Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, pulled off a surprise political gymnastics on July 19 by unveiling a team of 150 people he called his regional coordinators.
It was the closest the first-time legislator got to instituting a formal structure and revealing faces of associates in his free-wheeling People Power movement.
This deed whirled into the headwinds almost immediately. Two of the nominees; Jie MP Bildad Adome and Amuru District Woman MP Susan Amero, both subscribers to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, rushed out statements to disassociate themselves on grounds that they had not been consulted.
It was a misstep better avoided by a political novice. And inexperience is one undoing of Bobi Wine that his critics employ to question altogether his ability and preparedness to steer Uganda if he were to run, and bag a victory in the 2021 presidential elections.
And Bobi Wine has thrown his hat in this political ring by proclaiming his readiness to take on and uproot President Museveni, already in power for 33 years.
He finds an already crowded field. The ruling NRM’s Central Executive Committee (NEC) resolved, subject to approval by other organs of the party, that their incumbent retains the flag in 2021.
Mr Museveni, known for keeping political cards close to his chest, plainly welcomed the resolution whose endorsement has been replicated informally by party lackeys in various regions during the president’s ongoing nationwide wealth creation popularisation tour.
The wealth creation trips are President Museveni’s campaign ahead of the formal presidential campaigns, the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party said last week, signalling an already unlevelled ground.
With the presidential age cap of 75 years scrapped from the Constitution, the septuagenarian is eligible to seek re-election, even when he has not publicly declared his intention to keep the political chief executive job.
And four-time presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, who too has not said if he will run again, stands out as an Opposition juggernaut. It is not surprising that his supporters and Bobi Wine followers have clashed, even traded invectives, mostly on social media.
These insults, some of which carried counter-productive tribal undertones, jolted the principals to talk out their differences and issue a blueprint, affirming their intention to work together.
There was, and still is, less clarity on the specifics. The proclamation on the face of it, however, appears to have paused the quarrels from snowballing into tragicomic Opposition meltdown.
As Bobi Wine and Dr Besigye, a self-proclaimed ‘People’s President’, patched up their differences, a long-standing mistrust between FDC members and the Democratic Party (DP) leaders bubbled to the surface.
Mr Norbert Mao, the leader of DP, was a go-fer during the failed 2015 The Democratic Alliance (TDA) experiment, and forcibly argued for former premier Amama Mbabazi to be opposition presidential flag bearer in 2016 against the tested Besigye.
Whereas Dr Besigye has experience in running and winning millions of votes, his Achilles Heels is losing the ultimate prize – State House.
Yet Mr Mao, who ran a lifetime race to be President and pocketed only insignificant votes, is treated by some peers with suspicion for his perceived fraternisation with the ruling class. His critics have tabled no evidence, at least publicly, that he is up to some mischief.
On the other hand, Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) is convulsing and imploding with internal schism while the Justice Forum (JEEMA) is hobnobbing with both DP and People Power group, orbiting in a radar-less togetherness space.
That theoretically makes Bobi Wine, whose star has shone bright with a sprinkling of parliamentary by-elections victories snapped by candidates he supports, an attractive political bride to court.
And he knows it. Analysts see these short-lived feats as the basis for the newcomer lawmaker’s self-assuredness and outsized role and influence, real or invented, which has emboldened him to range his chest against Mr Museveni.
It is a full-throttle charge against a man who has turned into a colossus of sorts over Uganda. Experienced politicians and some elder statesmen have cautioned Bobi Wine to race with care and brakes to avoid turning into a flash in the pan.
Announcing his team
In announcing his team, Bobi Wine scores on one front and loses on another. A formal organisational structure gives confidence to other Opposition players that he is serious and supported, which explains why Dr Besigye, Mr Mao and Maj Gen Muntu Mugisha, leader of the newly-created Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), welcomed unveiling of his team.
It is a poisoned chalice, though. State actors and government functionaries will find it easier to target and scatter the team, whether with sweeteners or stick, as it disrupted Mr Mbabazi’s campaign network he painstakingly built over years while playing a cog in the NRM wheel. A state assault is a slug hard to dodge as Bobi Wine witnessed firsthand when soldiers allegedly brutalised him and others in Arua in August 2018.
Just how safe is his loaded political boat to sail in the rough waters of Uganda’s leadership contest? And how should he navigate?
The answer, according to Prof Sabiti Makara, the head of the Department of Political Science at Makerere University, lies in building alliances now that the musician-turned-politician has a discernible outfit.
“If Bobi Wine had entered these political parties alone, he would have been referred to as an auxiliary politician without any kind of portfolio. At that point, he risked being used as a project,” Prof Makara said, adding, “I think it is very important for them (opposition actors) to come together and form an alliance.”
In neighbouring Kenya, the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in 2002 catapulted Mwai Kibaki to power as voters, riled by Daniel arap Moi’s autocratic rule, fanned out to polling stations in record numbers to hand the latter’s anointed successor, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, a shock defeat. Mr Kenyatta later won through another coalition.
Observers doubt Uganda’s Opposition leaders have the temerity and maturity to cede ground in the haywire moment of picking a joint presidential candidate.
Mr Siraje Kifampa, the Nakasero Mosque spokesperson, is one such skeptic.
“You see even those (politicians) that have gone to People Power are contesting in the same constituency, which shows they are greedy… Some of the failed coalitions have been because of the donor money, which is given to leading political parties,” he argued.
Money, of course, is one of the deciding factor in Uganda’s increasingly commercialised politics. The cash required to run a vote against, and defeat President Museveni, is unlikely in the possession of the Kyadondo lawmaker and it is likely that State actors will spot and freeze any campaign finance transfers from abroad and may relax vigilance only after 2021 ballot.
That would render Bobi Wine and team penniless and ineffective, even unable to secure nomination. Then he would at best be a king maker, not the king.
In the worst case scenario, as it happened to Dr Besigye in 2005, he could be bundled in jail on any charge in the run up to nominations to technically knock him out of the competition.
These possibilities notwithstanding, Bobi Wine is currently positioning himself as the cross-aisle politician who, as shown in his appointments of regional coordinators, can poach from the ruling NRM and Opposition parties.
Analysts see an intra-opposition membership raid at best as idling at a junction and, at worst, a hemaorrhage that can cause fatal political outcomes. One possible signal is a polarised opposition to the advantage of the ruling NRM.
Makerere University Law lecturer, Prof Daniel Ruhweza, citing the Kenyan success in throwing out the long-serving Arap Moi, said Uganda would require a “unique candidate” to galvanise the Opposition and appeal to apolitical or disillusioned voters unsure their votes count.
A candidate requires to garner 50 per cent plus 1 vote of the votes to be declared President. Dr Besigye claimed, without providing evidence, that he polled 52 per cent of the votes in 2016 and on that basis conducted a mock swearing-in as part of a defiance campaign that was intended to make Uganda ungovernable for President Museveni in his fifth elective term.
Mr Museveni has stayed on course for more than half of the current tenure and looks destined not only to complete it but seek re-election which, if he wins, presents the possibility for him to rule for 40 years.
“Many people are in that state of voter fatigue,” said Prof Ruhweza, “they do not believe their votes in an election [count]. You need someone who can beat this status quo.”
Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, the People Power movement spokesperson, predictably believes that Bobi Wine is the messiah to glue the Opposition and bring like-minded people under one fold.
“… the harvest (of supporters) is plentiful like the Bible says,” Mr Ssenyonyi said in an interview, without giving specific numbers.
Time is not on Bobi Wine’s side to found a political party of his own as a vehicle to deliver 2021 targets. The test of his influence, if he wants to clinch a joint Opposition flag, will be in persuading Opposition honchos to surrender their throne to him.
Such pursuit will be a foray into a political minefield infested with ego, pride, intrigue and condescending attitude.
Unease is already manifest between People Power and DP, bringing to an abrupt halt months of honeymoon when the pressure group and FDC/Besigye supporters were colliding.
Insiders say DP stalwarts took exception when Bobi Wine ignored them in naming his team. And the Kyadondo legislator’s kingpins said they spurned Mao’s squad because they schemed to direct and dominate the appointments ostensibly based on their experience.
Two-time inconsequential presidential candidate, Mr Abed Bwanika, who has made it a public occupation to attack and ridicule Dr Besigye, said a fortnight ago that the People Power line-up was weak and would hand President Museveni an easy ride to victory in 2021 — should he, as expected, choose to contest.
The DP has also attempted other political shenanigans. For example, it last month unveiled popular musician Joseph Mayanja aka Jose Chameleon as its national mobiliser to counterbalance Bobi Wine. The scheme flopped.
DP re-discovered its spirit of friendship and cooperation, resulting in an inconclusive make-or-break closed-door meeting between Mr Mao and Bobi Wine on Wednesday, last week. This presages how hard, not smooth, the journey will be for an untested celebrity politician in Uganda’s murky political waters.
At 37, he is half the age of the incumbent president. That is a potential asset in a country where up to 75 per cent of the population is estimated to be 30 years or younger.
Many do not vote and the Opposition’s undoing has been failing to excite reluctant and disenchanted voters to file at the polling stations. For instance, in 2016, the number of registered voters who stayed away rivalled the total number of votes that enabled Mr Museveni keep his job.
Put another way, the incumbent perhaps would have lost the top job if absentee voters turned up to cast the ballot.
Advantage.That is why sympathisers retail Bobi Wine’s life story and personality — a self-made, high-flying artiste from ravages and ignominy of slum deprivation — as attractive without borders, earning him hectares of coverage in international media.
That eagerness by Western media to lurch on news about him has exposed Bobi Wine at home to accusations of being a sell-out to Western capitals, euphemism for imperialists’ proxy.
Still, with a history of growing up in a ghetto, Bobi Wine in a way symbolises the suffering of the majority poor and unemployed, particularly urban youths excluded from the gains of a growing economy in an unequal country.
He, unlike Mr Museveni and Dr Besigye, does not carry the historical baggage of having waged a guerrilla war that brought to power the current crop of military and political elite that critics accuse of delighting in corruption, nepotism and impunity, among other ills.
Being a musical gem means Bobi Wine’s name precedes him. Identity recognition at household level is, of course, a political asset. And he has used that fame to try to befriend state security and intelligence outfits, who often arbitrate political disagreements and lead assault on regime opponents, by composing songs in which he endears them to join the Opposition cause because it holds a promise of a better future for all.
That ballot to pick a president, MPs and more than a million local government leaders, is 18 months away.
But nominations for parliamentary and presidential flag bearers will come months earlier, in fact about one year from now, according to Electoral Commission behind-the-schedule roadmap released last December.
As such, there is jostling by political actors for the pedestal. Dozens of eyes are on the ultimate prize – President.
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