Tensions are rising as Uganda gears up for elections. Long-time President Museveni changed the constitution to run again. His rival Bobi Wine faces repeated arrest. Experts warn that the violence won't stop at the polls.
Singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine is openly critical of Uganda's leadership and has been arrested multiple times
Opposition leader Bobi Wine, whose full name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, on Wednesday said on Twitter that he was arrested along with his campaign team in Kalangala, central Uganda.
A bodyguard for Wine was the latest victim of deadly violence in the weeks before presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for January 14. Two journalists were also wounded in the confrontations on Sunday between security forces and followers of the singer and lawmaker at a campaign rally in central Uganda.
Violence in Uganda escalated after Wine was arrested and released on bail in November. At least 50 people have been killed in countrywide protests. Chances for a peaceful election look slim.
"It is possible to prevent violence, but I don't see a willingness from the different parties to prevent it. The discussions that would have defused the situation are not taking place," Fred Muhumuza, development policy analyst and lecturer at the School of Economics at Uganda's Makerere University, told DW.
Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo recently promised "that this government will ensure that the election will be tranquil." Ugandans do not seem reassured.
Susan Okedi, a resident of the capital, Kampala, told DW that she is planning to move back to her village until after the polls. "Everybody is thinking of vacating the city and of vacating their homes, because people are in fear," she said.
Electoral authorities on Saturday banned campaign events in some urban areas, including Kampala, citing the need to control the spread of the coronavirus. The decision was seen by critics as a ploy to keep the opposition from campaigning in areas where the ruling party National Resistance Movement (NRM) is not popular.
"The COVID pandemic is being used as an excuse to curtail fundamental rights and freedoms," said activist Nicholas Opiyo. The award-winning lawyer and human rights defender spoke with DW before his own arrest last week on what his supporters believe are trumped-up charges of money laundering. His detention is part of a campaign of repression against government opponents and the media ahead of the elections. It specifically targets National Union Platform leader Bobi Wine, who has emerged as the president's most serious challenger. The 38-year-old has mobilized the country's youth by demanding more democracy and better economic prospects.
Museveni has no intention to relinquish power to a new generation. In April 2019, the 76-year-old had the Constitutional Court abolish an age limit for the presidency so he could run again.
"I think he would probably like to continue to be president of Uganda until he is deceased of natural causes," Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House told DW.
Museveni most likely to win
Surveys show that Museveni's reelection is not at risk. He has wide support in rural areas, especially among the older generation, who associate him with the stability he brought to the country after the bloody upheavals before 1986. Museveni has also invested heavily in the country's infrastructure, and his fight against the COVID pandemic is perceived as successful.
Why, then, has the regime reacted so fiercely to Bobi Wine?
"Museveni isn't used to tight competition. And I think he's worried that his majority is significantly declining," said analyst Vines. An electoral runoff seems unlikely at this point. "I think Museveni will win. But I guess next time he will have to become even more repressive, at least if he wants to claim a victory through official ballot numbers," Vines said.
Any pressure by the international community on Museveni to stop the violence has been very discreet. The European Union did announce that it would not send electoral observers. It cited the COVID pandemic, Kampala's failure to issue an invitation and a dearth of necessary reforms over the past 15 years as reasons for not doing so.
World keeps its distance
Apart from being distracted by other pressing matters, especially the pandemic, the West is wary about what a change of power might mean for the region. Uganda has not seen a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Britain in 1962.
What is more, the opposition has failed to explain its agenda beyond domestic issues, said analyst Fred Muhumuza.
"They have not really put out what could be their foreign policy, what is going to be their security policy. They seem to be riding the sentiments of the youth about jobs, about economic opportunities, human rights. But the global public is looking at many other dimensions. And I think Museveni still has an edge over his competitors there as far as foreign powers are concerned," he said.
Apprehensive long-serving leaders
Neighbors in the Great Lakes Region are following events in Uganda more closely. For them, too, stability seems to be the priority.
"We haven't had good relations with Rwanda, so it may well be watching to see if the tables turn on Museveni." Muhumuza said. But although the Kigali government under President Paul Kagame might want Museveni to leave, "they know better what will likely come out here, so they may not be as excited at this point to actually see Museveni go," he added.
President Museveni and his Great Lakes region counterparts Paul Kagame of Rwanda (top right) and the Felix Tshisekedi of Democratic Republic of Congo (top left), pictured with Angolan leader Joao Lourenco (bottom left)
Alex Vines concurs: "Historically, leaders of the Great Lakes region have been tilting towards becoming long-standing leaders. Mr. Kagame in neighboring Rwanda is an example of that."
The mobilization of the young and their growing demands for change in Uganda, which have significantly increased domestic pressure on Museveni, might be alerting those long-time leaders to their own potential vulnerability.
Frank Yiga (in Kampala) contributed to this article