Uganda’s election: murder, media censorship and vote-rigging

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentTuesday 6 April 2021

A repressive regime and faltering economy have made Uganda a cause for concern for some time. January’s election suggests the country has hit a new low.

Header pic: A woman walks past elections posters of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, Uganda, 12 January 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

‘It was one of the worst-rigged elections I have seen in Africa’, says Ray Hartley, research director of the Johannesburg-based think tank, The Brenthurst Foundation. The election, he says, comprised a period of serious repression.

He was referring to the Ugandan election in January, which returned the ageing Yoweri Museveni to power. Museveni has run the country since 1986 with increasing repression as the economy has declined and its large youth population has become increasingly disaffected.

In order to keep himself in power and deal with a new and young ‘upstart’ opposition leader, Robert Kyagulanyi – a former singer better known as Bobi Wine – Museveni resorted to violence, shutting down the media and, according to some with access to videos, ordering soldiers to stuff ballot boxes, effectively ensuring the outcome of the vote count. And, due to the internet blackout, the vote count could not be checked.

Neither Museveni nor the African Union appear interested in Uganda’s growth, development, stability or its citizens’ human rights; only in Museveni’s rights

William Gumede
Associate professor, University of the Witwatersrand

According to Hartley, who had conducted an extensive interview with Wine, at least 54 people were killed, and Wine was physically attacked and placed under house arrest with soldiers surrounding the house until the courts intervened. The media was effectively muzzled, the internet shut down and Covid restrictions used for added measure to quell any signs of a nascent uprising.

To be sure, Wine would have posed a genuine threat to Museveni’s rule as a democratic candidate in a democratically run genuine multiparty election. He may well have actually won the election and has said that he did, claiming he will now fight the outcome through the courts. His party now is the largest opposition party in parliament, with Kampala having been won by the opposition.

In a recent interview on South Africa’s state broadcasting corporation, the SABC, Wine described his treatment at the hands of the security forces and forced house arrest. His description of the outcome of the election was to state that the election results were announced first, then the counting began with the aim of matching the results.

Earlier on in the run-up to the election, the statutory body controlling the media, The Media Council, ordered local and overseas journalists to be registered and accredited through the Council. This included foreign journalists previously accredited by the Council, which used security forces to ensure adherence to the directive.

This was challenged in the Ugandan High Court in Kampala by way of an application to review the moves and, on 18 January, four days after the election, the directives were quashed by the court largely as being ‘illegal and irrational’ and the court issued a permanent injunction aimed at stopping the security forces from enforcing the original directive.

This, however, did not stop the security forces from ensuring that journalists came nowhere near Wine’s home until the courts ordered the forces to leave the homestead area, leaving Wine under house arrest instead. Ironically, the road leading to Wine’s homestead is called Freedom Drive.

‘The internet shutdown definitely affected the media’s ability to promptly report the elections, especially from the 13th to the 18th, and there is widespread speculation that election fraud happened in this darkness and now we are seeing videos coming through on vote stuffing’, said Catherine Anite, a human rights advocate and freedom of expression expert. She added that if there had been a free and fair election it was possible that Bobi Wine could have won – or at least stopped the present incumbent from the 50 plus one majority needed to assume power.

It was not only journalists who were stopped from witnessing and reporting on the election. Official foreign observers from different Western countries, as well as the Commonwealth, were not given permission to observe officially. Museveni presumably knew well that the African Union, which was permitted to observe, at the moment under the chairmanship of South Africa, would not be likely to criticise the election. It has, in fact, remained totally silent.

‘There were no independent observers and severe limitations placed on those allowed. The United States pulled out of observing’, said Hartley.

There was, in addition, no social media to expose any problems, he noted.

Social media had been stopped by the government before it shut down the internet.

Museveni’s descent into election-winning by deception and violence has not always been the case. When he came to power, he was viewed by many as having brought peace to the countryside which had been plagued by years of insurgencies from, among others, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The West, seeing an ally who may bring stability to the region, support the country with foreign aid. And there are some, notably those who have benefitted from the stability and patronage, who still support him, said Hartley; but not the youth nor urban areas. Uganda receives $1bn in foreign aid annually.

Wine’s supporters are the youth of the country, of which some 700,000-reach working age annually and of those only jobs for 75,000 are created. They are largely in urban areas as opposed to Museveni’s base which tends to be rural and older.

Asked about Wine, his policies and his demeanour, Hartley said he was ‘young and very thoughtful’ and not a populist. He is also religious. ‘He is, essentially, the voice of the youth’. He dons a red beret emulated by his followers, forging a strong visual identity. This has been noticed by the ruling party which has reportedly threatened to ban red berets.

There is large-scale unemployment and Museveni’s ability to lend stability to the country and the region, according to Hartley, is wearing thin.

Describing some of the abuses used by security forces in the run up to the election, Hartley said Covid-19 virus regulations were used to ban rallies and other gatherings. Any attempt to gather was met with tear gas and bullets resulting in the deaths of some 54 people.

In a scathing column in South Africa’s largest newspaper The Sunday Times, William Gumede, who is a well-known commentator as well as associate professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, reported that Museveni tried to get Google to block Wine’s YouTube channel. ‘He used new facial-recognition technology from Chinese company Huawei to identify protesters, then arrested critics and opponents.’

‘He appointed “cadre judges” to rule in his favour’, said Gumede. He also wrote: ‘Neither Museveni nor the African Union appear interested in Uganda’s growth, development, stability or its citizens’ human rights; only in Museveni’s rights.’

This recent election may be over, but the likelihood is that Bobi Wine’s evident popularity will not easily wane. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the newly elected president will continue to crack down on human rights.

Pat Sidley is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at pattykate@icon.co.za