the country’s direction should encourage the government to return to the idea – discussed after the divisive 2016 election – of a credible National Dialogue that would enhance relations between the opposition and government, and ensure a peaceful transition to a post-Museveni era.

A Daily Struggle

For many Ugandans, however, a political transition is not the priority. They are more concerned with the daily struggle of poverty, unemployment, food shortages, the rising cost of living and lack of access to land or social services. Underdevelopment is widespread. Annual economic growth, which ranged between 6-10% during the boom years of 2000-2011, has fallen to an estimated 4.6% in 2017.

Sharp declines in the financial sector and in global demand for commodities, a lack of bureaucratic support, and continuing instability in neighbouring South Sudan give little hope for improvement.

Uganda’s youth suffer most from these conditions. This makes them more susceptible to political mobilisation or, in the worst cases, criminal recruitment. Programmes designed to improve livelihoods tend to be swallowed by the patronage system and function as little more than hand-outs in exchanges for political support.

As President Museveni manoeuvres to extend his 30-year rule, a wide range of political and administrative reforms are urgently needed to avoid unrest.

Corruption in government has also affected the public sector, which delivers poor quality services, especially in health and education. Ugandans living in rural areas and surviving through subsistence agriculture are struggling with unpredictable weather patterns, environmental degradation, farm fragmentation and insufficient government support.

The army-led Operation Wealth Creation aimed to boost agricultural production but proved utterly inadequate, focusing on seed distribution instead of the main problem for farmers: the lack of fertilisers and irrigation.

Increasing Lawlessness

Alongside political and economic uncertainty, a process of administrative decentralisation, which has doubled the number of districts between 2002 and 2017, has also bred identity politics and ethnic polarisation.

After 15 years with no local elections at village level, the government released a roadmap for new council elections for November 2017. However, they were postponed, apparently for fear elections would lead to a loss of strong local NRM representation.

Local security and crime has also increased due to the ineffectiveness and politicisation of the police force, which is relied upon by government to disrupt opposition activity. This is part of a wider structural problem, including the deterioration of local governance and the expansion of informal security networks. International and domestic human rights organisations have reported a range of violations by the police including arbitrary arrests, physical abuses and extortion.

Furthermore, a dysfunctional land ownership system has led to community-level violence and disputes. This is made worse by popular mistrust of police and politicians as well as ambiguities associated with customary ownership, corruption and land grabs.

As President Museveni manoeuvres to extend his 30-year rule, a wide range of political and administrative reforms are urgently needed to avoid unrest. Elections for local councillors should be held at the earliest possible date. The government should act to restore trust in institutions. Land ownership reforms should take place only after wide-ranging public consultation, while the creation of further administrative districts should be halted.

Despite its shrinking, the amount of political space may still be far above the levels reached during civil conflicts in the 1980s. However, pervasive corruption, polarised politics and authoritarian trends are setting the scene for future civil strife.