Four days after controversial elections in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s regime has settled into a recurring pattern of repression. How might a beleaguered opposition respond?
New day, same old story in Uganda. Four days after presidential elections, and two after Yoweri Museveni was controversially declared the winner, the regime has settled on a recurring pattern of repression.
Today Kizza Besigye, the opposition figurehead, was again detained by police, for at least the fourth time in a week (or maybe the sixth – it depends on how you count). Meanwhile the headquarters of his party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was raided for the second time. Besigye and his supporters continue to denounce the results as a ‘sham’, while Museveni pours scorn on election observers, attacks independent newspapers, and settles in for a thirty-first year in power.
Something is shifting in Ugandan politics, and the ruling regime is nervous. Nobody knows whether Besigye would have won a free and fair election, but his rallies drew massive support – especially in cities, like Kampala, that are potential centres of unrest. In urban areas, Museveni’s power rests increasingly on coercion.
In the short-term, there are two thrusts of the regime’s strategy. The first is to create an atmosphere of intimidation that keeps people off the streets, with truckloads of armed men deployed around the capital. The second is to prevent the opposition from gathering evidence of vote-rigging, which could be used to challenge the result in the courts. Under Ugandan law, the opposition has ten days to file a formal complaint; two have already passed. Beyond that the result is legally set in stone.
Besigye was arrested as he left his house this morning, making it barely further than his driveway before being seized by police. He had earlier pledged to march on the offices of the Electoral Commission and demand copies of official results declaration forms. The Commission is widely seen as biased – European Union observers have said that it ‘lacks independence, transparency and trust’ – and the opposition have been attempting to collate their own version of results.
Kizza Besigye had been under house arrest since Friday, when he was arrested at his party’s headquarters. On Saturday he released a statement in which he described the electoral process as ‘a creeping military coup’, calling on Ugandans and the international community to reject the results. He has called for peaceful protests, but Museveni today said that his long-term rival ‘wanted to cause violence’.
A security agent also pepper-sprayed a journalist at the scene of Besigye’s arrest. Museveni had yesterday described journalists at the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s leading independent newspaper, as ‘traitors’ who ‘put Besigye on top of me’.
Besigye was taken to Naggalama police station, some 24 miles (38km) north-east of Kampala, where he is still being held. Meanwhile the Electoral Commission, his intended destination, was guarded by some fifty armed police officers and two armoured trucks. A line of riot police stood in front of a mural which read: ‘Electing your leaders is a fundamental human right.’
‘Right is on our side,’ said Mugisha Muntu, President of the FDC, sitting on a wall outside the party headquarters this afternoon. Twenty minutes before, police had raided the FDC offices, arresting eight activists who had been collating results data. Muntu urged the people to stay peaceful, but also to ‘remain firm’, believing that ‘if we remain steadfast, we will break the arrogance of this regime’.
Like many in the opposition, Muntu is a former ally of Museveni, serving for nine years as head of the Ugandan army before losing faith in the government. He was himself arrested on Friday, alongside Besigye and other party leaders. But repression would not work, he said. ‘[The leaders of the ruling NRM] are diminishing further and further whatever support they had in the country.’
A team of EU election observers later arrived to meet FDC leaders. ‘As you can see, we are under siege,’ they were told by party chairman Wasswa Birigwa, another disillusioned Museveni ally who crossed to the opposition last year.
The observers listened patiently as the FDC leaders denounced the conduct of the election. ‘We reject Mr Museveni as our president,’ said Ingrid Turinawe, an influential figure in the campaign. ‘He’s not president of Uganda and we will defy [his rule].’ She listed irregularities in the electoral process, from voting delays to unusual turnouts, claiming that the FDC had its own results: ‘We will be revealing them to the public very soon.’
And so there is stalemate: the opposition denouncing the elections as a fraud, while the government repeatedly arrests its leaders and intimidates its supporters. Faced with overwhelming force, the opposition seems to have few options. How might it respond in the coming weeks?
One option is to go to the courts, a strategy tried by Besigye after elections in 2001 and 2006. On both of those occasions the Supreme Court ruled that the contest was flawed, but allowed the result to stand by a slim majority (3-2 in 2001 and 4-3 in 2006). Besigye subsequently lost faith in the courts, deeming the process a waste of time; before this election he stated that he would not take the legal route again. In recent days, however, there are signs that the FDC is at least considering a petition, which would have to be filed within ten days of the result.
A second option is to go to the streets. That would seem to be Besigye’s preferred approach, evoked by his rhetoric of ‘defiance’ and today’s abortive march to the Electoral Commission. At pre-election rallies there was fighting talk from his supporters, with many saying they are ‘ready to die’. But so far there has been little sign of mobilisation on the streets, with police and soldiers quick to pounce upon any dissent.
It may be that the opposition pursues both options at the same time. A key figure here could be Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who ran against Museveni in this election. Mbabazi only polled 1.4% of the vote, but has dismissed the result as ‘fundamentally flawed’. He lacks Besigye’s popular appeal, but may choose to bring a court case while the FDC leader takes to the streets.
It could take time before discontent makes itself felt. The opposition is in shock, and its supporters despondent: resignation, rather than anger, is the dominant mood. The FDC is not only winded, it is being held to the floor, and it will take time before it can get back on its feet. In 2011 demonstrations did not materialise until a couple of months after elections, when soaring inflation (caused in part by a pre-election spending splurge) led to ‘Walk-to-Work’ protests, orchestrated by Besigye.
Inflation is not at the level of 2011, when it hit 30%, but is still high: in January, the year-on-year figure stood at 7.6%, despite falling oil prices. Joblessness is also a problem, especially among the youth. Election spending is part of the picture, but so too is a difficult international climate: a recent interest rate rise in the US has led African currencies to tumble, pushing up the cost of imported goods (the Ugandan shilling has fallen by a quarter against the dollar since mid-2014). ‘A chapati used to cost 100 shillings, now it costs 500’, complains Richard, a boda-boda (motorbike) driver in Jinja, echoing a common complaint.
The task for the opposition is to take those prosaic frustrations and weld them onto more abstract concepts of rights, justice, and democracy – the language that comes most readily to Besigye, who describes himself as a ‘human rights and pro-democracy activist’. If they can do so, a repeat of the 2011 protests seems a possibility.
If Besigye supporters do take to the streets, Museveni will fall back on his control of the armed forces. The modern army evolved from the guerilla force which Museveni led in the ‘bush war’ that brought him to power. It has historically been fiercely loyal to its commander-in-chief.
But in some places the rank-and-file lean towards Besigye. Official results from Makindye barracks, a major military installation in Kampala, showed Besigye voters outnumbering Museveni’s by two-to-one. There are similar reports from Gulu, a town in the north that was the centre of the army’s long struggle with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
Museveni keeps a firm grip on the army command. A dissident general, David Sejusa, was arrested two weeks before the election, and remains in prison (see ‘Power Play’, 11 February). When Aronda Nyakairima, a former army chief, died of a heart attack last year there were unsubstantiated murmurings that he had been murdered. Even this week there were rumours, quickly scotched, that the current army chief, Edward Katumba Wamala, had been briefly arrested – something the general himself denied, but which is believed by many in the opposition.
In extreme circumstances Museveni will rely on his Presidential Guard, an elite unit some 10,000 strong and commanded by his own son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Widely feared, these troops personally serve Museveni, rather than the Ugandan state – they are his backstop in case of internal unrest.
It is unlikely to come to that. On the evidence of the last couple of days, the might of the Ugandan state will hold strong against popular disaffection. Many dislike Museveni – they openly describe his regime as a ‘dictatorship’ – but the risks of public protest are too high.
In the short-term, there may be more Groundhog Days in Uganda, as Besigye is whisked through an endless cycle of detentions. But the next five years could see unprecedented challenges to Museveni’s regime, as Uganda’s youthful multitudes – 78% of the population is under thirty – struggle to make their voices heard. We could be in for more of the same in 2021: Museveni v Besigye, round five. But don’t count on it.