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Ugandan Election Special: Dancehall Democracy versus Anti-Social Autocrats

It’s that time of the decade, kids, and once again the Ugandan electoral spectacle shows how to put the “fun” back into dysfunctional!
Here’s a rough guide to the dynamics of central Africa’s most exciting, explosive and explicit post-colonial state.

Dramatis Personae:

Museveni on Twitter

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni
• elderly president/autocrat;
• has held the presidency since 1986, when he took power in a civil war;
• is conservative and reactionary, ruling largely through a deep-rooted form of political patronage;
• immensely popular in rural areas and with many people over 30;
• may genuinely win the election, but is being so mean and violent in the run-up, we can be forgiven for thinking he actually fears losing this time.
• Music Skills: Terrible, with ponderous hit single “Do You Want Another Rap?”
• Catchphrase: “I will eat my enemies like samosas”

Bobi on Twitter

Robert Kyagulani, aka Bobi Wine
• handsome, young-ish Dancehall superstar (it’s a bit like Shaggy running for the US presidency);
• has been MP since 2017, and founder of the immensely popular “People Power” movement in Uganda;
• is broadly socialist in his speech, but has yet to articulate a coherent ideological position or set of policies;
• immensely popular with the youth and unemployed (which is most Ugandans) and Dancehall fans;
• may possibly win more votes than Museveni, and has the incumbent more than a little worried.
• Music Skills: One of the best pop artists in Africa, mixing traditional instruments with digital beats and on-point social messages, e.g. “Kyarenga”
• Catchphrase: “We are removing a dictator”

This little summary aims not to repeat the details you can find on Wikipedia or in the news. Instead, I wanted to take you on a little trip behind the headlines.

(And apologies in advance to Ugandan readers and specialists, who may now tear me to pieces.)

Museveni Posters
Election Protest

“Pornographically Tribal”
Those familiar with ‘the Buganda factor in Ugandan politics’ will know well that the huge central kingdom of Buganda is the kingmaker in Ugandan democracy, but they have never been allowed to hold the presidency, because this would devolve too much power to the Baganda (people of Buganda).
Accordingly, through an unwritten law, other regional blocs – first northerners, now westerners – have held the presidential seat and military controls in Uganda since Indepdence 58 years ago.

Unfortunately, the leading opposition presidential candidate, Dancehall singer Bobi Wine, is a real Muganda Man, one of the kingdom’s most blessed sons. He has the additional crucial advantage of the youth vote, in a country with a population that is 70% under 30 years old. Bobi is threatening to turn Buganda, and the youth, against the incumbent Museveni, in what would be a landslide victory, if the polls were not firmly rigged in Museveni’s favour.
For the first time since independence, purely in terms of popularity, the country has a viable presidential hopeful from the central kingdom. However, the incumbent has no intention of letting anyone mess with the regional (im)balance of power: “the west is the best”.
With western (and northern) loyalists in the top jobs in the military and police, there is no way that a youthful candidate from Buganda will be allowed even a sniff of victory. As one academic put it: “the incumbent president is shamelessly, pornographically tribal”.

Political protest 2016

Rage (Distantly) Against the Machine
Bobi Wine has finally sought the support of four-time electoral loser Kizza Besigye, when they appeared together for a press conference, along with the two other “serious” opposition candidates for the presidency. Top of the agenda was the insoluble question of how to win an election when the incumbent holds all the cards, including the army and the electoral commission. 

‘“Do not be discouraged by efforts of the military. Put on face masks and maintain social distance. This election shapes Uganda’s destiny,” Bobi Wine said…
[but then] “Do yourself a favor [Mwebereremu]. Stay around and guard your vote. Use that phone to record moments of results declaration,” Bobi Wine said.’
Here Bobi is trying to prevent his supporters being dispersed (or even shot) for breaching Covid regulations – hence the instruction to wear masks and practice distancing – meanwhile actively encouraging them to stay on and monitor the counting of votes, i.e. creating massive Covid-friendly crowds…
Still, if he is to be leader, he must perfect the art of double standards.

“We will beat you for your own safety”
In truth, there seems to be very little the opposition can do to prevent polling fraud, since journalists are being systematically targeted by the army/police, while the Electoral Commission have banned all types of photography (including phones) from polling stations. Incoming foreign journalists have been denied press passes and resident ones given orders to leave the country or stay at home. And this year, there are to be no independent monitors, international or otherwise.
If you do really want to risk something as seditious as covering the election, then the “police will beat you for your own safety”, according to our top cop.

Liberal police chief Felix Kaweesi trying to keep order (he was politically assasinated two years ago)
An opposition candidate is blocked from monitoring.png

Anti Social Media
You would have thought that stopping the youth from looking at themselves on Instagram would instantly provoke an “African spring”, but the elders just don’t get it. Perhaps it’s because they’re not as good-looking or sociable as the youth?
‘In a letter, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) executive director, Ms Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms…’ [but then] ‘UCC spokesman Ibrahim Bbosa told this reporter: “I am not aware of a directive to switch off internet or social media platforms. There has been slow connectivity on the platforms which can be partly due to heavy traffic as a result of the forthcoming elections” he said.’

Election Queue

Inevitable Insurrection
By undermining every potential successor and ensuring that the electoral commission is firmly in his grip, President Museveni has closed most options to a peaceful transfer of power. Even if, by a miracle, he registers defeat at the polls, he still controls the army and police. It’s barely-conceivable that his uniformed thugs will resist his orders to keep him in power. They are already out in force on the streets of Uganda, lending the country an air of martial law, even before there have been any protests.

So, while it’s a bit much to accuse Bobi Wine of being a violent revolutionary, it’s also arguable that he may have little choice.
Journalist-for-hire Andrew Mwenda spells it out in a regime-friendly critique:
” Bobi Wine and those close to him are plotting mass violence if they lose the election. They have convinced themselves that they have already won. That January 14th 2021 will just be a confirmation of this, their victory. They are therefore not ready or willing to accept any outcome other than victory. So they will either have to be declared winners or President Yoweri Museveni will have stolen their votes. And they have decided they will resist such theft by a mass insurrection.”

Museveni supporters

Homosexuality or China?
One of Andrew Mwenda’s key points is that Bobi Wine is an agent of foreign interests, because he has never hidden the fact that he is in talks with overseas supporters of democracy in Uganda. This serves as nationalist, ‘anti-imperialist’ propaganda, with Museveni citing Bobi’s alleged support of homosexuality as an example of how the youthful candidate will sell out the country to perverted foreigners. It also gives the dictator a juicy reason for overturning an adverse result at the polls: if Bobi Wine is an agent of foreign powers, then a coup would in fact be an act of patriotism.
However, it’s gobsmackingly hypocritical for Museveni and his supporters to accuse Bobi Wine of accepting support from international powers. The ruling party has, arguably, only been able to achieve such a substantial hegemony for 35 years by skillfully playing the aid game with the international powers, most notably with the US and EU. Through everything from family planning programmes to the occupation of Somalia, Museveni’s government has taken billions of dollars over the years to execute the wishes of “the international community”. Many of these programmes are laudable, but then who is to say that Bobi Wine’s policies won’t be?

Perhaps the post-election landscape – possibly post-apocalyptic – will usher in a different set of international powers to prop up the regime. China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others have no qualms about autocracy and the abuse of law. China’s “one belt one road” global-transport-infrastructure programme has been imperially implemented in Uganda for well over ten years. For example, China now owns the rights to administer Uganda’s international airport, is currently building the railway infrastructure for the entire region, and has exclusive mining rights across swathes of neighbouring north-eastern Congo. The latter mining operations have been sternly critiqued for their wanton human rights abuses and use of private armies to deter threats to their domination of the mining industry. Whatever the (countless) flaws of the EU/US/UN “international community” may be, the idea of a China-backed authoritarian regime in Uganda is far more worrying to most of the political thinkers I know in Uganda.

Kizza Besigye, rally 2016

Conclusion: Pragmatism, Irony and a Graceful Defeat
If we truly want peace and (eventual) progress to democracy, the best result for the Ugandan elections 2021 would be – ironically – a genuine victory at the polls for Museveni, which allows for as little dispute as possible after the elections. Forgive my pragmatism, but I would go as far as to say that it would be bad thing if Bobi actually gets more votes, because then his frustrated supporters may trigger a period of self-destructive chaos. The ruling party, with the support of the army, will permanently and violently wipe out such a direct, physical revolt. Museveni will mercilessly crush all opposition, exile or imprison Bobi Wine, and spurn the more democratic members of the international community. This is not Libya; the army is loyal to Museveni and there aren’t any democratic jihadists or sympathetic neighbours around to support an uprising. And, who wants another Libya anyway? In the case of such a bloodbath, the international community (I mean the EU & the US) will turn their backs on Museveni, withdraw funding and push him further into the arms of China. This will consign our hopes for a freer Uganda to an early grave.

Ironically then, supporters of long-term democratic growth should pray that Bobi Wine genuinely fails to secure a majority at the polls. A clear win for Museveni will force Bobi and his People Power movement to consolidate their existing power base and plan how to wrest control of the electoral commission, and secure the support of the army and police, in the 2026 elections.

Many of us support and admire Bobi Wine tremendously, which is why we pray he loses decisively and gracefully in the polls tomorrow

Clive Acid
Fort Portal, Uganda
13th January 2021

Picture Credits:
All pictures – except for those of Bobi and Museveni – are taken from the (never-completed) film about the 2016 elections “Tukikole Neera”, which may be found on the YouTube channel of Semulema Daniel Katenda … It is interesting to see how little has changed since the last election.

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