Uganda’s Bobi Wine wins growing power despite loss in disputed election

Long-time President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of a sixth term after last week’s election.

Uganda’s leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine
Uganda’s leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine

Ugandan presidential challenger Bobi Wine has emerged from last week’s disputed election as the country’s most powerful opposition leader after his party won the most seats of any opposition group in the national assembly.

It is a major achievement for a party that is barely six months old and almost failed to make it on the ballot when it was accused by government officials of being an illegal entity.

While long-time President Yoweri Museveni has been declared the winner of a sixth term, the rise of 38-year-old Mr Wine’s party marks a generational shift.

Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesman for Mr Wine’s National Unity Platform, said: “We set out to see change of leadership at all levels. We have not achieved the ultimate, but we are still on course. It’s like felling a tree. You keep cutting, chipping away until the tree falls.”

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (AP/John Muchucha, File)

Removing Mr Museveni through voting, he added, “is not easy, but it’s not impossible”.

Mr Wine, a singer-turned-politician whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, will now decide who leads the opposition in Uganda’s legislature after his party won at least 56 seats. That number could rise to 61 when final results are announced. But the ruling National Resistance Movement party still has more than 300 seats, an absolute majority that means Mr Museveni can move ahead with his agenda without negotiating with the opposition.

Mr Wine’s party, however, will also lead the influential oversight committees that were long dominated by an opposition group led by Kizza Besigye, who sat out this election amid Mr Wine’s meteoric rise.

Nicholas Sengoba, an analyst and newspaper columnist, said of Mr Wine: “He has managed to write something new. He has put a dent in the Museveni establishment. He has dented the narrative in Uganda that to be a national leader you must have a military background.”

Mr Museveni, a former guerilla leader who has held office since 1986, faced arguably his greatest election challenge yet from Mr Wine. The 76-year-old president was able to run for another term, allowing him to extend his rule to four decades, after MPs removed the last constitutional obstacle – age limits – to a possible life presidency in 2017.

For decades a US ally on regional security, Mr Museveni now finds himself increasingly at odds with an outside world he sees as hellbent on regime change. Mr Wine has urged the international community, including the United States, to suspend the billions of dollars in foreign aid that he says props up a brutal regime.

Mr Museveni, in response, has called Mr Wine a foreign agent and says he will not tolerate interference from the international partners whose money helps his government provide important public services.

“The Bazungu. I don’t want to be racist, but they are the ones who are mostly involved” in meddling, Mr Museveni said in a televised address on Saturday after he was declared the election winner, using a Swahili word for white people. “Foreign meddling will not be tolerated.”

On Monday, the US ambassador to Uganda was blocked by security forces from visiting Mr Wine at his home, which is surrounded by soldiers. Police say the deployment is to prevent Mr Wine’s presence in the public from inspiring riots after the disputed polls.

Mr Museveni won Thursday’s election with 58% of the vote while Mr Wine had 34%, according to official results. That is Mr Museveni’s lowest share of the vote since his government first organised elections in 1996, when he won 75%.

Supporters of Mr Wine
Supporters of Mr Wine (AP/Jerome Delay)

Many members of Mr Museveni’s government, including the vice president, lost or failed to win parliamentary seats. Many of the losses were to candidates from Mr Wine’s party, which swept the central region that includes the capital, Kampala, as well as an enclave that was once the launchpad of the war that brought Mr Museveni to power.

“If you have lost your mecca, then what next?” Adrian Jjuuko, an analyst who runs a local rights watchdog, told local broadcaster NTV, referring to Mr Museveni’s loss in Luweero district.

Mr Wine insists he won the election and says he will prove allegations the military was stuffing ballot boxes, casting ballots for people and chasing voters away from polling stations. He has posted a video on Facebook purporting to show a police officer stuffing a box with ballots in an undisclosed location.

Mr Wine said on Tuesday: “I know many of you were brutalised for trying to record evidence of rigging, but those who succeeded, please send in the videos. The whole world must see Museveni for who he is – a shameless, ruthless election thief who is yet again trying to suppress the will of the citizens.”

Mr Museveni has dismissed allegations of vote rigging. “I think this may turn out to be the most cheating-free election since 1962,” when Uganda won independence from Britain, he said in his national address.

Mr Wine, who is effectively under house arrest, can challenge the election results in Uganda’s highest court. But judges in the past have been reluctant to rule against Mr Museveni, dismissing allegations of irregularities as not being substantial enough to affect the overall election outcome.

Soldiers patrol outside opposition challenger Bobi Wine’s home in Magere, Kampala
Soldiers patrol outside opposition challenger Bobi Wine’s home in Magere, Kampala (AP/Nicholas Bamulanzeki)

A presidential candidate must launch any legal challenge to election results within 10 days of the declaration of final results.

Authorities continue to face questions about the authenticity of the election results, especially after the electoral commission on Monday acknowledged an account in the local media that results from over 1,000 polling stations had not been counted.

The commission, trying to meet a constitutional deadline, concluded that the vote difference between Mr Museveni and his closest challenger, Mr Wine, “would not be overturned by votes from the remaining 1,223 polling stations,” it said.

The commission did not say how many uncounted ballots were affected. The Daily Monitor newspaper had reported that the vote-rich central district of Wakiso, widely seen as Mr Wine’s stronghold, was the most affected.

The election was marred by violence ahead of polling day, with Mr Wine and other opposition candidates detained and harassed, as well as an internet shutdown that remained in force until Monday, when access was restored for most Ugandans. Social media sites remain restricted.

The International Crisis Group, in an analysis, predicted trouble ahead for Mr Museveni.

“Many young people see Museveni as the face of an out-of-touch gerontocracy unable to meet the needs of the country’s masses of unemployed,” said the group’s Murithi Mutiga.

“These frustrations, tapped adroitly by Wine, who made pursuing solutions to unemployment the centrepiece of his campaign, are likely to reverberate throughout the last years of Museveni’s presidency.”

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