Uganda held its general elections on the 14th of January 2021. The incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, won a sixth term with 58.64 percent of the vote to extend his thirty five-year rule by another 5 years. This after he controversially amended the country’s constitution to remove the age-limit clause of 75 years that would have disqualified him from running. Prominent among the candidates challenging Museveni, was the 38-year old musician cum politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu popularly known by his stage name as Bobi Wine who secured 34.83 percent of the vote. Bobi Wine was quick to reject the announced results calling it a fraud and a fabrication citing rigging and intimidation. In a country where 77 percent of the population is under 30, Kyagulanyi courted the support of the youth and became the symbol of their frustrations, fears and hopes. His election loss, amidst a brutally repressive state machinery which saw him and his supporters consistently harassed, is the latest manifestation of the alienation and exclusion of the youth in African politics. Gerontocracy reigns supreme in Africa where the average age of its leaders is 62 yet the median age of continent’s population is 19.5. Young people are the most affected by poverty, unemployment and insecurity yet they keep being marginalized from politics by power-drunk geriatrics who control the state’s coercive apparatus.
A fearless Museveni critic, Bobi Wine first made his name in the music industry winning numerous awards in Uganda and beyond. The message in his songs resonated with the struggles of the youth in Uganda. Riding on his music fame, he contested for a parliamentary seat in the Kyaddondo East Constituency in Uganda’s capital Kampala in April 2017. He won 78 percent of the votes beating candidates from the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the main opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). He was a leading voice in the protests against the removal of the age-limit clause in Uganda’s constitution that would have barred President Museveni from contesting. Museveni was going to be 76 by the January 2021 elections and thus would have passed the 75-year age-limit stipulated in the constitution. In December 2017 the security forces forcibly evicted Members of Parliament who opposed the amendment including Bobi Wine. The remaining MPs voted to remove the age-limit. The protests gave birth to the ‘People Power, Our Power’ movement with a large youth following and Bobi Wine as its leader. With his political star shining brighter, he soon attracted increasing surveillance and abuse from the security forces. In 2018 Bobi Wine’s driver was shot dead at a bye-election campaign event while he was brutally beaten by the soldiers and police for allegedly throwing stones at the presidential convoy. Wine and other activists were arrested and charged with treason but later released on bail. The People Power-backed candidate won the bye-election while in police custody – a testament to the popularity of the movement. Ever since announcing his candidacy for presidential elections in July 2019 under the National Unity Platform (NUP), Wine and his supporters have faced increasing abuse and harassment at the hands of the security forces. His arbitrary arrest in November 2020 sparked widespread protests in Uganda which claimed 54 lives. During the campaign he has been arrested and been trailed by the military and the police making it difficult for him to reach his supporters. At one point he was violently manhandled by the police while addressing an international press conference in full glare of the cameras. On the eve of the January-14 election, the government blocked the internet in Uganda to prevent Wine and other candidates using social media to reach their supporters. Bobi Wine’s house was surrounded by the security forces effectively putting him and his family under house arrest.
Bobi Wine’s experiences in Uganda exemplify the all-too familiar resort to violence by the political elites in Africa in silencing young people voicing legitimate grievances. In South Africa the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015 and the #FeesMustFall movement in 2016 led by the university students across the country were met with rubber bullets, beatings, arrests and the increasing securitization of the university campuses. In Zimbabwe, since President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s military-backed takeover in November 2017, the government has intensified repression. Dozens of people have been killed in youth-led protests. Opposition leaders, government critics, student leaders, trade unionists and journalists have been victims of arbitrary arrests, abductions and torture as the government cracks down on dissent. Responding to the August 2020 social media protests led mostly by the young people under the viral hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, President Mnangagwa lashed out at what he called “bad apples” and “dark forces” intent on “destabilizing the country” sternly promising to “flush them out”. The young Sudanese who led the protests that eventually brought down the country’s long-time dictator Omar al Bashir in April 2019 were subjected to rape, murder and torture at the hands of the security forces. The Transition Military Council (TMC) that replaced Bashir’s government also deployed lethal force against continued protests killing, raping and injuring scores of protesters. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), about 120 protesters were killed in June 2019 and many others injured. In Nigeria tens of thousands of young people including prominent celebrities used the hashtag #EndSars to mobilize nation-wide protests against police brutality in October 2020. The protest was sparked by a video showing a man being killed by the notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).The SARS had long been accused of violent harassment and extortion. As the youths took to the streets to protest the army and the police allegedly opened fire on protesters on the 20th of October 2020 in Lagos killing some of the protesters. The protests served as an expression of frustration by the youths who make up 70 percent of the population. Young people are disenchanted by the rampant corruption in government and lack of development prospects. After the protests, instead of addressing the issues raised by the young people, some Nigerian law-makers launched a campaign to allow the government to shut down the internet to silence the voices of the youth.
Moreover, the Ugandan elections also raise interesting geopolitical questions related to the continued disenfranchisement of the youth in Africa. President Museveni’s contempt for democratic principles and domination of Ugandan politics has been for years significantly enabled by the financial assistance Uganda gets from the West, especially the United States, for its role in the Global War on Terror. Therefore, the West’s relations with Uganda have been underpinned by a delicate balance between promoting democratic values and advancing strategic interests. In the past US administrations, the latter has always trumped the former. For its willingness to participate in the fight against terrorist outfits in the East African region like the Al Shabaab in Somalia, Uganda has been rewarded handsomely with generous aid packages of nearly a billion dollars annually from the US. The country has also benefited from military aid and the African Growth and Opportunity Act under which it is granted preferential access to the US market for some of its exports. Museveni uses this money to prop up his militia which metes out violence and brutality against political opponents. The 2016 elections were also marred by violence and house arrests of political opponents. However, Uganda continued receiving aid despite the then US Secretary of State John Kerry calling Museveni directly to register his dissatisfaction with the way elections were conducted. In an open show of contempt at US involvement in Uganda’s politics, the head of the US embassy in Uganda, Ambassador Natalie E. Brown was blocked by the security forces when she attempted to visit Bobi Wine who has been under house arrest since the day before the elections. The embassy had also issued a statement condemning the violence and harassment of opposition candidates that marred the elections. It remains to be seen whether the incoming US President Joe Biden will adopt a different approach and hold the Museveni regime accountable for its democratic transgressions. The appointment of Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the United Nations whom Biden described as a “world-renowned voice of conscience and moral clarity”, to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID) may be an indication that things will be done differently. Further, with China cultivating deeper economic ties with Uganda, the US may no longer be as indispensable as it has been when it came to financing the country’s development needs, undermining what leverage a President Biden may have. The US will be reluctant to cede any sphere of influence to its global rival, China. As such, Museveni and other despots in Africa appear set to continue to hold the young people in their countries at bay without any consequences.
Sizo Nkala is a post doctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies