Millions of voters in Uganda will cast their votes this week in an election pitting a 76-year-old president seeking his sixth term against a former popular musician half his age.
The contest between Bobi Wine, 38, and Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is being keenly watched across the continent, where veteran leaders are coming under pressure to give way to politicians more representative of Africa’s increasingly youthful, urban and educated population.
Wine has explicitly linked his campaign to efforts elsewhere across Africa to oust veteran leaders, and told the Observer that his was “a generational cause”. “The oppressed people can’t stay oppressed for ever. History has taught us that even the most brutal and famous dictators have come down, crumbling to the power of the people,” Wine said.
“My warning to Museveni is to learn from history. It’s important that you respect the voices of the people of Uganda because, if you do not, then you will also end up in the dustbin of history like your friends [Muammar] Gaddafi, [Robert] Mugabe and [Omar al-] Bashir.
The campaign has already been marked by the worst political violence in Uganda for decades, with more than 50 people shot dead by security forces over two days of protests following the arrest of Wine in November.
On 1 December, police fired shots into Wine’s car, prompting him to briefly suspend his campaign. Since then, a bodyguard has been killed when run over by a police truck, and Wine was arrested for a second time.
Opposition supporters have been routinely dispersed by security forces using teargas and rubber bullets. Journalists have been harassed, and human rights activists and high-profile critics of the government have been detained.
International watchdogs such as Amnesty International say measures implemented ostensibly to fight Covid-19 are being applied selectively to prevent the opposition campaigning effectively.
Wine said: “The campaign is crazy. Every day we are met with heavily armed military officers. I am afraid and concerned every day. I fear for my life and lives of my comrades in the struggle.
“The regime is after our lives. Every day we live is as if it’s the last one.”
On 7 January, police confronted Wine during an online press conference where he announced a petition to the international criminal court to investigate rights abuses in Uganda.
Known to supporters as “the ghetto president”, the former singer broke into formal politics in 2017 when he won a seat in Uganda’s national assembly. He has since been badly assaulted and detained many times.
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, grew up in poverty in Kampala before his successful musical career. As a politician, he has attracted enthusiastic support from among Uganda’s young and urban population who want change. The median age in the country is less than 16.
Flavia Namukasa, 23, was among hundreds of jubilant supporters who attended Wine’s campaign rally in the central town of Rakai, 200km from the capital Kampala, in late December. “We have come out in big numbers to support Bobi Wine. He is our only hope. He will be able to address our misery, daily suffering and high unemployment rates,” she said.
But Wine has yet to lay out any detailed policy programmes and faces an experienced opponent who can count on loyalty from individuals and institutions that have benefited from his rule over decades.
Museveni is seeking a sixth term after MPs removed constitutional age limits on the presidency, and has the support of the security forces and much of the bureaucracy.
Some voters have been rattled by the violence associated with recent protests, which they blame on the opposition. More importantly, decades of economic growth and subsidies have won Museveni a mass following in rural areas.
“My next president still remains Museveni. Although they call him Mzee [old man], he is not weak. He is still strong and able to lead this country,” said Richard Kiboneka, a 62-year-local leader in Mbalwa in the central district of Wakiso.
Though few deny Museveni’s early achievements – from 1992 to 2013 the proportion of Ugandan households living in poverty was halved – serious economic problems were increasingly evident, even before the hammer blow of the pandemic.
While some 700,000 young people reach working age every year in Uganda, only enough jobs for one in 10 are created, according to the World Bank. Poor basic services, corruption, expensive healthcare and overcrowded classrooms have also fuelled discontent in urban areas in particular.
Museveni has not responded to criticism of his record, instead accusing Wine and other opposition leaders of being “traitors” who planned “insurrection … with their foreign backers”.
At one rally, the president said that the protesters were “being used by outsiders … homosexuals and others who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda”.
Judith Nabakooba, Uganda’s minister for information, communications technology and national guidance, said that Museveni had guaranteed peace and stability “for so many years”.
“He is a respectable leader. He has a full and wider view of Uganda, east Africa, Africa and internationally. He is tested. He knows where we have come from … and knows where to take us. To secure our future, we really need to support President Museveni,” she said.
Though Museveni is expected to win the contest, the former rebel leader is likely to emerge weakened, and the poll may usher in a period of instability in Uganda.
Wine said that “when people turn up in huge numbers and vote, there will be no way the regime can try to alter the voice and the will of the people”.
Analysts have expressed concerns about democracy across eastern and southern Africa in recent years, although they say the picture is as varied within these regions as it is across the continent.
The recent election in Tanzania was marred by widespread repression, while crackdowns in Zimbabwe have led to journalists and political activists being jailed for months without being found guilty of any offence.
In Malawi, however, Lazarus Chakwera won power in a fresh poll after the judges overturned a 2019 election amid allegations of fraud.
Patience Akumu, a Ugandan journalist and analyst, said officials’ claim that only Museveni could guarantee security was unfounded.
“I think it tells us how flimsy the existing security is, if it relies on one man. The strong men of the continent are falling one by one, and Museveni will go eventually,” Akumu told the Observer. “Uganda, Africa, must face this fact.”