SIM - UGANDA: Period of increased civil unrest will follow January election, while sanctions risk is likely to increase over the coming year

SIM - UGANDA: Period of increased civil unrest will follow January election, while sanctions risk is likely to increase over the coming year

Very few people doubt that President Yoweri Museveni will be re-elected on 14 January. While regime change is unlikely, a period of heightened civil unrest is likely to follow, with opposition supporters almost certainly denouncing the result as fraudulent and lacking fairness. Over the coming year, international pressure and associated sanctions are likely to target senior officials in the Ugandan security apparatus.

Escalating state-sponsored violence

Like the previous two presidential elections in 2016 and 2011, the political campaign has seen a series of violent protests, riots, and mass arrests ostensibly targeting the main opposition forces. Restrictions imposed earlier in the year on mobility and the right to assembly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increasingly mobilised opposition, have garnered a tougher response from security forces compared to the previous polls.

In a way, this intensification of state-supported violence has been reflected in the choice of clothes by the main opposition leader, Robert Kyagulaniy – best known by his stage-name Bobi Wine. Since December 2020, he has been wearing a bullet-proof vest and a military helmet during rallies, claiming the security forces have attempted to assassinate him at least three times since the campaign began and framing the campaign trail as a ‘war zone’. Previously he has brandished a red beret, as a symbol of his progressive strife.

Scores of members of his core campaign group have been arrested by police, and many will remain in custody until after the elections are held. Hundreds more of Wine’s supporters have been arrested, and 49 people were killed during widespread riots, including in the capital Kampala, which erupted in November due to reports of the opposition leader’s arrest. He was released a few days later. On 7 January, he flew his children out of the country, saying he had received reports of a plot to kidnap them. While it is not possible to verify the latest claim, the assertion is not improbable given the current political climate and past practices used by the security apparatus.

Wine has indeed galvanised opposition supporters and Museveni-regime critics while giving the opposition a new face. However, security forces have also clamped down on other opposition candidates, including Patrick Oboi Amuriat who leads the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).

Kizza Besigye, the long-time opposition leader of the FDC, is not running this year. Although the FDC has years of experience as the country’s main opposition party, his absence means that most of the government’s attention will be on Wine’s National Unity Party (NUP). The country’s long-anticipated generational shift – most voters were born after Museveni first took power in a military coup in 1986 – also help explain Wine’s broad-based popular support.

The advantage of incumbency

Nevertheless, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) continues to be an effective political machine, largely as a result of a government clampdown on dissent and the limited ability of opposition parties to campaign. The party also enjoys large support among the country’s older and more rural voters. Nevertheless, due to the country’s rapid urbanisation over the past decade, and given Wine’s apparent support among younger voters, the ruling party is likely to experience growing generational challenges over the next five-year term.

For now, the party has built most of its support around the personality of Museveni as the protector of the nation. His campaign pledge – ‘Securing your future’ –  reflects the party’s continued focus on law and order and security, while attempting to appeal to younger generations. On the one hand, Museveni is seen as the protector of the current political set-up. On the other, his government is pledging to protect Ugandans from what it sees as interference from foreign forces, including Facebook which closed two pro-Museveni accounts at the beginning of January. The government has also clamped down on non-governmental organisations through stricter regulations, particularly those advocating for LGBTQ rights.


Over the two-week outlook, the risk of violent protests and riots is likely to increase, as opposition candidates like Wine will almost certainly denounce the election as fraudulent in Museveni’s favour. Western election observers, including those of the European Union and the US, will lend credence to such claims and unlikely consider the poll free and fair. In response to the denunciations, security forces will continue their clampdown on dissent and probably make mass arrests of Wine supporters in the week following the polls.

In the six-month to one-year outlook, sanctions risks in Uganda are likely to grow. There is also a realistic possibility that government support for humanitarian and development aid organisations will be frozen. While US lawmakers in December 2020 called for expanded sanctions on Ugandan security officials, the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has pledged greater focus on democracy and rule of law as part of its Africa policy. This suggests further sanctions are likely over the coming year. Compliance managers should therefore increase their monitoring of sanctions announcements and factor these into processes. Risk-based approaches, including stakeholder mapping of politically exposed persons, in due diligence processes may also reduce the risk of possible sanctions violations.


Also in this edition:

ETHIOPIA: Growing number of armed conflicts threaten national stability and commercial operations