Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. Picture: REUTERS/ARND WIEGMANN
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. Picture: REUTERS/ARND WIEGMANN

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was once regarded as one of the most promising leaders in Africa, in dramatic contrast with Idi Amin, the notorious dictator against whom he had led an insurgency. After coming to power in 1986 Museveni liberalised the economy, triggering rapid growth and a major reduction in poverty. He allowed Uganda’s first multicandidate presidential election and cultivated a close alliance with the US. 

But as Museveni has aged his regime has grown steadily more corrupt and autocratic. The election he staged on Thursday to award himself a sixth consecutive term in office was a mockery of democracy. It showed that he has become, as Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka put it, “the very thing he fought against”.

To stay in office Museveni first pushed through a constitutional amendment eliminating an age limit of 75 for presidential candidates. He is 76. For the first time in decades he refused to accredit election observers from the US and EU, and more than two dozen Ugandan monitors were arrested. Two days before the election, he blocked Facebook, which had taken down scores of accounts his government was using to manipulate information and commentary about the vote. The next day all internet access in Uganda was blocked.

But the regime’s most blatant actions were directed at Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, a 38-year-old rapper turned political leader who was Museveni’s principal opponent. During the campaign Wine was arrested three times, along with at least 600 supporters at his rallies. His bodyguard was murdered, his lawyer was detained, and journalists who covered him had their accreditation revoked. Worst of all, when one of Wine’s arrests led to street protests in November, security forces responded with gunfire, killing at least 54 people.

The risk now is of protests and more violence. Sadly, pressure from the US is unlikely to restrain him, even though US aid of $750m a year provides substantial leverage. The regime has said the election crisis in the US has deprived it of moral authority to judge Ugandan elections. That response illustrates the challenge facing the incoming Joe Biden administration, which has pledged to revive US support for global democracy.

Washington, January 16.

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