UGA10092020EBKAMPALA, Uganda –At Arua Park, the main bus terminal in this sprawling capital, a few residents recently met up secretly– hiding in plain sight – to discuss the future of their country ahead of presidential elections now scheduled for early 2021.

They spoke about how they want to see long-serving President Yoweri Museveni relinquish power to 38-year-old Bobi Wine, a popular reggae star, who is also the opposition leader of the leading National Unity Platform.

“We are tired of Museveni’s rule, it’s now time for change,” Leonard Muhwezi, 25, who is a motorcycle taxi driver, told me. “Museveni has ruled this country longer than I have been alive – and it’s time for him to relinquish power to the young.”
In power since 1986, Museveni is the only leader a majority of Ugandans have ever known. It's not an unusual phenomenon in Africa, though. You just have to look at Equatorial Guinea whose leader Teodoro Obiang has ruled since 1979. Ditto for Cameroon: Paul Biya has been in power since 1982.
In Africa, what raises eyebrows is the passing of the so-called democratic torch.
Still, that isn't to say that folks don't wish it – or sometimes succeed either. Muhwezi’s desire for change resonates with millions of other young voters and that might just make the difference, even with the playing field tilted toward the regime. These folks have long been upset by the state of the economy and the lack of political freedom. And Museveni's use of anti-virus measures to tighten his grip on power is tipping the sentiment against him.
For example, on March 30, Museveni announced a nighttime curfew, banned mass gatherings, closed all bars and court hearings, forbid the use of all private vehicles and closed shopping malls. Those measures could have been seen as legitimate anti-virus measures – until he directed police to arrest opposition politicians who were distributing food to the hungry.
And it gets worse: Police have not only dispersed opposition gatherings, they have beaten, and shot civilians attending those gatherings, and arbitrarily arrested others. Meanwhile, ruling party politicians including Museveni hold campaign rallies and distribute food relief.
So of course it's no surprise that locals were shocked and suspicious when Museveni sought to delay elections by a year. Now, parliament is seeking to suspend all elections for five years.
“To have elections when the virus is still there… It will be madness,” the 75-year-old Museveni said in an interview with the local NBS Television aired in May.
Covid-19 is a problem, no question. But other countries such as Poland have held elections this year with higher rates of transmission and death. Uganda, a nation of 42 million people, has recorded just over 3,288 cases and 33 deaths since March, according to data from Johns Hopkins University's tracking portal.
Regardless, few buy that election delays of a year or longer are borne out of public safety concerns, especially when they are issued by authoritarian regimes. Still, this playbook is being used all over Africa. For example, the much-heralded reform-minded Ethiopian government indefinitely postponed elections that were scheduled for August. Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Somalia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, the Seychelles and Tanzania are likely to follow.
“COVID-19 period has seen African leaders including Museveni amassing sweeping new powers to intimidate and brutalize opposition leaders and their supporters,” Philip Nying’uro, a professor of international relations at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, told me recently. “The presidents’ power cannot be questioned during the COVID-19 period because (the government) will say they are fighting the virus. The situation will obviously pose risks for democracy and basic fundamental rights and freedoms in the continent.”
And while all these countries face socio-political and economic challenges acerbated by the pandemic, postponing elections to allow regimes to remain in power might just tip those tensions over into violence.
“We might have revolutions and military coups in Africa if leaders continue to play with democracy,” Nying’uro warned. “Leaders should make sure that they respect the rule of law by holding regular, free, fair and transparent elections.”
Some pushback has already started.
Government officials across the continent are being investigated for using their positions to siphon off funds intended to tackle COVID-19. For example, in Kenya where health officials including the cabinet secretary for the department are accused of looting more than $100 million in foreign aid while hospitals experience severe shortages.
“African leaders are taking advantage of a declared pandemic to cook figures and loot funds sent to mitigate the infection,” Nazlin Umar, a political analyst based in Nairobi, told me. “None of these funds went to manage the virus but to enrich the despots.”
Meanwhile, in Rwanda, things have already turned violent. President Paul Kagame authoritarian regime grows more brazen in attacking its critics: This month, it arrested Paul Rusesabagina – portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as the hero who saved 1,200 lives during the country's 1994 genocide – on terrorism charges. He was a Kagame’s critic.
Still, as many African leaders attempt to use the pandemic to tighten their grip on power, they should heed the lessons of the past few years when voters finally rose up in The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere to throw off their longtime dictators.
Those voters recognized that even as Africans had cut loose from the past chains of slavery and colonialization, we remained shackled in the prisons of entrenched poverty, disease, corruption and political repression, run by Black colonial masters now.
Wine in Uganda understands this. And he understands we need to remove those shackles. He wants to liberate Ugandans from Museveni, who seized power via a coup all those decades ago, as is so very common on this continent. He told me that "Ugandans will rise up if (Museveni) rigs or manipulates the vote.” Similar sentiment is coming out of Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Still, because of COVID-19 electoral delays, judgment day feels a long way away.

Photo: March 25, 2018 - Kampala, Uganda - Rwandan President Paul Kagame (left) speaking with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, during a visit by the Rwandan leader in Uganda.
Credit: Courtesy of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's office (03/25/18)

Story/ photo published date: 09/10/20

A version of this story was published in the Boston Globe.