Two days after the polls closed and with the tallying far from completed, Uganda’s Electoral Commission announced on Jan. 16 that Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the army general who has ruled Uganda for 35 years, had “won” his sixth presidential term. That such an announcement would be made had never been seriously in doubt. However, the manner of its procurement should alarm Uganda’s partners. They should also understand that what happens next is very much open to their influence. Despite labeling his opponents as agents of neo-colonialism, Museveni has received substantial support from the West and if governments, investors and intergovernmental bodies can muster consequences for the chronic and egregious violations committed under him, Ugandans have the possibility to wrest from this election the inspiration needed to break his authoritarian rule and pave the way for a democratic future. This will require Uganda’s partners to do much more than issue half-hearted denunciations of selective election irregularities every five years. Absent that, the country risks a descent into a period of instability that could imperil one of the most fragile regions in the world.
Museveni’s History of Militarized Authoritarianism
Museveni, aged 76, is Africa’s third longest serving head of State and doyen of the continent’s rebel leaders, having seized power in January 1986 at the end of a 15-year campaign of insurgency, begun in 1971. Museveni is not merely the most durable among his peers in Africa’s Great Lakes region, but has also established the most influential authoritarian model in the region, all the while portraying himself as an indispensable partner to the United Nations, United States and the European Union in stabilizing one of the most fragile parts of the world.
Uganda’s politics have long been polarized between Luo ethnic groups in the north of the country, on the one hand, and the Baganda of the central region, on the other. Politicians on all sides, and later military dictators, freely manipulated sectarian antipathies among Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims to exacerbate the divisions. In December 1980, after he ran as candidate of the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) and badly lost in Uganda’s transitional elections, Museveni returned to the bush from where he set out on the march that would eventually culminate in his taking power with the National Resistance Army (NRA), which later became the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Following the return to multi-party politics in 1995, the NRM split into two mutually reinforcing entities: the NRM became the ruling political party, while the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), its military wing, became the national army, with 10 reserved seats in parliament.
Uganda’s 1995 Constitution limited Museveni to two terms of five years each. It also capped the age of eligibility for presidential candidates at 75 years. In 2005, Museveni lifted term limits and, in 2017, he eliminated the age limit, paving the way for a life presidency.
The Jan. 14, 2021 Elections
Museveni’s main challenger in the 2021 elections was musician-turned-legislator, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aged 38, and better known by his stage name of Bobi Wine. He caught the imagination of Uganda’s youth (75 percent of Uganda’s 45 million people are under the age of 30) despite having been arrested and violently attacked, and the government having punished journalists who reported on him. During the 10 weeks of the presidential campaign, the UPDF, under Museveni’s direct command, repeatedly prevented Wine from holding rallies or even traveling on the roads. They arrested and assaulted him on multiple occasions. They killed at least one of his bodyguards, critically wounded his manager with a rubber bullet while he sat with Wine in a car, and seriously injured more of his campaign team. In the worst instance, security forces gunned down dozens of people who turned out in Kampala and elsewhere to protest Wine’s arrest on Nov.18, killing at least 54 people and leaving countless others maimed. All told, the security forces arrested more than 600 people for attending Wine’s rallies – some put the number at over 1,000 – on allegations of violating pandemic restrictions. In contrast, Museveni and other ruling party candidates held large rallies without any restrictions.
Journalists were specially targeted. Security officers attacked journalists so violently that at least 10 had to be hospitalized and several more were injured and/or detained. The Media Council, a statutory body appointed by Museveni, decertified all journalists in the country, requiring them to register with the Council as a pre-condition for covering the elections. In a judgment delivered on Jan. 18 after the election results had been declared, the High Court in Kampala ruled the Council’s actions unlawful, but the damage had already been done. There was no sensible reason why the judge could not have decided the case before the election.
In addition, the government escalated attacks on civic groups, both local and foreign, expelling the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the National Democratic Institute, and a contractor working for the EU delegation. Simultaneously, they took steps to incapacitate national monitoring organizations, levying against them sundry charges, ranging from compliance infractions to money laundering, deregistering some and freezing the bank accounts of others. Despite thousands of requests for accreditation from credible Ugandan and international groups, only a handful were granted. They also arrested leading human rights lawyers and monitors. In a letter made public in early February, Museveni ordered the suspension of a multi-million euro fund formed by European governments to support the work of local democracy and good governance groups, on the implausible ground that his government had no say in how the funds were “authorized”.. The unconcealed hostility of the Ugandan government to election monitoring led the United States to cancel its own observation delegation and the EU followed suit.
Museveni took the guess work out of elections by appointing Simon Byabakama in 2016 to serve as chair of the Electoral Commission. Byabakama had served Museveni in different capacities: as public prosecutor from 1987 to 2008, when he was appointed a judge of the High Court. Elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2015, Byabakama had proved his loyalty several times, most notably in 2005 when, as deputy director of public prosecutions, he brought trumped-up charges of rape and treason against Museveni’s main opponent, Kizza Besigye.
Two days before the vote, on Jan. 12, Museveni announced a social media shutdown after Facebook took down a government-linked network for having used fake and duplicate accounts. The next day, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered providers to suspend internet services in the country indefinitely. To ensure that the shutdown was total, the government also criminalized the use of virtual private networks.
On Jan. 14, when Ugandans turned out to vote, soldiers were everywhere, armed to the teeth and backed up by tanks. At Uganda’s borders to the north, soldiers from South Sudan deployed to assist their Ugandan comrades.
At the end of the day, Museveni addressed the nation. His message was blunt: any effort to protest the yet-to-be-declared result of the election would be regarded as treason and put down ruthlessly. It was his way of announcing himself as winner. Immediately after the voting, the UPDF surrounded Wine’s house, placing him under house arrest in order, they claimed, to prevent him from coming to harm. Many of his party agents were missing and some would later turn up dead. When U.S. Ambassador Natalie Brown attempted to visit him, UPDF officers barred her from doing so and the government advised her not to “cry for Ugandans.” On Jan. 16, Byabakama announced Museveni as the winner with 58 percent of the votes to 35 percent for Wine. On Jan. 23, the High Court ordered Museveni to lift the military siege on Wine, and the security agents finally retreated 24 hours later. On Jan. 28, the Commission officially published the election results.
Voter turn-out was only 57 percent, according to the Electoral Commission. Wine denounced the poll as “the most fraudulent election in the history of Uganda”. Byabakama reminded Ugandans that the burden of proof rests with Wine to establish substantial non-compliance with the rules of electoral conduct. It appeared the soldiers who surrounded Wine’s house would succeed in preventing him from filing a challenge to the election. However, he was able to file a petition on Feb. 1 after the Supreme Court extended the 15-day deadline for filing.
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, called for accountability for those who perpetrated “political violence” and denounced the election as “flawed.” In dismaying contrast, Britain’s Minister for Africa, James Duddridge welcomed the “relatively calm” passing of the election. Despite acknowledging the evidence of chronic and indiscriminate sovereign violence against peaceful citizens, British High Commissioner Kate Airey issued a statement following a visit to Wine on Jan. 27 asking “Honorable Kyangulanyi and all parties to reject violence, engage in peaceful dialogue and follow due process.” In reality, the only party who had deployed violence was the one to whom the High Commissioner is accredited and whom she chose not to name.
No one was ever seriously under the illusion that Museveni was prepared to quietly retreat from power. That said, Museveni did not pretend that this was anything other than a military operation. As one writer put it, “His message to the voters was clear: ‘it is either me, or war.’”
Ending Choice-less Elections
The violence and fraud that characterized this election is nothing new. Museveni has long used violence, repression, fraud, voting irregularities, persecution of opponents and election monitors, arrests on groundless charges, voter intimidation and, more recently, blocking of social media platforms, to win elections. Indeed, in 2001, the Supreme Court concluded that the election had been neither free nor fair but, nonetheless, declined to nullify the results on the ground that Museveni would have won regardless of the violations. A similar verdict in 2006 was probably procured by suborning some judges of the court.
Various international actors have issued public condemnations of these violations over the years as a prelude to quietly resuming business as usual without exacting any consequences. Following the 2021 elections, Museveni is now enfeebled by both advancing age and diminished legitimacy. Unless the international community acts resolutely and in concert to end the impunity of his increasingly bloody rule, the likelihood grows that land-locked Uganda could take a violent turn and undo all the previous efforts to stabilize the region. To avert this, urgent attention is required in the areas of investment, accountability, and regional security and development cooperation with Museveni.
First, investment. Museveni’s desire to centralize power in himself and his family coincides with Uganda’s emergence as an oil-producing country in 2006. Few noticed when Museveni and President John Magufuli of Tanzania signed a mega-deal for a 1,445-kilometer Uganda-Tanzania oil pipeline worth $3.5 billion in September. While the major licensees in this sector are Chinese, French and British, U.S. firms are also competing for a piece of the action. Uganda’s elections will remain farcical as long as licensing and investments in Uganda’s oil and natural resources continue to be mired in opacity and militarization of the oil regions. The pressures from climate change imperatives and alternative energy sources create an opportunity to press Uganda’s leadership to become more transparent about the governance of its natural resources sector and how it finances political corruption.
Second, it is imperative to discontinue the current policy of impunity for Museveni and his UPDF soldiers. In January 2004, Museveni referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) the atrocities of the Lords’ Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. Seized since then of the situation in Uganda, the ICC’s prosecutor has, however, avoided investigating the UPDF as the price for Uganda’s co-operation, even after the U.N. and the International Court of Justice respectively found them culpable for atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), violations that occurred under the command of Museveni.
At the beginning of January, Wine submitted a complaint to the ICC concerning the campaign-related UPDF massacres. Whether or not the ICC opens an investigation, the United States, the EU and the United Kingdom can impose sanctions against military commanders of the implicated units. The United States took a first step in September 2019, when it placed Museveni’s former inspector general of police, Kale Kayihura, a UPDF general, on its sanctions list pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Act, for gross violation of human rights from 2005 to March 2018. The new U.S. administration can investigate other top military, police, and civilian commanders and officials implicated in violations, including the five generals and two other top officials identified by former Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel in his Dec. 9 letter to Secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin. The U.K. and the EU can take similar steps. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF, the global, intergovernmental money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog) should keep Uganda on its “grey” list, which comprises countries – currently only 18 in the world – that demonstrate substantial deficiencies in their handling of money laundering offenses, until Uganda stops prosecuting NGOs and human rights lawyers for such offenses without probable cause.
Third, the major powers and institutions, including the U.N., the United States and the EU, must pull back from security and development cooperation with Uganda. When, in 2010, the U.N. complained of verified atrocities by the UPDF in the DRC, Uganda responded with a threat to reconsider its contributions to regional and international peace keeping operations in Côte d’Ivoire, Darfur, East Timor, Sudan, and Somalia. Now that Museveni’s rule is at a point where it could become a threat to regional peace and security, these powers must avoid becoming complicit in his atrocities. The United States, as Uganda’s largest aid and military donor – providing “significant security and development assistance” of around $970 million per year, and $270 million in military equipment – can suspend funds to units implicated in atrocities and vote rigging. Similar scrutiny must be exercised by the World Bank, which, in 2020, just before the election, awarded Uganda a $300 million line of credit related to COVID-19, from which significant funds may have been diverted to Uganda’s Defense Ministry, according to the New York City Bar Association. The EU – which gives hundreds of millions of euros to Uganda – can also withhold funds liable to be misdirected.
Quite clearly, Africa’s governments and regional institutions have been equally supine in failing to disrupt, or even object to the march of authoritarian misrule in the region. Between October 2020 and January 2021, the African Union (AU) gave its stamp of legitimacy to deeply compromised elections in Tanzania and Uganda without providing any credible report of its own election observation. In so doing, the AU also seriously damaged its own standards on election credibility, developed under the continental treaty regime of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The telecommunications sector has equally become an active participant in undermining democratic choice in Africa.
Museveni’s model of martial rule with an artifice of electoral legitimacy persists with the assistance of Uganda’s international and regional partners. They have a stake in bringing it to an end. They can use the leverage supplied by trade, development, and security assistance arrangements to demand accountability for grave crimes, rebuild independent institutions, and prevent a violent retrenchment of political dialogue. Uganda’s historically sectarian, ethnic, and political fragmentations will also require attention to promote a more united opposition. If these fail, then the end of the Museveni era, whenever it happens, could undo everything the partners have invested.