Johns Hopkins University Press

In January 2021, Uganda's president and ruling party were returned to power in an election that was the most violent and least fair in the country's history. The electoral performance of the opposition nevertheless exposed significant weaknesses in the regime's grip on power and demonstrated its lack of support and legitimacy among Uganda's large urban youth population. This article analyzes the fraudulent tactics employed in the election. It argues that Uganda is likely to witness an increasingly bitter and brutal contest between the militarist regime and the citizenry, and that the country's militarized politics calls into question a donor model that prioritizes security over democracy.

Elections in Uganda have long been a foregone conclusion, and those held on 14 January 2021 have proven to be no exception. President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 35 years and the victor in the three previous multiparty elections, has perfected a system that allows him and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to reap just enough votes to claim that democracy is working and thus bestow a thin veneer of legitimacy on their continued rule. The keys to this system's success are a well-oiled patronage machine; a ruthless, politicized security apparatus; and an international community that is willing to turn a blind eye to democratic decline and human-rights abuses in return for stability and support in the fight against terrorism.

This time covid-19 also rose to the president's defense, as did the retreat of democracy in large parts of the world. Many authoritarian leaders have employed the pandemic as an excuse to tighten their grip, but few have been as blatant and effective as Museveni. Curfews, partial lockdowns, and physical-distancing regulations were introduced in late March 2020 and remained in place throughout the electoral campaign, providing ample opportunity to curtail the opposition, harass its supporters, and clamp down on civil society and the media. Combined, such measures made the January 2021 election the most violent and least fair in a history of violent and unfair elections that is now two decades long.

Ten candidates sought to unseat President Museveni, but the real contest was between the aging incumbent (b. 1944) and the musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi (b. 1982), better known by his [End Page 90] stage name Bobi Wine. The former retains widespread support among rural voters, while the latter is popular among urban youth. In the villages and countryside where 75 percent of Ugandans live, Museveni and the NRM are credited with bringing peace and stability. In the city streets, Wine is celebrated as the "ghetto president" who exudes youthful vitality and represents the dreams and aspirations of the young, the oppressed, the unemployed, and the excluded. In a country where the median age is barely sixteen, President Museveni has been in power more than twice as long as most Ugandans have been alive. More than three-quarters of the populace is under twenty-five, and two-thirds of registered voters are under thirty. This election was thus to a large extent about capturing—or suppressing—the youth vote.

According to the official results, Museveni was elected president for a sixth term with 58.4 percent of the vote, leaving Wine in second place with 34.1 percent. The ruling party captured 310 seats in the 529-member, unicameral Parliament, while Wine's National Unity Platform (NUP) secured 61, making it the largest opposition party. Together the opposition parties swept nearly all the seats in and around the capital, Kampala, and unseated more than two-dozen cabinet ministers. The actual results, however, may never be known.

Polling day itself was largely peaceful, but there was little that was "democratic" or "free and fair" about these elections. Reports of voting irregularities and malfunctioning biometric voter-identification machines abound, and the electoral commission has failed to explain how the results were transmitted during the government-ordered internet shutdown on polling day. Hardly any independent election observers were present, but the opposition's refusal to accept the results is unlikely to change the outcome.

Under the cover provided by covid-19, the government sought to restrict the opposition, control the media, and stifle civil society in the run-up to the election. Importantly, the slew of pandemic-emergency measures was superimposed on an already severely curtailed civil and political space, and as such did not cause but instead intensified and accelerated Uganda's long descent into electoral authoritarianism.

That said, the regime faces an uncertain future. Museveni's win was the slimmest since multiparty elections were introduced in 1996, as the 38-year-old Wine mobilized the political energies of Uganda's young electorate. The regime is on notice that unless it can deliver on this group's demands for jobs, schooling, and political inclusion, growing popular protests and demands for change may require suppression by authoritarian means.

If the regime continues to repress dissent and militarize politics, international donors will come under greater pressure to rethink the considerable financial and military support that they give to Museveni. While this would not necessarily favor democratic forces, it would further [End Page 91] expose the regime's weaknesses and diminish its ability to distribute patronage. For these reasons, the case of Uganda poses a challenge to a model of donor assistance that prioritizes security over democracy and human rights.

The Pandemic and the Restricted Campaign

Uganda's handling of covid-19 has rightly drawn praise from health experts. Almost as soon as the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, Museveni imposed border restrictions, banned mass gatherings, and declared a nationwide curfew shortly after the first domestic case was confirmed. Initially these measures received cross-party support. Opposition parties joined the NRM in encouraging Ugandans to accept the collective need to reduce social interaction and mobility in order to contain the virus. Bobi Wine's catchy reggae rhythms even helped to popularize the message, with his "Corona Virus Song" urging everyone to "make sure u regularly wash ur hands." The government's swift action, based on experiences in containing AIDS and Ebola hemorrhagic fever, meant that by election time there were fewer than forty-thousand confirmed covid cases and just over three-hundred recorded deaths—low numbers that brought compliments from the international donors who fund large parts of Uganda's health budget.

Unfortunately, however, the emergency measures contained not only the pandemic but also political freedom and civil liberties. Restrictions imposed in the name of public health provided a handy cover for stifling all kinds of activities while criminalizing even mild displays of dissent.

The combined might of the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF), the Uganda Police Force, and the Local Defence Units enforced the evening-to-morning curfew with beatings and bullets, often targeting already marginalized populations such as LGBTQ+ communities. Thousands of Ugandans were arrested for violating the curfew or physical-distancing requirements. Any criticism or questioning of the government's approach by journalists, commentators, or human-rights activists was met with harassment and arrests.1

In May, Museveni suggested that the election might be postponed, describing the idea of going to the polls during the pandemic as "madness." When the January 2021 election date was announced in June, the Uganda Electoral Commission (UEC) said that it would be a "scientific election" that would be conducted primarily through the print, broadcast, and online media, with no campaign rally allowed to exceed an in-person attendance of two hundred. The "science" of the election proved to be highly political and tilted an already uneven playing field further in favor of the president and the ruling party.

The covid restrictions on mass rallies were applied in grossly unequal [End Page 92] ways. Museveni and NRM candidates campaigned with relative freedom across the country, while the opposition parties found their movements constantly restricted and their meetings interrupted for allegedly violating distancing rules or including too many people. Ugandan elections have long been plagued by security-force brutality, but under the cover of covid the violence was without precedents. Opposition parties and presidential candidates were subject to constant intimidation, harassment, and arrest. Bobi Wine and his NUP were singled out for the worst treatment. Within weeks of registering as a candidate, Wine found himself under arrest. After the election, he was placed under house detention. Throughout the campaign, Wine's team was trailed by a menacing security presence that included armored personnel carriers and trucks with water cannons.

The worst violence of the campaign was associated with Wine's November 18 arrest on charges that he had broken social-distancing rules. Footage went out over the internet showing him being hurled into a police van and sent to the notorious Nalufenya Prison in Jinja District. During his two-day detention, protests erupted in Kampala and other towns. Police officers, soldiers, and plainclothes gunmen killed at least 54 people. More than a thousand were arrested. In another incident, one of Wine's bodyguards was run over and killed by a military-police truck, though the UPDF denied it.2 Wine himself claims that government forces nearly killed him. While campaigning, he regularly wore a helmet and a bulletproof vest, underlining the warlike atmosphere of an election where tear gas, bullets (lead as well as rubber), and truncheons were regular fixtures.

In a familiar pattern, President Museveni blamed the November protests on "traitors" and "their foreign backers" and congratulated the UPDF for "defeating the insurrection."3 He announced that the security of greater Kampala would henceforth be in the hands of the UPDF, subordinating the police to a new Kampala Joint Security Force tasked with coordinating the operations of the police, the military, and the intelligence agencies. In an unmistakeable warning to the opposition and protesters, a battle-hardened general with extensive experience commanding the UPDF contingent in Somalia was named to head the new force. At the same time, Museveni promoted another general, known as the "Lion of Mogadishu" for leading attacks on al-Shabaab insurgents, as the new deputy inspector-general of police. The net effect was to further militarize the police force, which already had a quartet of senior [End Page 93] military officers in its upper ranks. Museveni also reappointed his son, Lieutenant-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba (b. 1974), to head the elite Special Forces Command. This cemented the president's personal control over the military to go with the military's control over the police.

Just three weeks before polling day, the UEC suspended all campaign meetings in Kampala and ten other populous districts, citing what it said were high rates of covid infections. All these areas were among the opposition's urban strongholds and home to many young voters. Campaigning went on unhindered, meanwhile, in traditional Museveni and NRM bastions even though official Health Ministry figures showed many of these places with higher infection rates. The UEC's skewed use (or non-use) of health statistics, as well as the timing of the campaign suspensions, cast doubt on the electoral body's independence and impartiality while showing how easy it was to mobilize covid concerns to benefit the regime.

Digital Repression

A free and fair campaign requires equal access to the media. This had not been a reality in prior Ugandan elections, and it was even less so this time.4 The country's media landscape is dominated by politicians from the ruling party and tycoons with close ties to the regime, while state-owned newspapers and broadcasters are highly biased in favor of the president and the NRM. While declaring that the conduct of the election would be "scientific," the UEC had remained silent on this skewed media environment.

The result was predictable: Museveni's campaign events were carried live on nationwide radio and television while his opponents had the studio doors closed in their faces. In November, for instance, Forum for Democratic Change presidential contender Patrick Oboi Amuriat had to make a campaign swing through the Teso Sub-region amid virtual radio silence. Several stations called off interviews with him at the last minute, citing government intimidation, and he was midway through one radio talk show when security agents snatched away the link to the station's antenna. Wine faced similar treatment—during a live radio appearance in Hoima City, police chased him out of the studio.

Harassment of journalists rose to unprecedented levels. Tear gas, beatings, and rubber bullets were the rewards the regime gave them for doing their jobs. The Human Rights Network for Journalists–Uganda expressed deep concern about the narrowing of the media space, including the unprecedented requirement for journalists to renew their accreditations at short notice.5 Foreign journalists were mostly prevented from entering the country or stymied by ever-changing accreditation rules. Three Canadian broadcasters who were accredited to cover the election were deported with a warning to "stay where they are from."6 [End Page 94]

The restrictions on gatherings and traditional media made social media an important battleground for political messages, fake versus real news, and control. Although most Ugandans get their news from radio, television, and newspapers, in that order, digital media play a key role. Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp in particular are important platforms used not only by voters but by journalists, who increasingly rely on social-media channels as sources of news.7 In 2016, social-media sites had been blocked on polling day, but this time the government moved to restrict the digital space well in advance. In 2018, the regime levied a daily tax for using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp on mobile phones. The tax was enormous, equivalent to about 2.4 percent of the average monthly income in Kampala. There were widespread protests, but the tax remains in effect. Use of these applications dropped sharply, as did social-media use generally in this country of more than 43 million people.

Despite all the regime's efforts, however, the election was vigorously contested in the virtual space as oppositionists found ways to outwit the authorities. Bobi Wine in particular mobilized his artistic creativity and media connections on free online channels to livestream his rallies and spread his message, frequently through songs criticizing the government. Wine's campaign was chronicled on Twitter almost in real time as photos and videos were posted of him surrounded by cheering crowds, wearing at first his signature red beret and later his flak jacket and helmet. Featuring frequent use of the hashtag #WeAreRemovingADictator, Wine's Twitter feed had acquired a million followers by polling day. It served to document not only his popularity, but also the ruthlessness of the security forces. There were very few foreign journalists on the ground, but their absence did not prevent numerous abuses of power by the regime from being caught on camera and broadcast to the world via the internet.

Wine's savvy use of social media contrasted sharply with Museveni's stale and staged tweets, not to mention his hour-long television speeches. Using the hashtag #SecuringYourFuture, the president stressed his message of economic growth and stability. His two-million followers were treated to an endless series of road openings and visits to hospital, dam, and power-station construction sites. This shameless display of traditional patronage politics portrayed the president and the NRM as guarantors of peace and prosperity. Undoubtedly aware of being outplayed, the government in December asked Google to shut down seventeen YouTube channels that were streaming content deemed sympathetic to Wine. The Uganda Communications Commission charged that the channels were fanning violence and had been responsible for the deadly November protests. Google declined the shutdown request.

In a surprise turn a few days before the vote, Facebook closed several NRM-linked accounts after investigating them for "coordinated inauthentic [End Page 95] behavior," that is, using fake and duplicate accounts to manipulate public debate. In retaliation, the government banned Facebook from Uganda, accusing the platform of "arrogance" and interference in the election.8

Finally, on polling day, the government imposed a total, nationwide internet blackout that served to shroud the vote from social-media scrutiny and frustrate opposition plans to compile a parallel tally. The extensive effort that Museveni made to control and suppress social media underscores their growing importance in electoral politics and raises important questions about how to safeguard citizens' digital rights and save social media from being turned into yet another instrument in the authoritarian toolkit.9

The Silencing of Civil Society

The covid-19 measures added another layer of control and oppression to a civil society already curtailed by a long-term strategy of quietly cutting off and choking any organization that might challenge the government's authority. Because human-rights groups were at the forefront in questioning the use of coronavirus restrictions to silence the opposition, the regime targeted many groups and individuals involved in rights defense. In the most egregious incident, the prominent human-rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo—he is executive director of Chapter Four Uganda—and four other activists were arrested and detained for more than a week. In his work on behalf of Chapter Four, Opiyo has vocally criticized the crackdown on the opposition and civil society. As a lawyer, he has represented several opposition leaders and supporters, including Wine, as well as LGBTQ+ activists persecuted by the government. Shortly before his arrest, Opiyo had condemned the regime's attempts to block the opposition's access to social media. He was released on bail and faces money-laundering charges.

The spurious money-laundering accusation offers a glimpse into the regime's use of a torrent of increasingly complex and intrusive legislation to target civil society. The NGO Act of 2016, for example, mandates a cumbersome registration process and demands prior government approval of all NGO activities. Another mandatory validation process was imposed in 2019, after which the government shut down twelve-thousand NGOs for failing to renew their registrations. While many were already defunct, others were not. National Election Watch–Uganda, a coalition of more than sixty groups with plans to observe the elections, was closed on the grounds that it was not registered, even though all its constituent NGOs were. As part of the same validation process, the Financial Intelligence Authority investigated the bank accounts of thirteen leading good-governance and human-rights NGOs in December. Another four organizations involved in election observation and good-governance promotion were [End Page 96] closed, and several—including the Uganda Women's Network, the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, and the Uganda National NGO Forum—were accused of financing terrorism.

The government has also sought to control foreign participation in civil society and to delegitimize NGOs and human-rights activists as foreign agents. President Museveni himself has repeatedly portrayed civil society as "pursuing the agenda of foreigners" and "working for foreign governments." International experts working for NGOs have been deported or prevented from returning to Uganda.10 Organizations that receive foreign assistance are required to deposit their funds in the government-controlled Bank of Uganda. Under constant monitoring, numerous NGOs have had their accounts investigated or frozen following allegations that they were laundering money.

Shortly before the election, the president suspended the activities of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a fund established in 2011 with an amount equal to about US$170 million in 2020 terms. Created by the European Union in conjunction with Austria, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the DGF provides financial and technical support to state and nonstate actors engaged in the promotion of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and accountability. According to Museveni, however, DGF funds were being "used to finance activities and organizations designed to subvert [the] government under the guise of improving governance."11 He ordered an investigation into how the Finance Ministry had ever allowed the DGF to bankroll NGOs and government agencies. More than a hundred NGOs that received DGF funding now face an uncertain future, as do several projects run by government agencies.

The chill cast over civil society by interventions such as these is icy, as is the sense of fear and unpredictability that Museveni relies on to support the authoritarian, personalized, and repressive regime that he has built during his three and a half decades in power.12 Despite this, however, and despite the electoral "victory" that he engineered at the start of 2021, his regime's future is uncertain. There are two particular problems. One stems from demographics, while the other has to do with the increasing militarization of politics.

The Youth Challenge

Museveni counts on the countryside, and there is little doubt that he remains popular with rural voters. Older Ugandans, especially, remember him as the guerrilla leader who brought peace and stability to the country after the horrors that Idi Amin and Milton Obote inflicted from the 1960s into the 1980s. Many revere Museveni as a hero. They may feel uneasy about the regime's repressive tactics, but accept them as a necessary evil that is the price of continued peace. Museveni and [End Page 97] the NRM deploy precisely this message in carefully calibrated ways, indicating that a vote for the opposition is a vote for instability and insecurity. The violence that followed Bobi Wine's arrest in mid-November, for example, was held up as a sign of the havoc that an opposition victory would unleash. The NRM's campaign slogan "Securing Your Future" was thus both a reminder of the party's achievements and patronage, and a tacit warning of the chaos that would spring from a change of power.

The challenge is that for a rising share of Ugandans, Museveni's invocations of past terrors are nothing but dry history lectures. More than 75 percent of the populace is under 30 years old; Museveni is the only president whom they have known. Their daily horrors are unemployment and destitution, and they are eager not for stability, but for change.

Bobi Wine is their hero, whose youth stands in striking contrast to Museveni's advanced age. Wine himself grew up in poverty and spent his early youth hustling in the Kampala ghetto of Kamwokya before succeeding as a musician. He turned to politics after an abusive encounter with the military and won a parliamentary by-election in 2017. Under the banner first of the People Power Movement and then of the NUP, he captured the dreams and imagination of urban youth, skillfully articulating their anger, grievances, and sense of exclusion through songs and speeches. As Wine puts it, Museveni represents the entrenched interests of "the Facelift generation" but knows "how much of a risk the Facebook generation poses."13

Museveni has presided over economic growth in Uganda and has been applauded by international donors for halving the number of households living in poverty between 1992 and 2013. While such statistics are praiseworthy, they conceal the exclusionary, unequal, and jobless nature of Uganda's growth. The free-market reforms and privatization policies pursued under the guidance of international financial institutions since the 1990s have enriched Museveni's close allies but failed to provide opportunities for the majority.14 As the World Bank notes, "Uganda has one of the world's most youthful and fastest-growing populations," and since 2000, only Gabon and Mali among African countries have exceeded the rate at which Uganda's workforce is growing.15 How to find jobs for all these workers, and especially the huge numbers of younger people, is a staggering problem that signals the immensity of the political, economic, and structural challenges facing the country in the years ahead.

These challenges go far beyond the task of unseating Museveni and [End Page 98] the NRM, and will require not only a wholesale rebuilding of democratic institutions but the forging of new national dialogues and forms of inclusion. After more than three decades of fractious and divisive patronage politics, this is an immensely tall order. Museveni has blocked opposition parties from consolidating, building national networks, and gaining sustained political experience. Parliament has been cowed, and judicial independence compromised. The ease with which Museveni has pushed through constitutional changes—abolishing the presidential term limit in 2005 and the chief executive's age limit of 75 in 2017—shows how badly politics has been corrupted.

Museveni and the NRM rule through a web of patronage that supports the regime but also makes it less flexible and adaptable. So far they have been neither willing nor able to respond to the growing dissatisfaction of excluded youth. Instead, as the violence of this election confirms, they have turned ever more to surveillance and coercion. After heavy investment in riot-control arms and surveillance technologies, the security agencies are better equipped than ever to silence dissent. This militarization of politics turns the spotlight on Uganda's donors, and raises serious questions about the continuation of the international support and acquiescence that the Museveni regime has come to expect.

Militarism versus Democracy

Relations between Uganda and its donors are fraught. Museveni routinely decries foreign interference, while the donors alternate between commending the regime's poverty-reduction record and condemning its human-rights abuses.16 Donors are well aware of the president's authoritarian drift and personalization of power. So far, however, they have been willing to sacrifice democracy and human rights in return for the support that Museveni gives to regional peacekeeping, as well as the modicum of political stability he provides in an unstable corner of Africa. As the international fight against terrorism has escalated on the continent, Museveni has succeeded in positioning Uganda as a pivotal state and an indispensable ally. The country is a leading troop contributor to the African Union's peacekeeping operations in Somalia, and its soldiers have also deployed to other conflict zones, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Uganda's willingness to take in refugees from hardships and conflicts elsewhere in the region has also won it friends abroad, especially as this welcoming policy takes pressure off an increasingly migrant-hostile Europe. More than 1.5 million foreign refugees currently live in Uganda. Their presence represents a significant humanitarian contribution that not only has created goodwill for Museveni, but has also made his regime more central to Western foreign-policy aims.

As a result, his country has been lavished with development and security assistance. The United States bankrolls Uganda to the tune of almost [End Page 99] a billion dollars a year, while another billion flows from other donors and global institutions such as the World Bank. The international community plays a key role in supporting the regime's security apparatus, ostensibly for professionalization and training to support various peace operations and antiterrorist campaigns on the continent. Since 2012, Uganda has cleared at least $300 million in U.S. military assistance, while the Pentagon has trained more troops from Uganda than from any other country in sub-Saharan Africa except Burundi.17

The case of Uganda illustrates a broader shift in which international assistance to and partnership with African countries have increasingly come to focus on security under the slogan that "there can be no development without security, and no security without development." While security and military assistance is in principle designed to strengthen democratic control and civilian oversight of militaries, in practice such interventions have frequently served to strengthen the "harder" aspects of security. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the training and aid given to African militaries have gradually come to focus less on human rights, civilian oversight, transparency, and accountability and more on "hard" security and the technical matters associated with it.18 Such programs frequently fail to take full account of the nature of civil-military relations in postcolonial countries, where national armed forces are frequently politicized and run in personalized, fragmented ways.

This is particularly relevant as regards Uganda. Museveni, a former rebel leader, has incorporated the military into his highly personalized power structure. Generals and other officers occupy key political posts. They hold permanent seats in Parliament and run cabinet ministries and major institutions. The expansion of Uganda's economy over the last decade, combined with generous donor assistance, has allowed Museveni to reward his generals with big budgets as well as personal riches from business deals and opportunities for corruption.19 In return, they give him their loyalty. Foreign assistance has given the UPDF better training and gear, while its centrality to international security agendas has given it expanded power and influence relative to civilian leaders.

It was this well-trained, well-equipped military that Museveni placed in charge of security in and around the capital before the election. Generals with experience commanding combat operations and soldiers trained to fight violent extremism patrolled Kampala while helicopters hovered above and tanks rolled through the streets. Even by Ugandan standards, this was a significant step up in the militarization of policing and politics. The brute force with which the security forces repressed legitimate political activities and protests showed how much donors' prioritization of security and counterterrorism has helped to undermine democracy while entrenching the military's power.20

In the past, the security-force abuses drew only muted international [End Page 100] criticism. Donors balanced their disdain for authoritarianism against their desire for a robust Ugandan military that could handle dangerous peace operations. In 2021, by contrast, reactions have been stronger. There are signs that the international community may be losing patience with Museveni. The U.S State Department has said that it is considering a range of actions against the regime as well as individuals found to be responsible for election violence, while the EU and other major donors have issued similar warnings.21 It remains to be seen, however, how much if any of this will translate into action, or if Uganda's donors will continue to fuel Museveni's patronage machine.

This is not, of course, to suggest that international action or aid cuts can by themselves bring democracy to Uganda. The power and influence of Western actors should not be overestimated, especially at a time when substantial flows of Chinese loans, investment, and assistance are going to Africa. Nor should Western donors return to the often high-handed and arrogant democracy promotion of the past. Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside or be dictated by finger-wagging donors threatening to withhold aid, and indeed, many of the challenges to democracy currently seen in electoral autocracies such as Uganda are traceable in part to misguided conditionalities and donor demands.

Past mistakes, however, do not negate the value of democracy, nor diminish the need for solidarity with democratic struggles. Five of Uganda's opposition leaders have urged the UN secretary-general to encourage donors to suspend all but the most essential humanitarian aid to their country, while Bobi Wine has argued that the West has helped to "cripple Uganda's democracy" and that it must now stand by those struggling against tyranny.22 Andrew Mwenda similarly argued many years ago in these pages that donors have been shoring up a corrupt system and have made Uganda worse than it otherwise would have been.23

It is also one thing to demand or impose democracy, quite another to actively support and enable authoritarianism. Arguably this is what the international community is currently doing through its support for Museveni's militarized regime, and the brutality of the security forces during this election raises important questions about the legitimacy of a model of donor assistance that prioritizes security and counterterrorism over democracy and human rights. There is thus an urgent need for the international community, and especially the United States as Uganda's main supporter, to rethink its relationship with the country. As a first step, this should entail an end to military and security [End Page 101] assistance, so as not to contribute yet further to the militarization of Uganda's politics.

Instability Lies in Wait

In his famous "Fundamental Change" speech, delivered at his first inauguration in January 1986, Museveni promised to be more than simply another change of the guard: "The first point in our programme is the restoration of democracy. The people of Africa—the people of Uganda—are entitled to democratic government. It is not a favour from any government: it is the right of the people of Africa to have democratic government." Almost exactly thirty-five years later, the January 2021 election confirmed the extent to which Museveni's power flows from the barrel of the gun and that no opposition party or candidate—no matter how popular—will be allowed to unseat him and the NRM through the ballot box.

Nevertheless, the performance of Bobi Wine and the NUP at the polls exposed significant weaknesses in the regime's grip on power. Finishing at 58 percent, the incumbent president received his lowest vote share since multipartism began in 1996, and Wine's officially reported 34 percent is almost certainly lower than the actual result, let alone what he might have polled in a free and fair election. The NUP, which only came into being shortly before the election, is now Parliament's second-biggest party with 61 seats. Importantly, it did more than capture the predicted urban seats. It also made significant inroads into the NRM's traditional strongholds in the Buganda region, including the Luwero Triangle north of Kampala, where Museveni began the guerrilla war that propelled him to power. Wine made unemployment, corruption, and injustice the central issues of his campaign, preaching a message of radical change and renewal. The political energies mobilized during this period will not go away. On the contrary, Wine's wide popularity and rapid political rise show that the desire for change is unrelenting, especially among urban youth.

Museveni has relied heavily on the military to stifle democracy and to suppress critics of his regime. There are growing fears that Special Forces Command—the most skilled, best equipped segment of the military and a frequent recipient of U.S. training—behaves like the president's personal army. With Museveni's oldest son in command of it, and with no known succession plan in place, there has long been speculation that this elite unit will one day be used to elevate the son to the presidency. Such a praetorian move, however, would be unpopular not only with a large slice of the populace at large, but also with many elements of the ruling party and the military itself, raising the specter of civil strife. Regardless of such speculations about General Muhoozi's enthronement, Uganda is likely to witness an increasingly bitter and brutal contest [End Page 102] between the militarist regime and the citizenry. Inevitably, this raises difficult questions for the international donor community, which must choose whether to support Ugandans in their struggle for democracy and human rights, or continue an approach that prioritizes security and that has allowed elected autocrats such as Museveni to further entrench themselves in power.

Rita Abrahamsen

Rita Abrahamsen is professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is currently senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at Duisburg-Essen University.

Gerald Bareebe

Gerald Bareebe is assistant professor of politics at York University, and is currently based in Kampala.


1. David Ochieng Mbewa, "Ugandan Police Arrest More than 300 People for Violating Covid-19 Regulations," CGTN Africa, 27 December 2020; David Ngendo-Tshimba, "Coronized Lives in Response to Covid-19: Hopeful Lockdown or Haplessness?" Kujenga Amani, 4 June 2020; Sandra Aceng, "In Uganda, COVID-19 Rules Are 'Perfect for Criminalizing Dissent,'" Global Voices, 12 January 2021.

2. Human Rights Watch, "Uganda: Elections Marred by Violence," 21 January 2021; Derrick Wandera, "Bobi Wine Accuses Army of Bodyguard's Death," Daily Monitor (Kampala), 29 December 2020

3. Risdel Kasasira, Anderew Bagala, and Derrick Wandera, "Why Museveni Moved Top Army, Police Chiefs," Daily Monitor, 17 December 2020.

4. See, for instance, Rita Abrahamsen and Gerald Bareebe, "Uganda's 2016 Elections: Not Even Faking It Anymore," African Affairs 115 (October 2016): 751–65.

5. See Committee to Project Journalists, "Journalists in Uganda Face Accreditation Hurdles Ahead of Election, Risk Criminal Sanction," 23 December 2020,, and Clare Muhindo, "Police to Block Unaccredited Journalists from Covering Elections," 16 December 2020, African Centre for Media Excellence,

6. "CBC News Journalists Deported from Uganda, Despite Having Press Credentials," CBC, 30 November 2020; "Uganda: Stop Killings and Human Rights Abuses Ahead of Election Day," Amnesty International, 14 December 2020.

7. Florence Namasinga Selnes and Kristin Skare Orgeret, "Social Media in Uganda: Revitalising News Journalism?" Media, Culture and Society 42 (April 2020): 380–97.

8. Halima Athumani, "Facebook Shuts Down Accounts Linked to Ugandan Information Ministry," Voice of America, 11 January 2021; Dickens Olewe, "Uganda Social Media Ban Raises Questions over Regulation in Africa," BBC, 15 January 2021.

9. Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics. How the Internet Era Is Transforming Politics in Kenya (London: Zed Books, 2018).

10. Darin Christensen and Jeremy M. Weinstein, "Defunding Dissent: Restrictions on Aid to NGOs," Journal of Democracy 24 (April 2013): 77–91; Godfrey M. Musila, "The Spread of Anti-NGO Measures in Africa: Freedoms Under Threat," Freedom House, May 2019; CIVICUS, "Uganda: No Candidate Can Possibly Win the Election without Young People's Vote," 13 November 2020.

11. "Uganda: Suspension of Democratic Governance Facility Highlights Growing Concerns," Freedom House, 4 February 2021.

12. Aili Mari Tripp, Museveni's Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2010).

13. Bobi Wine, "Uganda: If We Do Not Take Risks, We Risk Everything," African Arguments, 11 November 2020.

14. Andrew M. Mwenda and Roger Tangri, "Patronage Politics, Donor Reports, and Regime Consolidation in Uganda," African Affairs 104 (July 2005): 449–67; Andrew M. Mwenda, "Personalizing Power in Uganda," Journal of Democracy 18 (October 2007): 23–28.

15. Dino Merotto, "Uganda: Jobs Strategy for Inclusive Growth," World Bank Jobs Series, issue 19, 14 November 2019, 10–11.

16. Kristof Titeca and Anna Reuss, "Museveni and the West. Relationships Status: It's Complicated," African Arguments, 7 January 2021.

17. Ty McCormick, "Is the U.S. Military Propping Up Uganda's 'Elected' Autocrat?" Foreign Policy, 18 February 2016; Helen C. Epstein, Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror (New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2017).

18. Rita Abrahamsen, "Return of the Generals? Global Militarism in Africa from the Cold War to the Present," Security Dialogue 49 (February–April 2018): 19–31; Paul Jackson, "Introduction: Second-Generation Security Sector Reform," Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding 12, issue 1 (2018): 1–10; Eric Scheye, "Realism and Pragmatism in Security Sector Development," Special Report 257, U.S. Institute of Peace, October 2010; Emily Knowles and Jahara Matisek, "Western Security Force Assistance in Weak States: Time for a Peacebuilding Approach," RUSI Journal 164, issue 3 (2019): 10–21.

19. Gerald Bareebe, "Predators or Protectors? Military Corruption as a Pillar of Regime Survival in Uganda," Civil Wars 22, issue 2–3 (2020): 313–32; Moses Khisa, "Politicisation and Professionalism: The Progress and Perils of Civil-Military Transformation in Museveni's Uganda," Civil Wars 22, issue 2–3 (2020): 289–312.

20. Abrahamsen, "Return of the Generals?"; Adam Branch, Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

21. Abdi Latif Dahir, "The West's Patience with Uganda's Strongman Wanes After a Bloody Election," New York Times, 30 January 2021.

22. Bobi Wine, "The West Helped Cripple Uganda's Democracy: Now It Must Stand with Those Struggling Against Tyranny," Foreign Affairs, 13 January 2021.

23. Mwenda, "Personalizing Power in Uganda."

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