Uganda’s People Power in the age of COVID-19

Will the coronavirus pandemic extend Museveni’s authoritarianism or the lockdown instead provide openings for Uganda’s opposition?

Bobi Wine. Image credit Sam Broadway.

Over the past month, Bobi Wine has again made headlines in a number of major US media outlets. And again, those outlets (with the exception of Rolling Stone) have failed to push beyond their own preoccupations and narrowness, settling instead for coverage that not only sidelines nearly every other figure on the Ugandan political scene, but wholly ignores—gleefully, it seems—the larger circumstances in which Wine’s presidential bid is unfolding. The individuals orbiting the People Power leader remain critical to our understanding of the movement and the importance of Ugandan politics going into elections in 2021, but the circumstances—like everywhere else—are rapidly changing. Though the number of confirmed coronavirus cases remains quite low for the time being, the government’s response to the outbreak will have an impact on politics for as long as it is convenient to the Museveni regime.

It seems largely true—and many of the Ugandans I interviewed for my own research last June would agree—that Wine, as Peisner writes in Rolling Stone, will not win Uganda’s 2021 presidential election. The reason for this is simple: Museveni’s grip on power is too firm, and his influence over institutions and the individuals within them too pervasive. As Moses Khisa, a professor of political science and regular contributor to Uganda’s Daily Monitor, told me:

[Wine’s] thinking that he can defeat Museveni in an election to me is a manifestation of failure to understand the political dynamics of Uganda. There’s no way nobody [sic] is going to win an election that is organized and superintended by Museveni himself … That electoral commission can never, never declare any other person president-elect other than Museveni.

On the question of his electoral viability, Wine himself remains either naive or is conscientiously projecting confidence for the sake of his movement. One need only look to the recent past, and to Wine’s political predecessor, to understand this. As Museveni’s long-time opponent and the former figurehead of the opposition before Wine, Kizza Besigye—who continues to be erased from history by every Western publication (even in the surprisingly lengthy Rolling Stone article, the Forum for Democratic Change leader only receives a single sentence)—knows all too well, the machinations used by the Ugandan state will disrupt and undermine any challenge to Museveni’s authority.

While Wine’s 2018 treason charges continue to sour in the courts, we should revisit the false allegations of rape foisted on Besigye during his 2006 bid. Having had the experience of running against President Museveni four times since 2001, Besigye, despite repeated presidential runs, has long given up hope in the efficacy of democratic change under Uganda’s current dispensation. This fact is but one of the major differences, and indeed one of the key points of disagreement between Besigye and his younger counterpart. “We have never said that we don’t believe in contesting elections,” Besigye told me when we spoke last June, responding to criticism from both Wine and a number of other political entities. “I don’t believe for a moment [however] that we are going to win an election and be declared winners, and Museveni is going to come and hand over power formally at a function and he goes home … he’ll have to be forced out of office in one form or another,” he continued. Fully aware of the impossibility of winning, Beisgye has instead used election cycles as opportunities to build the political consciousness of Ugandans more generally.

“One [reason for contesting elections] is that it’s a period when the regime is forced to relax some of the controls on the political processes,” explained Besigye. “The environment is a wonderful environment … for [ ] conscientization … one can go all over the country giving the message about how to free ourselves.” Simply put, the Ugandan government needs to conduct elections in order to regularly re-establish the legitimacy of its authority, and because of the significant increase in attention paid to Uganda’s internal issues (by foreign governments and press, NGOs and supranational government organizations alike) elections open a window to the sorts of political messaging and activity that would normally be scrutinized and almost certainly punished. “For example, in the campaign even in 2016, my message has been … I have not come to ask you for a vote, because you don’t have it,” said Besigye.

It is debatable whether or not these electoral campaigns have really led to the mass raising of political consciousness, which Besigye believes has reached “a critical level.” What is certain, however, is that elections in Uganda, and in all repressive or dictatorial states, represent a decisive and clear rift in the authoritarian continuum. This facet of elections is remarkably similar to the rupture supplied by any crisis, especially the one now being faced across the globe. Understanding the nature of such phenomena is particularly crucial to our understanding of its potential impact, not only as it applies to Uganda, but to domestic politics the world over.

In “The Ideology of Crisis,” Danish scholar Soren Mau gives insight into how crises function politically. “Crisis always denotes a transition,” writes Mau. “A crisis signifies a certain relation to the future in the sense that in a crisis, the future is open and undetermined. Crisis marks the moment in the course of time in which it becomes difficult to imagine the future as a continuation of the present.” In thinking of crisis as a temporal rupture, it follows that elections function similarly—imbued as they are with their own sort of political liminality—in that they manifest as crises for ruling parties and leaders of authoritarian states. But while in the past elections-as-crises have been used by Uganda’s opposition to raise consciousness, the additional crisis of a global pandemic complicates the moment. As Mau elaborates: “Crises are situations in which possibility exists as possibility … The possibilities inherent in crises point towards … the necessity of the act that decides which possibilities will come into existence.” The added crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the already Sisyphean task of beating Museveni in a presidential election with demands of its own (the necessity of self-isolation among others) that necessarily work against electoral politics as such.

This is not to say that Wine’s path to electoral victory has been irreversibly closed, nor that it must remain so narrow; in fact, and as Mau suggests, the very opposite could be true. “When you have a rupture, anything is possible,” said Khisa in reference to Uganda’s elections. “Nobody can defeat Museveni under the current circumstances, but the election could lead into a crisis that … could trigger something that we don’t know.” With the coronavirus outbreak, the circumstances have changed, considerably. However, the nature of this surprising turn of events is, again, one that presents possibilities more or less favorable to the regime in its project to maintain power, more than it does to the forces attempting to end it, electoral or otherwise. Nevertheless, Wine and People Power have made several attempts to capitalize on the political opening provided by the coronavirus outbreak.

Among the variety of measures taken by People Power to address the pandemic, it was of course the release of Wine’s latest single, “Corona Virus Alert,” that received the most attention. The song has been shared widely, but it cannot be said with certainty that it is making much of an impact politically. Wine’s music is largely banned from radio airwaves, and with the recently declared shutdown, the public transportation and vendors that would have previously acted as vectors for the dissemination of its message are currently inactive, rendering the song merely symbolic. People Power, however, has also been pursuing relief activities with more material objectives, such as donating hand washing stations and delivering small amounts of food. These activities, if they are widespread enough, may engender the sort of support that Wine still hopes to cultivate in the run up to the 2021 elections, turning a medical emergency into lemonade, as it were.

Perhaps this is a rather cynical reading of People Power’s efforts, but they are, after all, still involved in an election cycle. Wine or People Power should not refrain from using the rupture presented by the outbreak to push their political agenda of democratic change. In fact, it seems that the coronavirus has, perhaps for the first time, offered People Power the opportunity to demonstrate how they might actually function as an alternative to the Museveni regime. And though the giving out of food is only marginally distinguishable from the sort of vote buying that Museveni has been accused of orchestrating through Operation Wealth Creation (by People Power’s own Joel Ssenyonyi no less)—a concern that should raise the eyebrows of anyone seriously interested in the direction of Uganda’s politics—it is nonetheless an example of Wine’s attempt to make use of the moment. People Power, however, cannot hope to match, at least in kind, the power of the state in such a time of crisis.

Mau describes the concept of crisis as one that can be utilized as a “kind of reserve of legitimacy.” He argues that the 2008 financial crash was used by the European Union and the IMF “as an ideological tool that [aimed] at making austerity appear as the necessary and only feasible answer to the economic situation.” In other words, certain actors (i.e. multinational corporations, governments, ruling parties, etc.), select their ideologically preferred outcome from among the myriad possibilities presented by a crisis, and then determine and enforce the necessities required thereby. In fact, these powerful actors already have their desires planned well before crises ensue. This is precisely the process of the “shock doctrine,” a term coined by Naomi Klein (in her book by the same name), who argues that the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and prolonged state of emergency following 9/11 provided the political screen to start—and largely privatize—the Iraq War. “Political and economic elites understand that moments of crisis [are] their chance to push through their wish list of unpopular policies that further polarize wealth,” said Klein in a recent interview with VICE. The shock doctrine is a universal blueprint of sorts, and despite the uniqueness of Ugandan politics, the Museveni regime will almost certainly use—indeed, is already using it to its advantage.

The regime’s contempt for Bobi Wine and People Power is well-established. Though the recent striking down of Section 8 of Uganda’s Public Order Management Act (POMA), which gave broad authority to the police to shutdown campaign events, was a victory for People Power, the prior months of crackdowns on their campaign events is proof enough of the government’s sentiment. Silencing Wine and his movement has long been on Museveni’s personal wish list, and the coronavirus outbreak provides the perfect cover for increasing repressive efforts. The shutdown, first announced on March 30 and originally scheduled to last for 14 days, is likely to become the vehicle for just that.

People Power’s electoral strategy has always relied heavily on both the visibility of its candidate and the freedom of movement of his supporters—not to mention overwhelming voter turnout. Without this, the campaign can have little hope in receiving a large enough share of January’s vote total to challenge Museveni’s legitimacy, let alone his leadership. The government has taken a particularly strong and proactive, perhaps even outsized stance on combating the spread of COVID-19. Rational minds can certainly imagine the state of emergency continuing well beyond its immediate usefulness, and once a “new normal” is established, vis a vis the curtailing of certain civil liberties, it is all the more difficult to revert to the “old normal.” In other words, Museveni’s shutdown, and the severe punishment with which it is already being enforced, may very well extend up to and past the upcoming presidential election. Indeed, as of April 14, the lockdown had already been extended for an additional three weeks.

No one knows yet exactly to what extent Uganda and the broader continent will be affected—a youthful population and warm climate may be advantageous—but with the ubiquitous lack of testing, the true spread may never be fully determined. And though it would be a somewhat quixotic confession for a developing country, one could imagine a politically opportunistic Museveni government claiming a higher rate of infection than officially reported. The coronavirus is the perfect pretext by which to drastically shrink People Power’s political space (in a very physical sense), doing so without the threat of any serious push-back from the international community.

Certain autocratic regimes have already seized on the opportunity presented by the outbreak to expand their power. Even in societies typically thought to be free of authoritarianism, the coronavirus pandemic has altered the public’s perception of what is and is not acceptable in order to “flatten the curve.” In other words, the temporal and political ruptures initiated by the crisis and its economic afterbirth have been accompanied by another: a psychological rupture in our individual and collective psyches. COVID-19, as a crisis, has produced in all of us the acute awareness of the necessity for survival, and with that our wholesale acquiescence to survival’s demands. Museveni and his regime will not only be able to argue that the continued repression of civil society is for the sake of public safety, but rather than being criticized and pressured they will be applauded for their responsibility and competence by an international community that is largely enacting similar policies. This is, unfortunately, the power of a crisis in the form of an infectious disease.

This is not to say, of course, that the political project of Bobi Wine and People Power is dead on arrival. Rather, it is to suggest that within the rupture that is the coronavirus pandemic, old realities have died and new possibilities are being born. Who is to say just how long Museveni’s increased authoritarian privileges will last? We cannot know from where we now sit. Though Wine’s cohort has long expressed that other forms of political mobilization, like mass protests, may be required to unseat Museveni, the regime’s defense against, i.e. dispersal of, such activities no longer requires the overturned POMA law. That is because public gatherings are in direct conflict with the demands of survival. Now more than ever, it is time for the opposition to assess its possibilities.

With the political moment in constant flux, much more is required in the way of conscientization. The class dynamics displayed by the initial spread of the virus, as well as the lack of access to and availability of medical treatment, food, finances, and overall comfort during quarantine, may produce new forms of political consciousness. Maybe, by virtue of its own incompetence, the regime will illustrate country’s inequality in stark relief. Or perhaps Wine and his movement’s treatment of common people, which we’ve witnessed in their response, will be enough to show Ugandans that there is an altogether different way to wield power. If and when change will come is anyone’s guess.

Further Reading