The task of ousting Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s long-serving president was never going to be easy.
But musician Bobi Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, is proving to be a sustained thorn in the side of the 76-year-old, who has been in power since 1986 and is running for a constitutionally dubious sixth term as president of the east African nation.
Since stepping out of the studio and onto the political scene by securing a seat in the national parliament in 2017, Wine has been arrested several times by Ugandan authorities, often on spurious charges.
On the 3rd of November, Wine was arrested in the capital Kampala after submitting his candidacy to run against Museveni in January’s presidential and parliamentary vote. Television footage showed the police dragging him from his car into a van during the incident. Another opposition candidate, Patrick Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was arrested at his party headquarters.
National police spokesman Fred Enanga said Wine was arrested because he had planned to hold an “illegal” rally after his nomination, in contravention of rules put in place by the electoral commission to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In a joint statement issued by security forces, Enanga said: “He was forcefully removed from his vehicle, and a fracas ensued in the process of transferring him to the police vehicle. He was eventually safely delivered to his home.”
The intimidation of opposition candidates has only become worse since the dual arrests in early November, while the latest round of arrests has sparked a wave of violence. First, on the 18th of November, Wine was again arrested in Busoga region for allegedly flouting coronavirus restrictions for rallies that had not even taken place yet.
“The majority of the participants had no safeguards of face masks, physical distancing and proper hygiene,” a police statement said.
The following day, Amuriat of the FDC was arrested by police in the northwestern town of Gulu who blocked him from holding a rally. He was later released but Wine was held for two days until his eventual release on last Friday after being charged for breaching coronavirus guidelines that banned gatherings of more than 200 people. Opposition candidates have accused Museveni of using COVID-19 restrictions to stifle their campaigns; his own supporters have carried out processions without the security forces feeling the urge to intervene.
Wine’s arrest led to days of unrest around the country. Gunfire rang out and demonstrators erected barricades and lit fires on some roads in Kampala, local media reported. Campaign billboards belonging to the incumbent Museveni were demolished by protesters angry at Wine’s arrest, and by the time of his release on bail in the eastern town of Iganga, at least 36 people had been killed with more than 600 arrested.
At play here is a generational divide, playing out on a global stage. Wine, at 38, is exactly half as old as Museveni and has wide support among Uganda’s youth population, especially in urban centres, 70 percent of whom were born after Museveni came to power and have only known one president in 34 years.
The Ugandan establishment sees Wine as a credible opponent to Museveni and has treated him as such, with violent crackdowns orchestrated by the police in conjunction with the military. Wine himself knows the scale of the task ahead of him.
“Running against Museveni is like running against all the institutions of state,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
The crackdowns on opposition candidates are part of “Museveni’s election playbook,” says Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“He [Museveni] used it in past elections to undercut Kizza Besigye, and he has reprised this tactic ahead of the 2021 vote,” Devermont wrote in an email to VICE World News.
“It seems evident that the ruling party regards Bobi Wine as a threat, but the government has shown no compunction about cracking down on Patrick Amuriat, Henry Tumukunde, and even opposition parliamentary candidates.”
For Museveni, this election represents an opportunity to further consolidate his grip on all institutions of the state. Before 2017, candidates older than 75 were barred from running for president in Uganda. But in a show of the overwhelming support he enjoys from a rubber-stamped parliament, an amendment was passed 315-62 to scrap the age limit. It was signed into law by the then 73-year-old Museveni. His party, the National Resistance Movement, unsurprisingly nominated him in July to run as its flagbearer.
Museveni’s constitution-bending ploy is a favourite tactic of authoritarian leaders around the world, and Africa in particular. In 2020 alone, presidents Faure Gnassingbé, Alpha Conde, and Alassane Ouattara of Togo, Guinea and Ivory Coast respectively have all elongated their terms through constitutional changes that fly in the face of democratic values.
2020 has brought large-scale suppression of opposition movements in Africa, setting off fears of a slide in democratic attitudes on the continent. Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu sought refuge in the German embassy in Dar es Salaam before eventually fleeing to Belgium after a contested election on the 28th of October marked by arrests and deaths in opposition strongholds returned President John Magufuli to a second term. In Guinea, former prime minister Cellou Diallo was placed under house arrest after prematurely declaring himself the winner of the October 18 elections in the west African country. And Ouattara won 94 percent of the vote in Ivory Coast after a boycott by the major opposition parties.
In Uganda, the road to the January 14th election continues. It remains to be seen if this will be Wine’s last arrest before the votes are cast. If the prelude to the elections has been anything to go by, a free and fair ballot is almost certainly impossible, said Devermont.
“The pre-election harassment and detention of candidates and their supporters almost certainly preclude a positive judgment on this upcoming vote.”