A Recipe for Violence: Uganda’s Flawed Elections Subvert Democracy


On January 14, 2021, Uganda held presidential and parliamentary elections. Incumbent President Museveni, who has been in power for 34 years, faced off against 10 opposition candidates, including pop star-turned-politician and main contender Robert Kyagulanyi, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, of the National Unity Platform (NUP). The 2021 elections saw unprecedented state-sponsored violence, harassment of opposition candidates, and repression of civil society.

During the campaign season, the Ugandan government used COVID-19 as an excuse to crack down on rights and freedoms and obstruct opposition candidates from mobilizing support. Security forces arbitrarily arrested presidential candidates Robert Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat Oboi of the Forum for Democratic Change multiple times while on the campaign trail and shut down their campaign activities. Police and military personnel used excessive force, including live ammunition and teargas, to disperse political gatherings for allegedly flouting COVID-19 guidelines. To protect himself at campaign events, Kyagulanyi was compelled to wear a flak jacket and helmet.

On November 18 and 19, 2020, street protests broke out in Kampala and other urban centers following the arrest of Kyagulanyi, in which Ugandan security forces killed over 60 people including protesters and bystanders. Fifteen-year-old Amos Ssegawa was among the bystanders whom security forces shot and killed. Hundreds of NUP supporters and polling agents were arbitrarily arrested in the weeks leading up to the elections. Two days before the elections, the government deployed the military and heavily armored vehicles drove through the streets of Kampala in a display of military might aimed at intimidating ordinary citizens. Most domestic election observers were denied accreditation, and those that attempted to monitor the election were arrested. On January 13, the government completely shut down the internet, thereby denying citizens access to information about the elections and preventing the tallied results announced by the electoral commission from being verified.

On January 16, 2021, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni was declared the president elect winning 58.67 percent of the vote, while Kyagulanyi captured 34.83 percent. After the election, authorities placed Kyagulanyi under house arrest without informing him of the charges against him. There have been credible reports of widespread vote rigging and ballot stuffing. United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, for instance, described the election as “fundamentally flawed,” citing the government’s refusal to accredit election observers, harassment of opposition figures, and violence.

Electoral fraud in Uganda has been at the center of the country’s decades-long history of violent conflict and human rights violations. In 1981, Museveni led a rebellion against the Obote government after rejecting the results of the 1981 elections, ostensibly on the grounds that they were fraudulent. Five years later, in 1986, he orchestrated the overthrow of Tito Okello’s military government and seized the reins of power. At his inauguration in 1986, Museveni notably declared, “The people of Africa—the people of Uganda—are entitled to democratic government. It is not a favor from any government: It is the right of the people of Africa to have a democratic government.” He also asserted that “The problem of Africa is leaders who overstay in power.” Thirty-five years later, Museveni is beginning his sixth term in office, and Uganda finds itself on a path toward authoritarian rule. Museveni has reduced democratic elections to a mere pageantry held every five years to give the impression the country adheres to democratic norms—that is, in form only not substance. He has maintained his grip on power through violence, intimidation, and repression.

History has shown that the price to pay for fraudulent and non-inclusive elections is violence. With the narrowing of democratic space and increased social and political tensions, Uganda now faces the risk of renewed conflict and grave human rights abuses. To avert this threat, the government must conduct an independent investigation into the electoral violence, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and related human rights abuses and hold the perpetrators to account. It must initiate a meaningful dialogue among various stakeholders to de-escalate tensions and chart a course toward a peaceful political transition. To break the cycle of violence, Uganda must embrace the principles of democratic governance and respect the human rights of all citizens. It must also pursue a comprehensive transitional justice process that addresses past human rights abuses and historical grievances, reforms institutions, pursues accountability, and strengthens the rule of law.

For decades, the international community has considered Museveni a critical ally in efforts to stabilize Somalia and the Great Lakes region. Museveni, however, has cynically used his status to obtain billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States and the European Union, both of which have for decades ignored the government’s increasingly repressive and anti-democratic polices and human rights violations. The international community must recognize that it cannot maintain its relationship with Museveni in its current form, understand the impact of its aid, and reassess their commitments to the government.

PHOTO: A poster of President Yoweri Museveni hangs on a building's facade outside the town of Kisoro in southwestern Uganda. (Adam Jones/Flickr)