In early February, about 150 people gathered off the main highway and down a path of bumpy red earth in Kamuli, a rural area a few hours drive from the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Music played from an unseen speaker as two teenage boys wearing tight jeans and bright yellow shirts—the color of the ruling National Resistance Movement—danced provocatively in the middle of a clearing to cheers and whistles.
A pickup truck arrived and Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Uganda’s parliament, stepped out. She wore a turquoise gomesi, the traditional floor-length gown of the Buganda and Busoga kingdoms of Uganda. The sash of her gomesi was the same bright yellow as the boys’ shirts, and she was wearing a pearl necklace with matching earrings. A red carpet was laid on the dirt, and a padded chair and a table were positioned on top of that. Kadaga sat down and began another stop on the campaign trail.
It was her 27th year doing this. “If you look at the history of Uganda, I grew up in a time where there was no politics,” she told me during an interview. “We had a military government. So this was a new situation where the democratic process was waking up again, after a lot of turbulence, and a lot of instability.”
Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary elections took place on February 18. The race saw the three most serious contenders for president, incumbent Yoweri Museveni and opposition candidates Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, fight a contentious battle that resulted in what observers have called an ‘embarrassing mess.’
Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Kamuli district, addresses villagers during her campaign for the women’s seat of the district. Photo: Sonia Paul
Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years, won with more than 60 percent of the vote, according to the country’s electoral commission. But the election was riddled with irregularities, including delays in delivering voting materials and allegations of vote rigging and intimidation. The government also shut down access to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, as well as mobile money services, on voting day. The services remained blocked up to three days after the election.
Violent protests were met with excessive police force, and both of the main opposition candidates were placed under house arrest as election results came out. Besigye, who came in second with about 35 percent of the vote, was arrested five times in a little more than a week.
We don’t believe in term limits
Seventy-one-year-old Museveni, a former rebel leader, is now entering his fifth term as president under the National Resistance Movement political party. “We don’t believe in term limits,” he told the BBC after this year’s win. He had previously changed Uganda’s constitution in 2005 to abolish the two-limit term limits that were set in place for the president.
Museveni is credited with helping to stabilize Uganda since he first seized power after a five-year guerilla war in 1986, and has since become one of the U.S.’s strongest allies in East Africa. Despite mounting opposition, it was almost inevitable that he would win the election.
But the idea that another person could rise to power in Uganda has long gripped the imaginations of citizens. According to multiple opinion polls over the last few years, one would-be contender is Rebecca Kadaga.
As a fellow member of the National Resistance Movement, a presidential nomination for Kadaga, 59, wouldn’t be considered unless Museveni were out of the picture. But her commanding presence in parliament and headstrong leadership has attracted some attention that the former lawyer could be a strong future candidate.
She is the first female Speaker in Uganda’s history and is considered a trailblazer for women in politics. She spearheaded the legal battle against female genital mutilation and fought for equal property rights for wives. But she is also a controversial politician: She is strongly against gay rights and once said that passing Uganda’s internationally notorious proposed anti-gay law would be a ‘Christmas gift’ for the country.