Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine. Picture: REUTERS/ABUBAKER LUBOWA
Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine. Picture: REUTERS/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

Nairobi/Kampala —  Ugandan popstar-turned-politician Bobi Wine is banking on technology and a high voter turnout to help him unseat one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.

Wine is the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled since seizing power in a coup in 1986. The lead-up to the vote has been marred by the deaths of at least 54 people following protests that erupted after the musician’s arrest in November, and allegations that there are moves afoot to rig the outcome in the incumbent’s favour.

To counter that threat, Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, has helped develop an internet-based application that will facilitate the tallying of votes as they are posted at polling stations. It can be downloaded via Google Playstore or a WhatsApp link, and will enable people to input the results or upload documents reflecting them — providing a cross-check against the official count.

The electoral commission threw a potential spanner in the works last week when it announced restrictions on the use of phones and cameras at polling stations — though it remains unclear whether pictures may be taken of the tally sheets. Wine said the unprecedented curbs are unlawful, a position echoed by the nation’s biggest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change.

“There is no law that bars people from observing the election, there is no law that bars cameras form the polling station,” Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, said in an interview. “We will have every right to demand a transition that people will have democratically and legally voted for.”

The victor in the January 14 election will oversee the implementation of about $20bn worth of projects, including an oil pipeline, refinery, airport and roads as the country prepares to produce and export crude starting in 2024. A contested outcome that sparks civil unrest could jeopardise the investments and derail efforts to revive the coronavirus-battered economy.

Wine, who has pledged to uphold the rule of law and tackle corruption if elected, has relied extensively on digital technology to get his message across to the electorate and bypass the state-controlled media. He sees the political landscape being fundamentally altered if the nation’s tech-savvy youth turn out in large numbers to vote. More than 80% of Uganda’s 44-million people are under the age of 40, and almost half have internet access.

“Museveni represents the past and I represent the future,” Wine said. “A Uganda under a different leadership will mean a government that is accountable to the people.”

While Museveni’s share of the vote dropped to 61% in the last elections in 2016, from 74% in 1996, he still commands strong support in rural areas and especially among older citizens.

Despite mounting calls for the 76-year-old Museveni to be replaced by a younger leader, Zaynab Mohamed, an analyst at NKC African Economics expects him to retain power. The president’s edge stems from the considerable control he wields over the state, and from opposition supporters having been suppressed and intimidated, Mohamed said.

Opposition arrests

Wine started wearing a bullet-proof vest after his car was shot at and an explosive device was detonated near him while on the campaign trail. He and his team said they spent several nights sleeping in their vehicles after officials prevented them from booking into hotels.

“The regime is on a rampage, arresting all our members,” Wine said. “Right now, all my campaign team is in prison.”

Ongoing divisions within the ranks of the opposition that will result in their share of the vote being diluted between several candidates, will work in Museveni’s favour. Besides Wine, the other presidential hopefuls include the FDC’s Patrick Amuriat, former army commander Mugisha Muntu, and former security chief Henry Tumukunde.

Museveni has won five consecutive elections over the past 25 years, and rejected prior opposition allegations of rigging. The UN and Amnesty International are among several organisations that have voiced concern about the integrity of the upcoming vote.

“We have increasingly observed that the Covid-19 restrictions have been enforced more strictly to curtail opposition electoral campaign activities,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a January 8 statement.

Observer missions

Don Wanyama, the president’s spokesperson, denied that there was an attempt to steal the election.

“Museveni doesn’t have to rig to win,” Wanyama said. “His track record on peace and development is what will compel Ugandans to overwhelmingly re-endorse him.”

There are also concerns about the electoral agency’s failure to accredit diplomatic observer missions and Ugandan monitors, jeopardising the credibility of the vote, according to the US embassy. More than 75% of its team wasn’t granted accreditation, leading to the embassy cancelling its entire observer mission on Wednesday.

Ambassador Natalie Brown said in a statement: “Absent the robust participation of observers, particularly Ugandan observers who are answerable to their fellow citizens, Uganda’s elections will lack the accountability, transparency and confidence that observer missions provide.” 



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