Foreign Policy

Uganda Heads to the Polls, With ‘Dictator’ on the Line

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Uganda heads to the polls in tense general elections—with the long-serving president facing a challenge from a pop singer. The outgoing Trump administration enacts last-minute foreign-policy decisions that could box in U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. And North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over the first ruling party congress since 2016.

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Ahead of Elections, Facebook Deplatforms Ugandan Misinformation Network 

Facebook has removed a network of accounts in Uganda, including a number belonging to government officials, accusing them of attempting to manipulate public opinion ahead of general elections on Thursday. Facebook’s head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, told Agence France-Presse that the accounts were linked to the communications ministry and had used fake and duplicate accounts to share content and artificially boost its popularity.

The upcoming vote will see incumbent President Yoweri Museveni face off against the popular singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, a prominent activist against corruption and youth unemployment who has called Museveni a “dictator.” Campaigning has been marred by attacks on Wine and his supporters by the Ugandan security services.

Authorities have detained some 600 people attending his rallies, allegedly for violating pandemic-related restrictions in mass gatherings, and Wine himself has been arrested three times. In November 2020, 54 people were killed when police violently suppressed protests that broke out after Wine was arrested for a second time. The following month, one of Wine’s bodyguards was killed after being run over by a military police truck.

Wine, who grew up in a slum in the capital city of Kampala, became known as the country’s “Ghetto President” for his activism and music. He won a seat in Parliament in 2017 pledging to combat corruption. The next year, he was arrested, charged with treason, and says that he was tortured by the country’s military while in custody.

Wine’s messages have resonated with Uganda’s young population: Two-thirds of registered voters are under the age of 30, and most are unemployed or rely on odd jobs to get by. But polling data is limited, and it is unclear whether Wine can overcome Museveni’s electoral promises of stability. Previous presidential elections have been marred by fraud allegations.

Museveni came to power in 1986 after leading an armed uprising that toppled his predecessor’s regime. Although he rejected multiparty politics for decades, Museveni helped lead swaths of the country’s population out of poverty and ushered in an era of relative stability. Constitutional amendments in 2005 and 2017 abolished term limits and set a new age limit on the presidency, which was previously 75.

Uganda hasn’t had a peaceful transfer of power in modern times—and the potential for instability is high in the wake of the vote.

A foreign-policy flurry. With less than two weeks to go until U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration has made a series of last-minute foreign-policy decisions that could box in the incoming administration, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch report. Last Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington would lift restrictions aimed at regulating U.S. officials’ dealings with Taiwan, in a bid to not provoke the ire of Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the island.

The move could set the United States on a collision course with China just as Biden takes office. “The Chinese people’s resolve to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity is unshakable and we will not permit any person or force to stop the process of China’s re-unification,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

On Sunday, Pompeo announced that Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels will be designated a terrorist organization, throwing up major roadblocks for international aid organizations looking to work with the group, which controls northwestern Yemen including the country’s capital Sanaa.

The decision “has a far-reaching impact on the already dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. The sanctions will hamstring the ability of aid agencies to respond, and without additional safeguards and broader exemptions for the commercial sector, Yemen’s faltering economy will be dealt a further devastating blow,” said Mohamed Abdi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Yemen country director, in a statement.

Kim Jong Un throws down the gauntlet. In the first ruling party congress since 2016, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced that the country is developing a slate of new weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons and advanced warheads designed to route foreign missile defense systems, and had completed plans for a nuclear-powered submarine. Last week’s announcement raises the stakes just before Biden takes office in Washington.

International sanctions and economic shocks brought on by the pandemic have bruised the country’s economy, undercutting Kim’s lofty military goals. But Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert, told the BBC that North Korea’s saber-rattling should not be overlooked. “I think the president-elect should take that at face value and, as soon as possible, clarify his perspective on what objectives his administration will seek in potential negotiations with North Korea,” he said.

Cyberattack in New Zealand. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the country’s central bank, announced on Sunday that its systems had suffered a cyberattack that may have compromised commercially and personally sensitive information. It’s not clear who was responsible for the attack. Several major organizations in New Zealand have been targeted with cyberattacks over the past year, including the country’s stock exchange, which suffered a multiday attack last August.

New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership, making the country a high-priority target for malign foreign actors, especially China.

Political shifts in the other Georgia. Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has towered over the country’s political scene for almost a decade, announced on Monday that he would step down as leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, vowing to leave politics altogether. With a personal wealth of almost $6 billion—equivalent to roughly one-third of the country’s GDP—acquired mostly as an oligarch in the 1990s, Ivanishvili has been accused of using his fortune to tip the scales in favor of his party in elections.

His departure could help ease political tensions following last year’s elections, which opposition parties alleged were rigged. But this is not the first time Ivanishvili has announced he is stepping down: He retired as prime minister and party chairman in 2013 only to return in 2018.

From prisoner to president. Populist politician Sadyr Zhaparov won a landslide victory in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections held on Sunday, three months after protesters released him from prison, where he was serving a lengthy sentence for organizing the kidnapping of a provincial governor. Zhaparov says the charges were politically motivated.

Zhaparov was freed after the prison was stormed by a mob amid protests that erupted in the wake of disputed parliamentary elections in October 2020. Shortly after his release, Zhaparov was elected prime minister by lawmakers and temporarily took on the powers of the presidency before stepping down to run for election.

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River Jordan chapel. On Sunday, a bullet-ridden chapel on the West Bank of the river Jordan held its first mass in 54 years after a multiyear effort to remove over 1,000 land mines from the surrounding area. The chapel, believed to be located on the site where Jesus was baptized, has been inaccessible since the Six-Day War between Israel and a handful of its Arab neighbors in 1967, when Israeli forces took control of the West Bank.

That’s it for this week.

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