Two days after the polls closed on January 14th, the incumbent president Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the 2021 Ugandan election. According to the official statistics, the President received 59% of the votes. The main contender, Bobi Wine, fell short with just 35%. After a campaign consisting of violent suppression of the opposition – often legitimized as a response to violations of covid-19 restrictions – Mr Museveni will now start his sixth term and 35th year as the leader of Uganda. As a presidency filled with corruption, nepotism and state violence continues, democracy seems like a distant utopia. But while the situation remains unsteady and volatile, there may be signs of democracy wavering on the horizon for the people of Uganda. 

“Uganda’s 2021 presidential election is shaping up to be as unfree and unfair as ever,” Mr Wine wrote in Foreign Affairs the day before the vote. He went on: “As one of ten opposition candidates challenging Museveni, I have faced a relentless barrage of violence.” The 38 year old popstar-turned-politician is certainly not wrong. In November 2020, he was arrested after a campaign meeting, accused of defying the country’s covid-rules. Fifty four people were killed by police in the protests that followed. 

During the fall of 2020, violent authorities also abused several journalists, arrested a human right’s lawyer and killed Mr Wine’s bodyguard. However, at the same time, Mr Museveni’s campaign meetings were tolerated. The intimidation even continued during and after the election as the government closed down the internet the day before the vote and detained Mr. Wine in his home for the days following. The opposition leader was forbidden to have guests and unable to make phone calls. 

The oppressive behavior of Museveni’s government is seemingly reflected in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s freshly published Democracy Index. This highlights how Uganda has taken a worrying step backwards – like many other countries in the light of the pandemic – although still being classified as a “hybrid regime.” The score of 4.94 is the country’s lowest since the measurement began in 2006.

The Parliament of Uganda, Kampala. (Photo: sweggs, Flickr)

Winds were blowing differently during the President’s early time in power, when much of the developed world acclaimed the strongman – now 76 years old – for being a different and “democratic” leader emerging from the African continent. He was even considered worthy of charitable development checks to bolster the country’s growth. Fighting his way to the presidency in 1986, Mr Museveni was indeed seen as freeing the country from wars and violence, bringing stability to an afflicted nation. With an impressive average annual growth of 6%, the Ugandan situation might still appear to be promising. 

But under the rule of Mr Museveni, Uganda has experienced deep corruption, nepotism and a series of anti-democratic measures. In 2009, the president was linked to the disappearance of 1.3 million US dollars designated for a hotel that never materialised. Yet, in the subsequent election two years later, he managed to get the highest percent at the polls in 15 years. One reason for this was corrupt actions: wide use of government money into his own campaign. Since the country gained independence in 1962, no occasion before 2011 was as costly for the state as that year’s election (the government was about to run out of cash just after half of the financial year). 

With a selection of Mr. Museveni’s family members in high ranking state positions, the line between state business and personal affairs is blurred. His extensive control of the state apparatus was further deepened when term limits on the presidency were abandoned one and half decades ago. And even more so when, in 2017, the presidential age limit of 75 was removed. The latter resulted in a straight up fist-fight in congress. 

However, one cannot discuss democracy – literally meaning “people’s rule” – without taking the people into account. As it appears, the future of the country’s political regime seems a little sunnier through the lens of the Ugandan people. In a study made by the Afrobarometer, we learn that the inclination for democracy in Uganda increased with 14 percentage points between 2000 and 2017. Four years ago, 81% percent of the population preferred democracy. The rise has not been distinctly steady, but has tended to rise ahead of and during election times, only to ease off right after. Still, the gain in democratic backing is evident.

Afrobarometer Data, Uganda, Round 7, 2000-2017, available at http://www.afrobarometer.org.

Simultaneously, the satisfaction with the state of the country’s democracy has decreased with 14 percentage points, measuring at 46% in 2017. Hence, a widening discrepancy between the two categories has been revealed – a “democracy satisfaction gap”. In 2017 the gap was as big as 34 percentage points (81% compared to 46%)

The study concludes that when the democracy satisfaction gap historically has been peaking, people’s view of the election quality seems to plunge. Similarly, the belief in democratic values (principles as “support for the rule of law, freedom of the press, parliamentary oversight,” etc) also crumble when the gap reaches its peak, which might seem less logical. Despite this, it appears safe to say that the democratic demand in Uganda has been growing during the twenty-first century. Previous research from the Afrobarometer confirms these findings. Simultaneously, the trust in opposition parties has surged and the dismissal of one party rule has skyrocketed since the multi-party system was reestablished in 2005.

Afrobarometer Data, Uganda, Round 5, 2002-2012, available at http://www.afrobarometer.org.

The question for the future will naturally be if Mr Wine and the opposition can capitalize on the growing demand for democracy. Such an endeavor might be easier said than done. Some believe that attracting Mr Wine’s supporters (mainly the young and lower classes who are struggling on a dysfunctional job market) to the polls will not be sufficient. 

Kizza Besigye, Mr Museveni’s main contender in the previous elections of the 2000s – also a subject of the government’s anti-democratic treatment – is one of these doubters. He decided not to run in 2021, meaning that simply voting will not be enough to oust the president. It could be argued that Mr Wine has taken this into consideration. In his Foreign Affairs piece, the current opposition leader is calling out the international community for treating Mr Museveni as their “darling.” He urges the world to hold the President accountable for the abuses he is responsible for. Adding increased international pressure to the calculation might make the path to unseat Mr Museveni more conceivable.

Opposition leader Bobi Wine (right). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, one can not accuse Mr Wine for underestimating the daunting challenge before the opposition. In November, he claimed that going up against the president “is like running against all the institutions of state.” But he does not appear to be discouraged. Instead, the singer shows great belief in the growing demand for a different type of regime. Or as he puts it in a song: “Bad news is that everything is wrong. But the good news is, you can still fix it.” As the road ahead is likely to be both bumpy and long, keeping faith seems like a wise thing. 

Alfred Hjelmhammar