Uganda's opposition fights on 

| NewsAfrica | Politics

Mass arrests, killings and an internet blackout overshadowed Uganda’s presidential poll. But, as Zachary Ochieng reports, the opposition hasn’t given up the fight yet.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni won a historic sixth term in office in January’s controversial elections, garnering 5.85 million votes (58 per cent), against his closest challenger Robert Kyagulanyi, who won 3.48 million votes or 34 per cent of the ballot.

The 38-year-old former pop-star turned opposition leader, who goes by the stage name Bobi Wine, described the January 14 poll as ‘the most fraudulent election in the history of Uganda’.

His chief agent, Benjamin Katana, went even further, describing the poll as a ‘coup’ against the Ugandan people.

The vote took place against the backdrop of the bloodiest campaign in years, during which the National Unity Platform leader and other opposition figures were detained by police.

There were also attacks on the media, a nationwide internet blackout, and at least 54 people were killed by security services in November while protesting the arrests of opposition candidates.

Meanwhile, the European Union’s offer to deploy electoral experts was turned down by the Ugandan government.

The US was also forced to called off its observer mission after Ugandan officials refused to accredit several members of its team ahead of the poll, and there were several arrests of independent monitors during campaigning.

‘The entire process has been conducted in the dark and it lacks transparency,’ Katana said.

‘From the beginning, we were assured by the Electoral Commission that each candidate or their agents will receive copies of the results from the districts before they are transmitted to the national tally centre, so we are able to verify when they are reading here – and that was not done.’

Kyagulanyi, who remained under house arrest and heavy military guard even as the results of the election were being announced, said he had video evidence of electoral fraud, promising he would share the footage with the nation.

He galvanized the youth in one of the world’s youngest nations, where the median age is 16.

Seventy-eight per cent of Ugandans are under the age of 35, meaning they were born after Museveni came to power.

Kyagulani himself is half Museveni’s age and called for change while pledging to end dictatorship and corruption.

Affectionately referred to as the ‘ghetto president’, the opposition leader became an East African music icon in the early 2000s before switching to politics and winning a parliamentary seat in 2017.

Despite missing out on the top job, Kyagulanyi managed to claim several high-profile scalps in the January poll. Fifteen of Museveni’s cabinet ministers, including Vice-President Edward Ssekandi, lost their seats. Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform is also now the leading opposition party in the Ugandan parliament.

The election outcome drew mixed reactions among East Africa watchers.

Kenyan historian, journalist and political analyst Fred Oluoch told NewsAfrica that the Museveni win will seriously ‘demoralise’ opposition supporters, adding that they had been energized into action by the charismatic ex-pop star, after their previous hope, Kizza Besigye, declined to run.  

‘Museveni’s win is sending a message that he cannot be removed by the ballot,’ Oluoch mused.

‘The main question is whether the behavior of the security forces before and after elections is a clear breach of the East African Community Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which is meant for partner states to share good common practices and improve democracy and the rule of law in the region.’

Meanwhile, David Matsanga, chairman of the Pan-African Forum, said that it would be difficult to remove Museveni while the opposition remains divided.

‘Had the opposition remained united as the Kenyan opposition did in 2002 to end KANU’s stranglehold on Kenyan politics, Museveni would have been out of power,’ he said.

Matsanga, who was the chief negotiator for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terror group during 2006 peace talks with the Ugandan government, said Museveni should reach out to the opposition for a rapprochement the same way Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta did to Raila Odinga, his main challenger at the 2017 elections.

Despite the house arrests, mass killings and internet blackout, President Museveni described the elections as ‘the most credible since the country attained its independence in 1962’, adding: ‘I think this might turn out to be the most cheating-free election.’

Uganda has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power since independence from Britain in the 1960s.

Museveni came to power 35 years ago after toppling Tito Okello in a 1986 military coup.

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