At a rally in Kampala this September, the opposition lawmaker Bobi Wine declared: "This is not politics as usual. This is a revolution."
Speaking to the gathered crowd, the popular 37-year-old musician and his allies called on supporters across Uganda to don a signature red beret to show their support for the Wine's People Power movement and signal their frustration with the status quo.
Less than a month later, the government designated the red beret as military clothing and threatened to arrest any civilians seen wearing it. This prohibition may seem trivial but it came against a backdrop of similar measures. In recent months, the Ugandan government has charged Bobi Wine with "annoying" the president. It has violently broken up opposition rallies. It has increased its censorship of the media. And it has reportedly recruited paramilitary groups to help control protests.
On the one hand, these actions could be seen as part of the ruling National Resistance Movement's (NRM) insurance policy for staying in power. Amid growing discontentment with its 33-year rule - and ahead of the 2021 elections in which Bobi Wine has vowed to take on President Yoweri Museveni - the current regime can maintain its grip by simply clamping down on dissent.
On the other hand, Uganda's history of opposition and repression points to a more complex picture. The country's recent past suggests that suppression is in fact more likely to intensify opposition support and radicalise people's demands than to quell them.
The NRM is therefore playing a dangerous game, but it may be the only game it has left.
From movement to repression
Since coming to power in 1986, President Museveni has employed different strategies for dealing with dissent. At the start of his rule, the government banned all political parties on the grounds that they were responsible for Uganda's past conflicts. In their place, it established the "no-party" Movement of which all Ugandans were considered members.
This meant there was no official external opposition, but internal disagreements over the future of the country did emerge, particularly as government corruption increased towards the late-1990s. Younger members of the Movement began critiquing the excesses of the old guard and calling for reforms. Museveni's answer to this, amid both domestic and international pressure, was to allow for Uganda to return to a multi-party system in 2005. The NRM solved its internal contradictions and evaded calls for its democratisation by creating space for its troublesome reformists to form their own separate parties.
This solved one problem but created another for the NRM: a recognised opposition. From the outset therefore, the government clamped down on the newly-unveiled parties. International donors had been appeased by Uganda's move to multi-partyism, but any democratic transition remained largely on paper. In the run-up to the 2006 elections, for instance, opposition leaders and supporters were intimidated and violently suppressed. Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), spent most of the campaign in prison on trumped up charges of rape and treason. The election itself, which officially declared Museveni the winner with 59%, was marred by allegations of malpractice and fraud. The next elections, in 2011, were similarly flawed. Museveni increased his official vote share to 68% amidst heavy campaign spending, repression, and malpractices.
In the aftermath of that vote, however, inflation soared prompting thousands to take to the streets in the Walk-to-Work movement. This was a new kind of threat to the NRM. Security forces responded with mass arrests and shootings in several towns and cities. The government has confronted demonstrations with similar brute force ever since. In 2013, it passed the Public Order Management Act, which placed severe restrictions on public gatherings, to bolster its powers to do so.
It has used these recently in banning rallies and clamping down on protests spearheaded by Bobi Wine. Since the musician won a by-election to become an MP in July 2017, he has led several huge rallies and concerts and been outspoken in his condemnation of the NRM. The government has also frustrated the increasingly popular opposition figure on several occasions by arresting him on a variety of charges.
From victory to revolution
The way in which the NRM's repression has changed over the years has been a reaction to different opposition tactics. However, its actions have also, in turn, contributed to the opposition's changing strategies.
When the multi-party system was first reinstated, for instance, the opposition largely invested in elections as the route to change. When Besigye garnered 37% in 2006, it was regarded as a decent result given the harsh environment. The opposition believed it could build on this showing to push for victory in 2011.
In the intervening years, however, the government's hostility to the opposition and persecution of Besigye increased. The 2011 election, in which the opposition's vote share dropped to 26%, was again marred by allegations of rigging and intimidation. After this, faith in the process evaporated. Besigye rejected the results as fraudulent and called on FDC MPs to boycott parliament. Further inspired by the Walk to Work protests that followed shortly after, the opposition's strategy shifted from working within the system to one of civil disobedience.
The government targeted Besigye in response, but images of the opposition leader in handcuffs and behind prison bars painted him as a hero of the downtrodden. As the 2016 polls approached, both government and opposition prepared for another showdown, but this time eyes were less on the results - which saw Museveni win 61% to Besigye's 36% - than on the streets. Although heavy army deployment prevented protests from erupting after the vote, the battle lines had been drawn.
Since Bobi Wine has risen to political prominence in the past few years, both dynamics have intensified further: the government's repression has increased; and the opposition has become more radical in its demands. As the NRM has banned rallies, arrested opposition figures and used violence, Wine has established People Power as a popular movement rather than a political party. He has told supporters to get ready for change in the 2021 elections but also hinted at what they should do if the vote is are rigged. He has said that what Uganda needs is a revolution.
Even more so than in 2016, both the government and opposition see that the upcoming election could be the start of a contest for power rather than the contest itself. The government's fear is less that Museveni could lose the election - the electoral process is carefully managed by the NRM - than that a disputed victory could catapult a mobilised and angry opposition onto the streets.
The NRM faces a dilemma that refuses to go away. If the regime tolerates dissent, the opposition will continue to mobilise and grow. If it represses its critics, it could stimulate more resistance and give its opponents greater credibility.
This perhaps explains the government's zig-zag approach recently of sometimes seeming tolerant of dissent only to smash it a few days later. During the #FreeBobiWine protests in 2018, for instance, it released some political prisoners in what seemed like a concession to domestic and international pressure only to impose stricter media censorship and unleash police brutality shortly after. President Museveni wavers between fear and confidence. He has tried to win over young people through social media and youth development projects, while simultaneously issuing threats against opposition.
The recent ban on red berets might appear insignificant, but it reveals the real dilemma of Museveni's state. More repression has the potential to fuel more revolt. Less repression could open the lid on popular frustrations that have been suppressed for so long.