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Uganda's unequal political campaigns

Martina Schwikowski
August 8, 2020

Elections in Uganda are scheduled for early 2021, and President Yoweri Museveni hopes for a sixth term in office. In a DW interview, his challenger Bobi Wine accuses the government of obstructing his election campaign.

Bildergalerie Persönlichkeiten 2020 | Bobi Wine
Image: Getty Images/L. Dray

Bobi Wine defiantly wears his trademark red beret in front of the cameras. Since 2019, only Ugandan soldiers can have this headgear. But that doesn't appear to interest the pop star and current opposition presidential candidate.

In a TV interview with DW, Bobi Wine gives the impression of a self-confident politician. He wants to defeat President Yoweri Museveni in the election planned for February 2021. The 38-year-old, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, describes Museveni's government as a dictatorship, and himself as extremely capable of succeeding the 75-year-old political leader.

But Museveni, who has ruled for 34 years has thwarted the opposition: Political rallies are now forbidden in Uganda. The official reason: the spread of the coronavirus has to be limited. The candidates must now campaign for votes by leaflet, radio, TV, or on the internet. Yet, this is a difficult undertaking because incumbent Museveni exerts great influence on the mass media.

Media to shape Uganda's election

Wine told DW that he got to feel this himself during a radio interview appointment he recently had: "When I tried to enter the radio station, the media building was surrounded by the army, and the soldiers began to beat my companions."

Read more: Uganda police break up rally, arrest opposition figure Bobi Wine

Allegations of police harassment

DW correspondent Alex Gitta is familiar with such incidents in Uganda: "When Bobi Wine appears on radio stations, many follow him on their Boda-Bodas [local motorcycle taxis]. The fans also often wait in front of the media houses to cheer him on. The police then intervene to stop them."

Uganda Police quell a protest in the capital Kampala
Uganda's police oftens targets Bobi Wine's supporters in the streets of KampalaImage: Reuters/Stringer

According to Gitta, booking airtime with private media is also expensive, and state broadcasters do not broadcast debates with the opposition. It is also difficult for opposition politicians like Wine to gain traction on the internet.

"Many of his supporters cannot buy data packages to follow his messages on the net," Gitta said.

Read more: Ugandan journalists 'assaulted by security forces' amid coronavirus lockdowns

Museveni's free-for-all airtime

In contrast to Wine and others, Museveni's ruling NRM party has a series of real advantages. "There is even a rule that presidential speeches must be broadcast live by all radio and television stations. So, Museveni has a lot of airtime to himself," Gitta said.

Analysts accuse the ruling party of using public funds to finance its political activities in the country. It was only a few days ago that they officially nominated Museveni as a candidate for the elections.

Ugandan police with riot gear.
For now, the political situation in Uganda is calm but could change ahead of the 2021 electionImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Kasamani

Meanwhile, charismatic pop star Bobi Wine belongs to Africa's younger generation of leaders and influencers, which tries to challenge long-term rulers like Museveni. Wine, who likes to spread his political messages in his music lyrics, is particularly popular with young people; Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world: 77 percent of the country are under the age of 25.

With his youthful approach and uncompromising attitude, Wine won a seat in parliament in 2017 as an independent candidate.

Voter disenfranchisement

The government has, however, made sure it could throw a spanner in the works for young voters especially: voter registration ended in December 2019 already, and people who have come of age since then will not be able to vote in the February 2021 elections. According to estimates, this could affect around one million people.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni
President Yoweri Museveni is running for a sixth termImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Novoderezhkin

Bobi Wine is nevertheless working determinedly towards the election date next year. He already has plans laid out for his potential term as president: "My team and I want to reintroduce the rule of law in Uganda, including respect for human rights," Wine said in the DW interview, adding that the health sector urgently needed to be improved.

Read more: Uganda blocks a million first-time voters

Wine has promised to overcome ethnic divisions in Uganda and unite the country. But he has made little progress so far: Talks to unite the divided opposition against Museveni have failed so far.

DW correspondent Gitta says that the situation in the country largely remains calm. But that could change: "If the opposition is not given the opportunity to make its messages public, it will certainly become rebellious, and then the police and army will intervene."

Bobi Wine on Uganda elections