Why Uganda elections are brutal

Friday January 15 2021
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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Today Uganda votes in an election that is all but set to return President Yoweri Museveni, who’s been running things for 34 years now, to power.

The run-up to the elections has been marked by shocking levels of violence, with over five dozen people killed. Even more striking, in an already highly militarised state, the militarisation has been ramped up. This week, social media was swamped with videos and photos of large armoured vehicle convoys putting on a show of force in perceived opposition strongholds in the capital Kampala, and long columns of troops in menacing battle dress prowling various parts of the city.

The physical abuses of the unyielding youthful musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi (more popularly known as Bobi Wine), and the Forum for Democracy’s Patrick Amuriat, are the kinds that would usually be reserved for a really threatening foreign enemy.

Since independence in 1962, Uganda has not had a free and fair election, nor a democratic transition to a leader either from within the ruling party or the opposition through a popular vote. And all its elections since have been marked by violence and brazen vote rigging.

There are many reasons for this, but a constant one has been the role of the military in influencing the dynamics of election politics, or its direct control of power. Most outsiders, and indeed many Ugandans, tend to see this as a peculiarity of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule following his ascendance to power in 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war.

However, that is a limited reading. The military and militarisation have been at the core of the Uganda state from before independence. And it differentiates itself from the other countries in the region that it comes with a strong foreign interventionist streak.


The military dictator Idi Amin, who would seize power for himself in 1971, together with a few other Ugandans, had a fabled career in the colonial King’s African Rifles (KAR). Horrid stories are told of Amin’s role in the British campaign against the Somali shifta rebels in 1949, and against the Mau Mau.

In 1964 the Uganda government got embroiled in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aiding Christophe Gbenye, who was leading a rebellion in the eastern part of the country, which shared a border with Uganda.

Uganda also historically supported the rebellions in southern Sudan, from the immediate post-independence government of Milton Obote, to Amin, and in a big way during Museveni’s presidency. Today, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) is, really, what is keeping President Salva Kiir in power in Juba. In that sense, Uganda has been in South Sudan for over 50 years.

Of course, Uganda was the platform from which the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army launched its war to regain statehood in October 1990. With Rwanda, it was a key player in the ouster of the thieving autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo in 1997, and it has never really left DRC, continuing to station there and right into the Central African Republic against the Uganda Islamist rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

After the failed coup attempt in late December 2017 against Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, one of only two big men, along with Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who have been in power longer than Museveni in Africa, he reached out to Kampala for help. Today, the Uganda military is Nguema’s key keeper in Malabo.

There are many reasons why Uganda is so restless, but the same history also informs some of its brutal electoral politics. The area that is Uganda today had an array of some of the most developed states (kingdoms) in East Africa, with Buganda being years ahead of anything one could find in east Africa region. The map of lagoons and drainage systems of the Buganda kingdom of the 1880s, are probably more advanced that those of many towns in East Africa today.

All this meant that the post-independence state had few “free” subjects who were not under the authority of, or didn’t owe their loyalty, to a kingdom, a chieftainship, or entrenched church. To bring these subjects under them, governments have chosen to use force, as if they were capturing them from a foreign country like in the 18th century, to bring them under their authority.

In reality none of these historical state structures are visible, but the DNA of the state in handling them violently hasn’t changed. Moreover, even when governments have changed through war, there has always been continuity in the military and its traditions. Every military or liberation movement has had in its ranks leading soldiers from the order it was fighting. A more fluid Kenyan-style election is creeping up in Uganda, for sure. But it will likely be another 20 years before it settles in.