Uganda: Political Organising in a De-facto One-Party State

Uganda: Political Organising in a De-facto One-Party State

Stella Nyanzi stands in the dock at Buganda Road court charged with cybercrimes after she posted profanity-filled denunciations of president Yoweri Museveni on Facebook in Kampala, Uganda.
Stella Nyanzi stands in the dock at Buganda Road court charged with cybercrimes after she posted profanity-filled denunciations of president Yoweri Museveni on Facebook in Kampala, Uganda. — Image Credits

To start the tale like Yoweri Museveni would: when the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in 1986, Uganda was transformed.

However, unlike the peace, security and modernisation that Museveni – Uganda’s president since then – likes to tout, the political shifts have been markedly less progressive. Over three decades, they have led to a slow death, or perhaps a descent into political coma. This is especially true for political parties, which raises formidable challenges to anyone wanting to affect change in the country. “We didn’t appreciate it early enough, but right from his bush days, one of Museveni’s chief enemies was political parties,” argues Richard Sewakiryanga, who, as a political analyst and the executive director of the Uganda National NGO Forum has fought to defend the country’s political space.

Museveni went to war in 1980, following a multiparty election that was widely considered rigged and unfair. Museveni’s Uganda People’s Movement (UPM) won just one seat in parliament, while 16 UPM members had been denied the chance to stand for election, often on frivolous or even made-up grounds. This effectively limited the competition to the two traditional parties, Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the Buganda-based Democratic Party (DP), both of which dated back to the country’s independence struggle. 

After the UPC handed itself the vast majority of seats, an angry Museveni started a guerrilla war. As Sewakiryanga explains it, part of Museveni’s strategy to mobilise popular support for his rebel movement was to accuse the parties of playing havoc with Uganda’s democracy. For Museveni, it also was a deeply personal affair. He had been part of Uganda’s political establishment and regional politics for a long time.

When he came to power, Museveni set about turning Ugandan politics into a “no-party” system. In the Uganda he attempted to build in the 1980s and ’90s, all Ugandans were to be happy members of an umbrella movement, the NRM, in which political power came from individual merit rather than traditional ethnic-based party affiliations. That didn’t work. By 2005, Museveni himself was campaigning for a return to party-based politics. In a referendum, more than 90 percent of voters ticked “yes” to the question: “Do you agree to open up the political space to allow those who wish to join different organisations/parties to do so to compete for political power?”

Yet, thirteen years into the multiparty political system, Uganda still isn’t a democracy with open political space and contestation. Nearly 70 percent of members of parliament (MPs) are from a single party ­– that romantic NRM that all Ugandans once belonged to. The second biggest group of MPs (15 percent) are independents: politicians who chose to run on that “individual merit” idea first introduced by, once again, the NRM. The third group (8 percent) come from the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Although it is seen as the most significant opposition party, the FDC is an offshoot of the NRM, as Sewakiryanga reminds us: “It’s like the Protestant Church to the Catholic Church. It was founded as the Reform Agenda, an effort to return the NRM to what some of its members felt it had moved away from.” The two traditional political parties, which “short-changed” Museveni during that fateful 1980 election, are barely visible today. The UPC and DP share 19 seats in a parliament of over 430 members.

Hence, Uganda is a multiparty system without differentiable and strong political parties. How then does one build a mass movement around any particular political rallying point? Where does one start to mobilise people?

There is at least one woman in Uganda who would know something about that. Until February 2017, Dr Stella Nyanzi was many things: a research fellow at Makerere University; an activist for LGBTI rights in a country which in 2013 passed (but later annulled) a law setting life in prison as the penalty for some gay acts; a social anthropologist who loved to document resistance against the state; a news and social-media sensation with a Facebook page teeming with trolls and fans alike; and someone who, in an employment dispute, stripped to her knickers at the office of her boss, Mahmood Mamdani, the celebrated African scholar. However, if Ugandans had seen her merely as an entertaining or confusing intellectual woman, on 14 February 2017, she became a political force.

On that day, Janet Museveni, the country’s minister of education and also the president’s wife, announced that the government had no money to buy menstrual hygiene products for school-going girls. It might not have been a big deal. After all, the government had never provided such items anyway. However, while campaigning for his fifth re-election, President Museveni had specifically promised to deliver them to schools as a way to curb the dropout rate of girls. This is what made Stella Nyanzi snap. With language perhaps too colourful to reproduce here, she turned to her popular Facebook page to start a campaign in which she would fundraise for the pads and deliver on the president’s campaign promise herself. In the ensuing weeks, she launched what NGOs might call a multipronged approach. She used mobile money and online crowdfunding to collect funds. She worked with queer and feminist networks to collect in-kind donations. She used her online fame to taunt and call out the minister of education at every occasion. Of course, she did this in that uncensored language her audience loved.

That last prong was predictably controversial. Ugandans, for all their violent and turbulent political history, see themselves as polite and hospitable people. Secondly, although Janet Museveni has been the political head of a government ministry since 2009, she is still branded with her first-lady persona: Mama Janet, mother of the nation. To these sensibilities, Nyanzi’s non-decorous political speech was an affront. Media businessman Andrew Mwenda, himself best known for his “take no prisoners” approach to political critique, had this to say: It is permissible to call the president a dictator or corrupt. I find it morally reprehensible for Nyanzi to refer to their sexual organs in a vulgar way to express her frustration with their power though I disagree that such language should be criminalised. Mrs Museveni responded to Nyanzi’s insults with grace and dignity. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for a policy debate, Nyanzi used (and abused) it to hurl even worse sexually lurid insults at her. 

To such calls for decorum, Nyanzi responded on her Facebook page, “Why should I cushion Uganda’s leaders, yet they neglect Ugandans? Why should I pad Janet Kataaha Museveni, yet she justified to parliament the lies about our government lacking money to provide sanitary pads to poor Ugandan girls – although her husband manipulated voters during his presidential campaigns with empty promises of the same pads?”

Whatever today’s sensibilities might say, employing rudeness for political effect has precedent in Ugandan political culture. In the 1940s, Baganda youths grew increasingly bitter with the colonial government that had educated them but seemed to actively block their individual progress by locking power and opportunity within a small circle of Baganda gentry, religious leaders and white colonialists. Organising against that state of affairs, they formed the Bataka Union, with Semakula Mulumba as its chief propagandist. However, their lack of connections to the circles of power also meant they had little access to resources with which to organise. And so, they turned to what historian Carol Summers calls “radical rudeness”: Mulumba and other Baganda rebels of the late 1940s were disorderly, intemperate and obnoxious. What made their rudeness more than just adolescent immaturity, though, was that it was rooted in an understanding of the significance of social rituals, constituted a strategy to disrupt them, and was tied to an effort to build new sorts of public sociability to replace the older elite private networks.

A chief enemy of the Bataka Union was Cyril Stuart, the Anglican bishop of Uganda, who had entered an agreement with the colonial government in 1948, allowing it mineral rights on church land. Having been at loggerheads with the Bataka over this and other matters, Stuart invited Mulumba to dinner, saying there was no reason they could not be friendly even if they officially disagreed. Mulumba jumped at the opportunity. Not to go, but to refuse – and to do so obnoxiously. He wrote the bishop an 18-page rebuff, with choice words like, “My Lord, you are crooked”. Mulumba made his response public, even though the bishop had sent his invitation privately.

Nearly seventy years later, Stella Nyanzi, who understands the significance of social rituals just as well as Mulumba did, gave the same treatment to a member of the small elite of her own time. Having been at the receiving end of Nyanzi’s e-missives for weeks, Janet Museveni took to her own Facebook page to release a rare statement: “I have received reports about Dr Stella Nyanzi insulting me. I don’t know what wrong I committed to deserve that kind of language and abuse. However, I want to tell Ugandans that I forgive her.”

To this, Nyanzi responded: “Aw Lawd my Gawd! This woman is totally out of touch with the reality of the masses her family has misgoverned for thirty-one years and still counting. Let’s temporarily ignore her foolhardy poopooish heretics of posturing as one with the moral onus to forgive me. But how dare she not understand why I am irked and outraged by the long list of evil rained upon Ugandans by the Musevenis and Musevenists?” This insistence on flouting social rituals and respectability, plus the traction her #Pads4Girls campaign was gaining, would eventually get Nyanzi in trouble.

While she had successfully captured the public imagination, she also ignited ire in the circles of power. While mobile money for menstrual pads trickled into her phone, the police were preparing charges against her. While she toured schools distributing pads and dancing with the students to promote menstrual positivity, plainclothes security agents were trailing her and her family members. Makerere University suspended her, saying she had insulted the head of the ministry which oversees the institution. The immigration department put her on a no-fly list.

On April 8, less than two months into her campaign, the matter escalated sharply. She was arrested and would spend 33 days in pre-trial detention at a maximum security prison. For her online taunts, the Ugandan police charged her with cyber-bullying and harassment. The state prosecutor asked the court to order a mental examination, with the hope of declaring her insane, a prospect that would seriously threaten her career as an academic. In prison, warders attempted to block visits from her lawyers and children, and took away all her reading material, leaving her with just a Bible. When she eventually emerged out of the bowels of the system, it seemed, at least for a while, that a political activist had been broken.

Somewhere else, however, another tech-savvy figure was working on his roar: Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, the Ghetto President. During the week, he is a member of parliament. The rest of the time, he is a celebrity musician. On 30 May 2017, following an annulled election in his area of residence, Bobi Wine, along with family members, fans and fellow musicians, presented himself at the local electoral commission office for nomination. The erstwhile dreadlocked singer of politically conscious urban music now sported a gentrified haircut. “Many of my songs send a message out there, but I think it’s high time I joined parliament to ensure all the things I sing about can be implemented and put into practice,” he said on the day of his nomination.

What followed was an electrifying campaign fuelled by social media. The campaign hired a communications consultant, a first in Ugandan campaign culture. Social media was flooded with beautiful pictures of rallies that looked like pop concerts. The candidate himself was clearly fashioning himself on the model of Barack Obama: a writer of shareable quotes, and a modern family man with a beautiful, fashionable and compelling wife. The masses gobbled it up and handed him a landslide victory. In the June 28 election, he polled 25,659 votes; the closest opponent got 4,556. Timothy Kalyegira, a columnist in the Daily Monitor, called it a “victory of the oppressed”. This young man, born and raised in Kamwokya, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Kampala, had turned his ghetto roots into a music career that made him a multimillionaire. Now he performed his second miracle by turning pop celebrity into political power.

Like Nyanzi, Bobi Wine took to social media to address the highest power in the land. He wrote open letters to the president. Still smarting from the public relations nightmare that Nyanzi had stormed up against his wife, the president responded with some civility. In a country where the leadership either ignores or brutally crashes into its weak opposition, it seemed like a mountain had moved. The emperor was beginning to talk to the dissenters.

So, is combining the power of social media with firebrand personalities the way to organise in a de-facto one-party state? It is perhaps a start. Yet pundits and activists alike say it should not replace party-based organising. “This [individual activism] has its resonance and appeal because I am so ordinary. I belong to a community which shares the injustices I speak about. People can relate,” Nyanzi explains. “On the other hand,” she cautions, “it is very weak, uncoordinated, sporadic, unsponsored and easy to squash. You are just a mad woman, and there are not enough mad women.”

Sewakiryanga thinks Ugandans have “a hangover from the individual merit system”. That is problematic. “Individual merit is patronage politics. Until we outgrow this cult of individuals, it is hard to defeat that,” he warns. Besides piling political causes onto individual backs, individual activism is high maintenance and risky. “The biggest challenge is being asked to perform the work of institutions. Bring a road. Bring water. Contribute to all the funerals in your area. You cannot bury all the dead yourself.” Instead, Sewakiryanga advises, even people like Bobi Wine should be thinking about how to institutionalise their power bases. As he sees it, one can’t hope to build a long political career on individual merit. “It’s good when the spotlight is on you – but once you lose just one election, you fizzle out. In a party, you remain an asset.”

However, to institutionalise these so-called power bases isn’t an easy task as they operate more like fan clubs than civic interest groups. Bobi Wine isn’t a politician without his musical fame. At least, not yet. Similarly, the average follower on Stella Nyanzi’s page likes the posts and condoles with her in the comments, but is unlikely to pro-actively drive a political cause. For example, her #Pads4Girls campaign fizzled out during her month-long imprisonment, despite the fact that it was wildly popular with her followers. Ultimately, they are spectators and supporters rather than political animals themselves. Without a cultural shift that brings Ugandans to see themselves as political agents with both leverage and responsibility to change the political landscape, it is impossible to see how Nyanzi or Bobi Wine could institutionalise the crowds gathered around them into effective political movements.


[1] Interview with the author.

[2] Faustin Mugabe, “Why Museveni’s UPM party lost the 1980 election”, Daily Monitor, 24 January 2016.

[3] Andrew Mwenda, “The last word: On Museveni and Stella Nyanzi”, The Independent, 8 May 2017.

[4] Carol Summers, “Radical rudeness: Ugandan social critiques in the 1940s”, Journal of Social History 39, 3 (2006): 741-770.

[5] Timothy Kalyegira, “MP Bobi Wine: Victory of the oppressed”, Daily Monitor, 3 July 2017.

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