As Uganda prepares for an election on Thursday, President Yoweri Museveni overtakes his main rival and prepares for a sixth term.
After 35 years in power, he faces a powerful opponent, popular singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, 38, known by his stage name Bobi Wine, who has won the hearts of a new generation by protesting against corruption and the youth unemployment.
Speaking at his ranch in Kisozi, west of the capital, Museveni said Wine was “an agent of foreign interests” promoting homosexuality. “Western elements,” especially Europeans from countries he declined to name, supported his rival, Museveni said in an interview.
“He receives a lot of encouragement from foreigners and homosexuals,” he said. “Homosexuals are very happy with Bobi Wine. I think they even send him support.
Traditionally, homosexuality has been tolerated in Uganda, but in recent years, well-followed evangelical pastors have stoked hatred of homosexuals, turning it into a political issue.
Dressed in a sunny yellow shirt – the color of his National Resistance Movement – Museveni sat in a plush red velvet chair under an acacia tree, as assistants busied themselves with a fly swipe, wipes and handkerchiefs . Determined that the 76-year-old leader should not contract the coronavirus, everyone on the ranch wore masks. A young man in beige jeans and a pale shirt that partially concealed the gun in his belt brandished a huge bottle of disinfectant which he sprayed haphazardly into the air. A television microphone was removed for further disinfection, before being placed half a meter from the chair.
Museveni, who came to power in 1986 by defeating Milton Obote in a bush war, said he was still “a freedom fighter”. After the atrocities committed by Obote and previously by Idi Amin, he stabilized the country and encouraged foreign investment. However, Uganda remains among the poorest countries in the world. Three quarters of Ugandans were not born in 1986 and most young voters are more concerned with finding a job than with past wars.
“These young people who feel marginalized are a healthy internal force,” said the president, stressing that the young people only survived thanks to the vaccination programs he had put in place. He denied that his age was an obstacle to re-election, although in 1986 he wrote that “the problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but the leaders who want to stay in power for a long time.
In 2005, the Ugandan parliament removed the two-term limit for presidents and in 2018 amended the constitution to allow candidates over 75 to run, paving the way for Museveni to run this year.
Like Robert Mugabe, who also spoke out against colonialists and gay men, and who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was ousted in a coup at the age of 93, Museveni does not sees no reason to resign.
“You think the problem with Uganda is that I’ve been in government for a long time,” he said. “But we don’t agree with that – as long as it’s democratically decided. “
The degree of democracy in the elections is questionable. Over the past few weeks, several Wine associates have been killed or arrested. He has been banned from campaigning, detained and repeatedly beaten, supposedly because the rallies violate Covid restrictions. Last Friday, Johnson Byabashaija, Uganda’s commissioner general for prisons, said there was plenty of room in prison for a planned increase in arrests during election week.
In November, at least 54 people were shot dead by security forces following riots by Wine supporters to protest his arrest. While acknowledging that the security forces pulled the trigger, Museveni blamed the opposition for the killings, including those of passers-by.
“It is the opposition which wanted to organize an insurrection because it wants to organize here what happened in Libya”, he said. “Some died in crossfire.”
In the town of Madu, a few miles north of the Museveni ranch, Wine’s sister, Betty Ssentamu, who is running for parliament, was roaring in a van decorated with pictures of her and her brother.
Wearing a scarlet and gold basuti, a traditional maxi dress, with a headband with the inscription “People Power” tied around her long braids, she shouted at the crowd, “I came to challenge everyone!” Bobi Wine is the only president who fights for equal rights and for the ordinary person! Dozens of boda bodas – motorcycle taxis – rushed with her, runners slamming their fists in the air as passers-by cheered and danced. The spontaneous rally was illegal and Wine knows he will be arrested if he tries to campaign in the same way this week.
Speaking in the garden of his home near Kampala, wearing tight dark red pants and a Chinese-style dragon shirt, he said he could see something of the young in himself. freedom fighter that Museveni had once been.
“I loved General Museveni,” he says. “When we were kids, every plane that passed, we cried,” Hi Museveni! “But slowly he became a contemptible figure. “
If Wine won a majority of the vote and the Election Commission allowed him to declare victory – by no means a certainty – it’s unclear whether state institutions would accept the result. The army, the police and the ministries are loyal to Museveni. The special forces group, headed by the president’s son, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, provides him with a personal armed force, while secret intelligence operatives operate a parallel security structure.
“What you need to understand is that in the case of Uganda, the person you are talking to is very experienced,” Museveni said. “There isn’t a lot in the world that I don’t know. So when I’m dealing with a situation you have to know that I know what I’m doing.
Lindsey Hilsum is an international writer for Channel 4 News