The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uganda’s election shapes up as a contest of young vs. old

Posters of Bobi Wine, a musician who became an opposition leader, in Kampala, Uganda, on Jan. 4. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)

KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda is an overwhelmingly young country, led by a 76-year-old seeking a sixth term as president.

Two-thirds of registered voters are younger than 30, which means Yoweri Museveni has led Uganda for their whole lives. His main challenger in Thursday’s election is a 38-year-old musician who was a toddler when Museveni took power as leader of an armed rebellion.

And so the contest between the grandfatherly incumbent and the spindly singer-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, has come to embody the most essential of democratic divides: change vs. stability, idealism vs. wisdom, the frustrated young vs. the fearful old.

Who wins may come down to how many young people buy into Museveni’s warnings that a vote against him is a vote for destabilization. His speeches play up his government’s slow but steady progress on economic development and portray Wine as a candidate of chaos.

“Even though the country is stable, young people do not have jobs,” said Ampaire Emmanuel, a 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver. “Our challenges are many, and we hope that when there is a change in government things will get better.”

While about 700,000 young people reach working age every year in Uganda, only 75,000 jobs are created on average, according to the World Bank.

But the outcome also hinges on whether Wine and his supporters can withstand the repressive tactics Museveni’s security forces have unleashed in recent months that may escalate as election day nears.

Since announcing his candidacy, Wine has been arrested three times, as have at least 600 attendees of his rallies. Police say they violated pandemic protocols against large gatherings. His bodyguard was killed, his lawyer arrested, reporters who cover his campaign have had their accreditation revoked, and after Wine’s second arrest, protests were met with bullets and at least 54 were killed.

It isn’t the first time Wine, whose official name is Robert Kyagulanyi, has faced violence since becoming a member of parliament in 2017. A year after that win, he sought medical treatment in the United States after he said he was tortured by the Ugandan military while in custody following a scuffle at a political rally in which his driver was fatally shot. Military officials did not comment at the time, but Museveni said that Wine had been “beaten properly, in the right way.” 

Wine’s home and offices have repeatedly been sealed off by police, and his rallies dispersed even before the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are replacing a dictator” is Wine’s campaign refrain. Museveni counters that he has won all his elections fair and square, and that the Ugandan people revere him as a leader of an armed movement that freed them from Idi Amin and Milton Obote, the dictators who preceded him.

In 2005, Museveni had the constitution amended to do away with term limits, as he approached the end of his second term. The most recent election he presided over, in 2016, was roundly deemed unfair by observers because of intimidation tactics and widespread ballot irregularities. And in 2017, he pushed through a law that removed an age limit of 75 for the role of president, even as an Afrobarometer poll that year found that three-quarters of respondents opposed the move.

“Museveni does not understand what our aspirations are as young people and generally as citizens,” said Saasi Marvin, a leader in the youth wing of Wine’s National Unity Platform party. “We have reached a point where no matter how diligently you work, you will find that you cannot achieve success because of the presence of bad governance in Uganda.”

About 80 percent of the country’s population is younger than 30, and most of these young Ugandans are unemployed or getting by with odd jobs.

That sluggish growth doesn’t bother everyone. Given Uganda’s tumultuous past, including the war in which Museveni won to take power, some see the current state of the country as evidence of hard-fought stability.

“That entitlement of being young does not mean that you can run a country,” said Moses Ssali, 43, better known as Bebe Cool, another singer whose father ran against Museveni in 2011. He now backs Museveni’s reelection bid, and in October, he released a campaign song titled “I Will Vote For Him Again.”

“Yes, there’s a lack of employment, but that’s standard in every country, most especially a country like ours that comes from civil wars,” he said. “You can’t talk about Uganda’s economy, lack of infrastructure, hospitals and forget why we are there.” 

In many African countries, however, leaders with liberation bona fides have argued that stability trumps democracy. Leaders of Museveni’s generation across the continent have done away with term and age limits, or otherwise held on to power through force.

Decades in power have allowed time to build deep networks of patronage.

“Because of that, there are many people in Uganda who look at Museveni and the National Resistance Movement and say, this is our shot at the future,” said Godber Tumushabe, executive director at Kampala’s Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies. “They control state resources, they control jobs, and therefore if I hang around and vote for the NRM, I’m likely to get something for myself.”

During Museveni’s time in power, Uganda’s poverty rate has fallen from about 60 percent to just below 20 percent, but joblessness and sluggish development of public services have left many young people feeling stifled.

“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 in a recent campaign speech. “I’m going to represent that young man who rides a boda boda 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.”

Bobi Wine grew up poor — raised at first by a single mother, and then after she died, his older brother. He first made a living singing love songs, but after a military officer slapped him one night, he changed his tune to focusing on social justice.

Police brutality has featured prominently in Wine’s campaign, while Museveni has emphasized his military background.

Museveni’s decades in power have been bolstered by consistent support from the U.S. government, which despite admonishing him over allegations of abuse of power, gives about $750 million annually to Uganda in aid, including military training and support. Uganda also supplies thousands of troops to the ongoing African Union mission in Somalia, where they cooperate with U.S.-trained troops as the main force protecting civilians from al-Shabab, a militant group linked to al-Qaeda that controls most of the country’s rural areas.

Museveni launched a rebellion from neighboring Tanzania in 1971 that ultimately led to his overthrow of the government. He still harks back to that period in his speeches.

“I’m the head of the bush warfighters,” he said during his annual New Year’s address. “We cannot allow the revolution of the people to be destroyed by crooks.”

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