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Museveni isn’t worried about winning the election, but about what comes next

COMMENT

Anyone betting against Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni clinching a sixth term in next year’s election is a careless gambler. He is going to win.

The benefit of incumbency, plus his tentacular grip on the country’s institutions of power, will make victory certain months before the votes are cast. Over more than three decades in power, he has become an expert in manipulating the ballot box to swat away challengers.

But he has faced no one like Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, who is running for president under the auspices of the National Unity Party.

The 38-year-old musician-turned-politician has got Museveni panicking. The tactics that worked against previous opponents — arrest, detention, trumped-up treason charges, intimidation — have just made Bobi Wine even more popular, especially among the burgeoning urban youth.

And it is that constituency that is giving the ageing president nightmares.

Museveni has been unpopular in Uganda’s urban areas for several years. It is the rural areas — the rural population makes up more than 70% of the country — that remain a bastion of Museveni’s support. Whether it’s by coercion, consent or clientelism, it has sustained his long rule. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that rural support alone can no longer guarantee survival for dictatorial regimes. 

A common thread runs through successful revolutions in recent years, both on the African continent and around the world: the mobilisation of urban youth against authoritarian dictatorships.

Look at Mali earlier this year, where an overwhelmingly youthful population drove the massive demonstrations against the president, prompting a military intervention; or Sudan last year, where young people underpinned the neighbourhood resistance committees, in cities and towns across the country, that played such a crucial role in the downfall of Omar al-Bashir.

Currently, in Belarus, the protests against Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, were initially dominated by urban youth before expanding to the rest of the country.

So even if Museveni wins the next election comfortably, he still needs to reckon with seething resentment in the country’s major cities. History tells us that this is likely to boil over in the wake of the vote: there were protests after the elections in both 2011 and 2016. 

It is clear that Museveni is already preparing for a turbulent post-2021 election. There has been a mass recruitment of local defence units, armed civil defence militias that are infamous for their brutality. 

The Public Management Act already limits public protests, and Covid-19 restrictions further limit gatherings. Tight restrictions on social media make it more difficult for citizens to organise.

Of course, Museveni has plenty of experience when it comes to squashing protest movements. However, these have a funny way of opening up new political opportunities. 

For example, the 2011 “walk to work” protests — spearheaded by the losing presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye — inspired new challengers such as former prime minister Amama Mbabazi. And Bobi Wine, even if he loses, carries even greater sway.

But the real threat for Museveni — and, ultimately, for Bobi Wine and his supporters — may come from elsewhere.

In both Mali and Sudan, protests against the incumbent autocrat inspired a far more dangerous opponent: the generals. Ultimately, it was senior military figures in both countries who hijacked the urban protests and seized control for themselves. 

It is this scenario that will be keeping Museveni — who  seized power after a military coup removed the previous government — awake at night. If Bobi Wine mobilises his urban constituency to take to the streets, this may give Museveni’s generals the opportunity they need to seize power. And if Uganda has learned one thing from Museveni’s long rule, it is that generals do not make good democratic presidents.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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