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Ugandan election approaches as accusations of human rights violations mar campaign

14 January 2021 will be the General Election in Uganda. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s current president, has held power for 35 years since 1986 and does not seem inclined to lose the vote this year. Global rights organisations have called for a free and fair democratic process for the election however the East-African nation’s “deteriorating” human rights record has come under intense scrutiny after an escalation of violence throughout the electioneering period. 

Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has maintained a strong majority for the bulk of his tenure in office while monopolising Uganda’s parliament. The NRM has twice changed the constitution to allow Museveni to run, initially removing the two-term limit in 2005 and then abolishing the age limit of 75 in 2017.

Museveni is opposed by 11 candidates in total, with reggae singer and opposition leader Bobi Wine considered the frontrunner. However they face odds stacked against them as the election process has the same lack of scrutiny and oversight which has remained a constant throughout Museveni’s presidency, 

The lead-up to the elections has been marred by violence, with a wave of human rights abuses documented as the polls approach. Killings, beatings, and violent dispersal of opposition supporters characterised the period following the start of electoral campaigns on 9 November 2020.

At least 54 people were killed during protests between 18 and 19 November, following the arrest of opposition presidential candidate, Bobi Wine. Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Deprose Muchena described these killings as a “warning call to the world that worse may be yet to come”, going on to state that: 

“it is imperative that the Ugandan authorities reverse the persistent use of excessive force by the security forces, arbitrary arrests and detention and attacks on journalists.”

Concerns have also been voiced with regard to the imposition of discriminatory Covid-19 restrictions, with many fearing that they may be used to inhibit political participation. Ugandan authorities have repeatedly blocked political opposition from holding campaign events, saying that they contravene curbs on gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19.

These restrictions are not employed in the same “strict manner” for campaign activities conducted by the ruling party, according to OHCHR Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, who said that:

 “we have increasingly observed that the COVID-19 restrictions have been enforced more strictly to curtail opposition electoral campaign activities in a discriminatory fashion. 

The use of violence to attain legislative power can not be tolerated. Ugandan authorities must ensure the participation of the electorate is not hindered and that they respect democratic procedure, regardless of the result.

13/01/2021 update:

Ugandan authorities have blocked access to social media and messaging apps as election-day closes in. A letter, sent to all telecoms firms and communication regulators, ordered the shutdown; an ordinance previously imposed in the Ugandan elections of 2016.

The removal of social media access, just days before the opening of polls, is likely to disproportionately affect opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, who draws the majority of his support from Uganda’s young population. 

The ability of the electorate to document potential violence, intimidation and fraud at the polls will also be hindered, further suggesting that free and fair democratic procedure will not be respected by the Ugandan government.

Many have speculated that these measures are a response to the closure of Facebook accounts linked to the Ugandan government, used to impersonate users and boost the popularity of posts. In a statement, Facebook said that Ugandan authorities:

“used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were”

18/01/2021 update:

Incumbent Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has won a 6th elected term and extended his rule into four decades; receiving 58.64% of the vote, according to official results.

The outcome of the election is heavily disputed, with Bobi Wine’s National Unity Party vowing to challenge the election results, stating that:

“We have evidence of ballot stuffing and other forms of election malpractice and after putting it together we are going to take all measures that the law permits to challenge this fraud.”

The allegations of fraud are not without merit, however, with the EU, United Nations and several rights groups raising concerns.

The US cancelled its diplomatic observation of the elections, stating that the Ugandan Electoral commission’s decision to deny more than 75 percent of the U.S. election observer accreditations requested meant that they could not “meaningfully observe” the electoral process. The US state department went on to state that the vote took place amidst “an environment of intimidation and fear”.

The validity of the results was also questioned by Africa Elections Watch, with their 3,000 election observers finding that the polls did not:

“meet the threshold of a democratic, free, fair, transparent and credible electoral process”. 

Since Museveni’s re-election, Bobi Wine has been placed under house arrest, a clear attempt by Ugandan authorities to restrict the voices of political opposition. With his situation becoming increasingly dire, Wine released this tweet, documenting the alarming number of military personnel congregating outside his home:


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