Counting is underway in Uganda’s much-anticipated election that pits the 76-year-old former rebel president against a so-called “ghetto president” half his age. With official results not expected until Saturday, the main opposition candidate for president, Bobi Wine, is already declaring victory.
President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986, and the majority of citizens can’t remember a time before he was in control of their country.
In contrast Wine is a former popstar who grew up in a Kampala slum. He self-styled as the “ghetto president” for years, before entering politics.
His success is inspiring for many young Ugandans – particularly those from impoverished backgrounds, who say he understands what it is like to constantly hustle and struggle to survive.
“We’re in this ghetto. I’ve never seen any government project,” said Ekinu Samuel, a 29-year-old who lives in Namuwongo, one of Kampala’s largest slums. “The government doesn’t support us. Everything we do for ourselves. We have so many talents. We are poor, we have no income. We are also hungry.”
Sandwiched between two of Kampala’s richest neighbourhoods - Muyenga and Bugolobi – Namuwongo’s young people have no social security net, no government assistance and little hope that things will get better.
Tens of thousands of people live in Namuwongo. Most homes don’t have their own toilets, and it costs 200 Ugandan shillings (about 5p) to go to a public one.
The river is essentially a sewer, but children tread carefully through the water, looking for plastic bottles they can sell for recycling. Others play with garbage strewn across the ground. There has been an outbreak of cholera before, because of the poor hygiene, and “people were dying like flies,” one young man said.
These days, people are afraid to talk freely, citing hassle from the police when they openly support the opposition. They mention friends who disappeared after going to work on political campaigns, where they hoped to earn a small bit of money.
Uganda - an East African country of roughly 44 million people - is a gerontocracy: it is run by the elderly, yet has a median age of 16. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 13.3 percent of young people are unemployed - one of the highest levels in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. Each year, around 700,000 more young people reach working age, while only 75,000 jobs are created.
In a nationally televised speech on Tuesday, Museveni displayed a Bloomberg chart showing that Uganda was one of the world’s five fastest-growing economies in 2020. But young people in Kampala’s slums feel neglected.
A 2017 Oxfam report found that Uganda has experienced “growth with exclusion”, where relatively few people enjoy the benefits of economic improvement. That year, the richest 10 percent of Uganda’s population earned 35.7 percent of its national income, while the poorest 20 percent earned only 5.8 percent. “Those at the bottom are on a downward poverty spiral,” the report read.
Museveni, his family, and officials from his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, have been accused of enriching themselves while failing to protect the most vulnerable. The opposition has even accused the government of keeping Ugandans poor on purpose.
In an interview with VICE World News last August, opposition politician and Wine supporter Francis Zaake, 29, said it means people are easier to control when elections come around. “This is deliberate,” Zaake said. “It is intended that people be in poverty, so that in the times of campaigns, they are able to bribe them, they are able to buy them off using small staffs, using small foodstuffs, for example. They can use sugar, they use salt. They use so many small items.”
Locals in Namuwongo confirmed elections are a chance to get money from candidates, who are effectively buying votes. “They give you 20,000 Ugandan shillings (about £4) or 30,000 (about £6) and then don’t come back until the next election,” one young man said.
In the meantime, Namuwongo’s residents say they see no investment or improvement.
“They embezzle the money that should have been used for the benefit of the youths,” said Tukahirwa Daniel, a 40-year-old musician born and raised in Namuwongo, whose stage name is Trggo Man.
He said locals try to start their own projects to improve the slum, but they don’t last long because of a lack of support.
“If you can make money you will not go on the streets to snatch people’s phones, to snatch people’s laptops.” Much “evil” will come in the future, if young people continue to be ignored, and grow up uneducated and without opportunities, he speculated. Many children can’t attend school because of the cost of fees and other related expenses.
In an attempt to keep young men busy and away from crime, a boxing club was set up. They train outside, holding matches in a field with sticks and string to mark out the boxing ring. Sometimes, boxers get bitten by snakes. A football team trains beside them, in an uneven field with long grass and garbage everywhere.
Nambasa Ajara, 24, speaking before Thursday’s election, said she wouldn’t vote, because her national ID card was never issued. “We want jobs, we want to work. Life is not OK,” she said.
She is married and has two children. Her husband works unloading trucks in the industrial area, but they live hand to mouth, she said.
Over the past few decades, Ugandans have arrived in Namuwongo from across the country. A large number escaped the former war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the country’s north. Their children have known poverty but relative peace.
The current government has latched onto this, arguing that chaos will result if Wine is elected, but that’s not enough to convince most people here.
Working in a small kiosk down the back of the slum was Ali Awadhi, 28, the only Museveni supporter that VICE World News met in Namuwongo.
His rationale for voting for Museveni was that he worried about Wine’s inexperience. “Bobi Wine has just started. Better to go with the one who’s been there [a long time],” Awadhi said. “[Wine] is a musician. He may change his mind again and leave politics.”
Wine himself handed out as much as a quarter of a million dollars while touring Kampala’s slums in 2018, according to media reports from the time.
“Young people need to live in a country where there is equality, go to hospitals that have medicines, where children go to school and find teachers who are well paid and in time,” Wine said more recently, while campaigning. “I’m going to represent that young man who rides a boda boda [motorcycle taxi] but is arrested daily, I’m going to represent the youth in the ghetto. No one will rule Uganda for more than two terms. Museveni will be the last dictator we have.”
Walking around Namuwongo slum, where he has lived his whole life, Samuel pointed out the things he would like to see added or improved. A toilet by the riverbank, so people could use that instead of polluting the river. Some chicken and goat-rearing businesses, that could be run communally, helping whoever was in need. A rickety bridge, that looked ready to collapse at any moment, needed to be replaced so no one fell into the water.
“We are fighting for each other. We need support,” he said. “We have grown up seeing one president, we’d also like to see another.”