The Rules of the Game – How the Elections in Uganda are won

COMMENT Carsten Möller 14 January 2021

The rulebook of the popular card game “Munchkin” includes only a few rules. One states, “Any other disputes should be settled by loud arguments, with the owner of the game having the last word.”[1]

What might cause hilarious disputes amongst friends can result in tragedy if the game is becoming the president of over 40 million people.[2]

On January 14th, Ugandans will conduct general election. It is the fourth poll since political parties were allowed in 2005[3] and the sixth time Yoweri Museveni seeks re-election since he took power in 1986 as the leader of a rebel army[4]. Despite the popularity of his main rival the former musician Robert Kyagulanyi also known as Bobi Wine[5], chances are high that he will emerge victorious

While Museveni’s campaign does not spark much enthusiasm amongst the electorate, Bobi Wine regularly draws huge crowds of mostly young people to his campaign meetings. Playing the game might however not be enough if the pitch is uneven. Aware of the risk of defeat, Museveni uses his well-stocked toolbox to ensure that he is not only a player but also referee, and game designer. Thus, he will most likely remain president for another five years. The strategy: Everything goes, as long it does not result in sanctions against the National Resistance Movement regime. To achieve this, several different measures are taken against the opposition, none of which is undemocratic enough to draw the attention of donors and political allies in the west[6].

The sheer number of measures also makes it difficult to estimate their combined effects on the election results. At the base of the democratic rulebook, Museveni has kept his influence over the constitution, which was drafted 1995 under NRM (National Resistance Movement) one party[7] rule and changed it repeatedly in his favour. In 2017 at the age of 72, he lifted presidential age limits[8], after he had previously removed term limits through the NRM dominated parliament. Additionally, the electoral commission and the courts, who are responsible for ensuring free and fair elections, have repeatedly ruled in favour of Museveni and his party making it more than obvious that Museveni wields substantial influence over them[9]. Police and army, other referees of the game, are also heavily biased towards Museveni. By blocking, arresting, torturing and killing opposition supporters they obstruct campaigns and intimidate voters and politicians[10]. To avoid attention crackdowns, focus on campaign teams while the candidates themselves are just briefly detained with the intention to interrupt their rallies. Media and election observers are not spared either. While foreigners are denied access, local journalists are increasingly attacked, with the inspector general of police publicly stating that “journalists are beaten to protect them”[11]

Nevertheless, Museveni requires votes inside the ballots to justify his rule. To ensure some level of support, large sums of money are injected into the campaigns of the NRM party. Much of it is taken from state coffers [12] and NRM candidates, therefore, enjoy a significant financial advantage. This money is often invested into gifts for the electorate, an act prohibited as vote buying by the law. Since this still does not guarantee victory, further action was previously taken on election day by manipulating some of the ballots and the results. Such irregularities were confirmed by courts in 2016 although the call for a repetition of the elections was rejected as the scale on which it happened was seen as not significant enough.[13]

Currently, Covid-19 has provided another pretext to restrict the rallies and movements of oppositions candidates while for NRM members the rules are frequently bend. It is through this combination of several well considered blows, Museveni will almost certainly maintain his role as the game master after 2021, while he successfully maintains facade of free elections.

Carsten Möller is a Junior Fellow at the Bayreuth International Graduate School for African Studies (BIGSAS). His focus is on political geography and electoral research in Uganda, Kenya and the DRC.

[1] Rulebook Munchkinapokalypse:

[2] CIA World Factbook:

[3] Makara S, Rakner L, Svåsand L. (2009) – Turnaround: The National Resistance Movement and the Reintroduction of a Multiparty System in Uganda. International Political Science Review. 2009;30(2):185-204.

[4] Blattmann, C. (2009) –  From Violence to Voting: War and Political Participation in Uganda. American Political Science Review, 103(2), 231-247

[5] Osiebe G. (2020) – The Ghetto President and Presidential Challenger in Uganda. Africa Spectrum. 2020;55(1):86-99.

[6] Cf. Tangri R. and Mwenda A. (2010) President Museveni and the politics of presidential tenure in Uganda, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 28:1, 31-49,

[7] Helle S. and Rakner L. (2017) “The Impact of Elections: The Case of Uganda”. In Johannes Gerschewski & Christoph Stefes (eds) Crisis in Autocratic Regimes. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, pp. 111-134.

[8] Washington Post 28.09.2017 – Uganda’s parliament taken off the air after brawl breaks out between lawmakers (

[9] Abrahamsen (2016) – Uganda’s 2016 elections Not even faking it anymore, African Affairs, 115/461, 751–765

[10] Reuss and Titeca (2020) – How Museveni mastered violence to win elections in Uganda, African Arguments (

[11] Independent (2021) – It’s unfortunate police remains committed to beating journalists – CSOs

[12] Conroy-Krutz, J. and Logan, C. (2012). Museveni and the 2011 Ugandan election: Did the money matter? The Journal of Modern African Studies, 50(4), 625-655.

[13] Helle S. and Rakner L. (2017) “The Impact of Elections: The Case of Uganda”. In Johannes Gerschewski & Christoph Stefes (eds) Crisis in Autocratic Regimes. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, pp. 111-134.

2 replies on “The Rules of the Game – How the Elections in Uganda are won”

Sadly, what happened in Uganda represents the faces of many countries from Africa and the rest of the world. Elections, if anything, do not stand out as a pillar of portraying democracy in a given country. We see consistently across the continent and the rest of the world that elections serve only as a means to legitimize what has already been well preconceived: the continued rule of those already in power for their benefit. What has been said concerning democracy, that it is the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, remains to be an alien concept, coming probably from the dwarf planet Pluto. It does not work in Uganda or many other Africa countries with similar settings. And I bet it will never work any time soon. I have some reasons;

Firstly, many of these countries have strong presidencies akin to monarchies (not ceremonial but true monarchies). What they say, even in their wishful thinking, ends up being the law.
Secondly, these countries have powerful and impartial security forces that serve no other than the president. In many cases, security organs do not even know what the Constitutions and the laws say. They do what the commander in chief says, including attacking political opponents, when necessary. Indeed, in some cases, they anticipate the King’s wish in advance and proceed to execute it before it has been officially pronounced.
Thirdly, they have weak judicial institutions to act independently of the executive control. It is disappointing that the judiciary, in such countries, acts as a mere extension of the executive. And the parliaments are full of representatives whose thinking has been reduced to singing praises for those in power.
When you have such settings, you do not even need an election. Not when you have the police that cripples your opponent, the electoral commission that is already tallying the votes on your favor, and the court that is willing to rubberstamp your orders. Elections serve other purposes, none of which has anything to do with the people choosing their leaders.

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