Jan 15, 2021 - World

Uganda's election: A tense wait as Bobi Wine says outlook "looks good"

Bobi Wine casts his ballot. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty

Ugandans faced a stark choice at the ballot box Thursday between strongman Yoweri Museveni and singer-turned-opposition icon Bobi Wine, who was just 3 years old when Museveni took power 35 years ago.

Why it matters: Wine has tapped into the discontent and aspirations of young people, particularly in cities like Kampala. Two-thirds of Ugandans have known no leader but Museveni, and many are struggling to find jobs. When Wine's campaign caravan rolls into a neighborhood, massive crowds rise up to meet it.

  • Museveni has campaigned on stability, security and his record of delivering economic growth.
  • He's strongest in rural areas. One farmer told the Economist he only ever heard Wine's name when young people returned to the village for Christmas.

It would be difficult to predict the results were this a free and fair election. It won’t be.

  • The EU and U.S. both canceled plans to dispatch observers due to obstruction from the government (the African Union did send observers), and an internet blackout was imposed on the eve of the election. Scattered reports have nonetheless emerged of irregularities at polling stations.
  • Not only was Wine prevented from mobilizing his supporters on social media today, but he also reported that his phone was blocked from making calls. Some supporters who gathered near his home on election day were arrested.
  • Authorities thwarted Wine’s efforts to campaign at every turn, citing COVID-19 restrictions, which seemed to apply almost exclusively to the opposition and were enforced with tear gas, arrests, beatings and even live bullets.
Bobi Wine (C) on the campaign trail. Photo: Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty.

Zoom in: In a press conference with international media last week, Wine described a daily process in which he sets out with a large campaign team and “by the end of the day, some are in prison, some are in hospital, and some are dead.”

  • As if to prove his point, a policeman began shouting at Wine and rapping on the window of his car, which had been pulled off the side of the road.
  • “You are embarrassing our country,” Wine scolded the officer as he was pulled from the car and briefly detained. When Wine resumed the call, he said international attention had kept him alive thus far, but “I expect a live bullet, targeted at me, at any time.”

What to watch: Since independence in 1962, Uganda has never seen a peaceful transfer of power.

  • Wine claimed ahead of the election that the results would be compromised because Museveni controls the electoral commission.
Data: Freedom House; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Freedom House; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • After polls closed, he told his supporters that "the picture still looks good" if the commissioners "declare the will of the people."
  • He has not said whether he will call his supporters into the streets if Museveni is declared the winner, but Museveni has spoken in threatening terms about the force with which any potential “uprising” will be greeted.

The state of play: Voters gathered at polling places in Kampala tonight, cheering as ballots for Wine were read out, per Reuters. The full results could be announced on Saturday.

Flashback: Museveni, 76, himself helped topple two dictators. Since taking power, he has changed the constitution twice to remain in office.

  • In an interview with NPR ahead of the election, Museveni described Ugandans as lazy and in need of a strong hand.
  • “It’s very risky,” Museveni said, referring to the idea of stepping aside. “The people don’t know whether to go north or south, and you say, 'You just go.'"
  • Some Ugandans clearly disagree. As of November, just 36% had confidence in their government, per a Gallup poll, and only 32% had confidence in the honesty of their elections.
Museveni at the White House in 2014 for a summit of African leaders. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Wine contended in Foreign Affairs this week that Museveni had been able to hold onto power for three decades in part because the U.S. and Europe have treated him as a “military ally and development darling.”

  • Johnnie Carson, former assistant secretary of state for Africa (2009–2013) and ambassador to Uganda (1991–1994), says the U.S. has indeed worked closely with Uganda to fight al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa.
  • The U.S. has also seen Museveni as a “reliable development partner,” Carson says, though he notes that Museveni has faced growing criticism from Washington for his crackdowns on the opposition and civil society.
  • One Western diplomat in Kampala, speaking to the Economist admitted to a sense of trepidation: “What happens if Museveni falls?”

Wine has become a symbol beyond Uganda of a younger generation standing up to a political old guard that is refusing to budge.

  • "There has been slippage in Democratic progress across Africa," Carson says. "In many places, it has started to stall, and in a number of places, we have seen significant backsliding."
  • But Carson, now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, also cites an Afrobarometer poll that finds that 68% of sub-Saharan Africans would prefer to live under democracy. That's compared to 13% who prefer a non-democratic system and 15% who say it doesn't matter.

What's next: The results of the election are likely to be contested, perhaps violently. That process could play out just as President-elect Biden is entering office.

  • That would pose an early test for Biden's promise to fight for democracy around the world.
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