A safe, fair vote? Why pandemic rules fuel concerns in Uganda.

Why We Wrote This

Around the globe, pandemic restrictions have sometimes served as pretext for repression. Elections raise especially urgent issues of how to protect a fair vote, while also protecting voters.

Reuters
Uganda opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, is escorted by police during his arrest in Kalangala, in central Uganda, on Dec. 30, 2020. Mr. Wine was arrested for violating COVID-19 distancing rules, a move that some observers say was a pretext to suppress political opposition.

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In Uganda, like much of the world, the line between protecting people’s health and upholding their rights has often been a blurry one during the pandemic. And in Uganda, that has played into the hands of the country’s 76-year-old president, Yoweri Museveni, who is running for a sixth term in Thursday’s election.

The president has used the pandemic to limit campaign rallies and other get-out-the-vote events, while the crisis has helped him argue the country needs firm, stable, and familiar leadership. 

“I think for many people it’s difficult to tell government is enforcing lockdown restrictions to protect people’s health and when it’s spilled over into violence to protect the people in power,” says Eshban Kwesiga of Chapter Four Uganda, an organization promoting democracy and civil liberties.

With campaign events limited, and radio and TV largely controlled by the government and its allies, many opposition politicians have attempted to take their campaigns online. But on Tuesday, President Museveni announced a ban on social media. 

“They see that the largest voting bloc is accessible online, and that the era of mass rallies to build support is over,” says Mr. Kwesiga, noting that the average Ugandan is 19 years old.

“The pandemic,” he says, “has just accelerated that.”

When Uganda’s main opposition candidate for president, Bobi Wine, was shoved into a police van during a campaign rally in the eastern part of the country in mid-November, the scene was in many ways familiar.

Since he became an opposition member of parliament in 2017, Mr. Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – has often been the target of violent intimidation by security forces. In 2018, he was allegedly severely beaten and tortured in police custody, and later sought medical treatment in the United States. During his campaign for president, he and his supporters have been regularly shot at, tear-gassed, and arrested.

But his supposed crime, this time around, was a new one. He was arrested for violating COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, which prohibited campaign rallies of more than 200 people. In the days that followed, police and security forces killed more than 50 people protesting Mr. Wine being detained.

In Uganda, like much of the world, the line between protecting people’s health and upholding their rights has often been a blurry one during the pandemic. And in Uganda, that has played into the hands of the country’s 76-year-old president, Yoweri Museveni, who is running for a sixth term in Thursday’s election.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Elections billboards for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and opposition leader and presidential candidate Bobi Wine are seen on a street in Kampala, Uganda, on Jan. 12, 2021. Some observers say that the pandemic has helped Mr. Museveni, who is running for his sixth term, tighten his grip on power.

“The pandemic has given leverage to Museveni to tighten his grip on power,” says Eric Mwine-Mugaju, a Ugandan journalist and political commentator. The president has used the pandemic to limit campaign rallies and other get-out-the-vote events, and the crisis has helped him make the case that the country needs firm, stable, and familiar leadership.

“I think for many people it’s difficult to tell government is enforcing lockdown restrictions to protect people’s health and when it’s spilled over into violence to protect the people in power,” says Eshban Kwesiga, head of development and policy at Chapter Four Uganda, an organization promoting democracy and civil liberties.

The Ugandan government, indeed, was initially praised for its brisk response to the pandemic in March and April. A strict lockdown quickly contained the virus’ early spread to a trickle. But many in and outside the country sounded alarms about its heavy-handed enforcement. By the time Uganda confirmed its first death from COVID-19, about a dozen people had reportedly been killed by police. To date, the country of more than 40 million has confirmed about 38,000 cases and more than 300 deaths.

“Despite the violence being meted out, people didn’t actually have any doubt about the existence of the virus or its danger like in some other countries,” says Mr. Mwine-Mugaju, who also notes that Mr. Museveni’s government has a long track record of successfully fighting serious disease outbreaks, including Ebola and AIDS. “So that really helped Museveni because when he spoke about limiting movement and rallies to stop the virus, people believed it.”

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A man mourns near the coffin of Elijah Mukiibi, driver of Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, in the village of Bowa, Uganda, Jan. 13, 2021. Mr. Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, claims Mr. Mukiibi was killed by security forces.

Restrictions on campaigning have also helped Mr. Museveni open a lead by forcing candidates to campaign on radio and TV, which are largely controlled by government and its allies.

“The president can easily say he needs to speak to the nation under the pretext of talking about the coronavirus response, and then use that airtime to advance his political agenda,” Mr. Kwesiga says.

Many Ugandan opposition leaders, chief among them Mr. Wine, have also attempted to take their campaigns online. (The singer-turned-politician has 1 million followers on Twitter.) When Mr. Wine was arrested in November, his campaign livestreamed the leader being pushed into a police van.

“We are not slaves!” he shouted as the doors of the police vehicle slammed shut behind him.

Last week, campaign staff filmed Mr. Wine being surrounded by police and shot at with tear gas and rubber bullets as he gave a press conference in his car.

Such seemingly unfiltered access to political events as they are unfolding can have a powerful effect on voters, experts say.

“Increasingly we can see that the state recognizes and is concerned by the role that social media play in our elections,” Mr. Kwesiga says, noting that the average Ugandan is 19, and more than two-thirds of registered voters are under 30. “They see that the largest voting bloc is accessible online, and that the era of mass rallies to build support is over.”

“The pandemic,” he notes, “has just accelerated that.”

On Tuesday evening, as election day closed in, Mr. Museveni announced a ban on social media, explaining that the move was in response to Facebook removing several pro-government accounts from its site in the preceding days.

“We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad,” he explained on live television.

But as Ugandans prepare to vote, many say they are concerned that the politicization of the pandemic has distracted from the fact that COVID-19 remains a major public health concern.

“Whether Museveni wins or Bobi Wine does, we need a healthy population to carry on after election day,” says Anne Abaho, a lecturer in international relations at Nkumba University in Entebbe. “The main concern should be keeping people safe, regardless of how they vote.”

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