As a new political opposition emerges in Uganda

03 Mar 2021, 12:00 am
Songhai Advisory
As a new political opposition emerges in Uganda

Feature Highlight

The November 2020 uprising rattled the government and seems to have stiffened Museveni’s resolve to keep power.

Ugandan opposition politician Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi and his supporters

The Ugandan National Unity Platform (NUP) will be the largest opposition party in the next parliament after the February 2021 general election – less than a year after it was founded. The NUP has earned for itself the chance to initiate a strong coalition, which could influence government policymaking and get better results in future elections. It will, however, be a difficult task given splits within the party and relative inexperience. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni will tighten his grip on power and continue to pursue his plans for the economy unhindered.  

Main Findings – Changing of the Opposition Guard

Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi lost the presidential election to Museveni in January, but his party, NUP, has firmly established itself in the central region and displaced the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the hitherto main opposition party. The 38-year-old legislator could determine the new leader of the opposition in the national parliament.

Bobi Wine got 72 per cent of votes in the central region (which includes the capital, Kampala) and defeated Museveni in districts such as Luweero where the president used to win comfortably. To put a point on it, the NUP won nearly all council elections in Kampala, and most of the region’s members of parliament (MPs) in the national parliament will be NUP. This strong performance is especially significant because the region is the country’s most economically active and more than half the urban population lives there.

A major factor that led to NUP’s rise is the retirement of FDC’s Kizza Besigye after the 2016 elections. The 68-year-old had unsuccessfully been Museveni’s main challenger since 2001, and the country longed for a new, younger charismatic figure. The singer, Bobi Wine, came into politics in 2017 and won a seat in parliament as an independent candidate. Meanwhile, FDC began a decline without Besigye and Bobi Wine rallied popular support against the government.

The contrast between Museveni and Bobi Wine also captured the public’s imagination. Bobi Wine evoked hope among a generation of Ugandans who were born during Museveni’s 36-year rule and wanted more civil liberties. The deadly protests that happened in Kampala in November 2020 drew more attention to Bobi Wine’s promise of political freedom. It was common for state security to target Museveni’s political opponents. But this time, attempts to suppress Bobi Wine’s campaign caused an uprising and the army responded with an amount of force that shook the nation.

A young professional in Kampala told Songhai Advisory that, “The president wanted to send a strong message that he could crush you and you could do nothing about it. Bobi Wine inspired people to think he would do things differently if they voted for change.”

The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) went into these elections deeply divided after violent primaries, and that also worked against the party. The chief whip in parliament, Ruth Nankabirwa, lost to the NUP candidate. The ministers for lands, justice and trade are among cabinet members who either lost to NUP or independent candidates who defected from the ruling party. When one such defector defeated an NRM candidate running for MP, Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga (NRM), congratulated her on ‘reclaiming the victory stolen from her in the NRM primaries.’

Outlook – Policy Continuity

NRM will continue to direct affairs in parliament unhindered by the opposition because it will still have around two-thirds of MPs there. Since COVID-19, Museveni has emphasised import substitution industrialisation as the top priority for the next five years. The NRM-dominated parliament supports this posture. For instance, the National Local Content Bill was passed in May 2020 restricting the employment of foreign labour and the procurement of foreign goods and services.   

For now, Bobi Wine has rejected Museveni’s re-election but will not be able to pursue decisive litigation. This is because the constitution requires a petitioner to put forward their case at the Supreme Court within 15 days after a winner has been proclaimed. But Bobi Wine was under house arrest within that timeframe.  

As head of the main opposition party, he will still have a chance to initiate a strong coalition that could influence government policymaking and get better results in future elections. But he is unlikely to build and maintain such consensus given his limited political experience. Splits in his fledgling party will threaten external cooperation. A longstanding rivalry among Uganda’s opposition parties will also impede meaningful progress toward forming a coalition.

Meanwhile, Museveni will tighten his grip on power and the army will increasingly be involved in stifling dissent. The November 2020 uprising rattled the government and seems to have stiffened Museveni’s resolve to keep power – whether for himself, for his son – Muhoozi Kainerugaba – or a longtime NRM ally such as ex-prime minister Amama Mbabazi.

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