KAMPALA —Not earlier than 2019, there were some within and outside that country who held doubts about the potential for a former musician to cause trouble to Yoweri Kaguta Museveni‘s seemingly eternal reign as president of Uganda.
The skepticism was founded not so much in the readiness and efficiency of the iron-strong antagonism Museveni has reserved for his critics and opposition challengers. Rather, they doubted Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – his understanding of the political climate, his ideology, his discipline and his ability to remain steadfast.
We may not yet say those people have been proven wrong. When Uganda’s election authority announces the final results, Museveni does look like the man who will carry the January 14 poll with a strong majority of votes. Kyagulanyi, or Bobi Wine as he has been known throughout much of his public life, will allege irregularities bordering on criminality. He may even declare that he won the vote.
But somehow, the finality of this process is not the most important aspect. I aim to convince that the lesson to pick up here is the way Museveni has undeniably been rattled by a man who shouldn’t have come this far, per his obstacles of public relations in addition to the deathly hostility with which he has been met.
Bobi Wine had no business leading this movement against Museveni. In his own words, Wine comes “from the ghetto”, where the poor have carried the brunt of Museveni’s failures. He grew up in a slum in northwestern Kampala, counting on his love of music as the ticket to sail out of where nothing good really comes.
What has become of the man who escaped on the ticket of music is that he stands toe-to-toe, fearlessly against one of Africa’s more determined strongmen. To say he had no right to come this far is to put Bobi Wine in comparison with Museveni’s last two competitors: Dr. Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s friend-turned-foe who was once his personal doctor, and Dr. Paul Ssemogerere, an astute academic. Either man, but particularly Dr. Besigye, offered the promise of rebirth that Museveni had began to renege on circa 2006.
Dr. Besigye, in his own right, was a courageous politician. Anyone who comes up against a strongman is. His unpopular support for gay rights in Uganda, something we cannot say for Bobi Wine, would continue to be a feather in his cap in the eyes of a considerable lot of his compatriots. Consequently, he laid the grounds for future opposition to Museveni but he was surprisingly not quite an embodiment of the protest against the authoritarian tendencies of Museveni.
One would have to remember that Museveni vs Besigye was one of the longest presidential election battles in postcolonial Africa. In 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2016, the physician unsuccessfully tried to wrestle power from the former guerilla leader. That antagonism was symptomatic of Ugandan politics. For Bobi Wine to overtake Dr. Besigye in under four years, begs a lot of explanations, one of which is the fact that we witness the pulling ahead of a comet with the momentum.
The average age in Uganda is under 20 in a country of more than 44 million people. According to a piece published by The Guardian, about 80% of Ugandans were born around or after Museveni first came into power in 1986. Bobi Wine himself was only just 4 when Museveni claimed his coming marked a “fundamental change” in Uganda’s history and sets the country toward the path of “democratic government”. He was believed then as Wine is now.
It was evident for about two years that Wine commanded massive support among Uganda’s young. He had remade himself in the image of the aspirational revolutionary, a far cry from the reggae and pop musician who threw shots at politicians and volunteered political suggestions in hit tunes. And you would like to see that, would you not? That your aspiring politician transcends the hedonism and debauchery popstars are known for. You could tell Wine had grown into this new skin when he questioned Museveni’s education credentials.
All this has been done by Wine with a fair bit of grip on the everydayness of Ugandan life, touting the life of the ordinary people as his inspiration for politics. He is the man of all the people, yesterday’s Museveni in action today. That is remarkably unlike Dr. Besigye or Dr. Ssemogerere. And maybe, more than anyone on the face of this earth, Museveni sees this – that this one is different.
The good doctor did not have young people adopting fashion styles to make anti-establishment political statements. Before you underestimate the relevance of this, you have to know that Museveni’s government did not; they tried to ban the signature red berets members of the National Unity Platform (NUP) wore. It is fair to understand that adopting a fashion style to signify your politics and annoy power plays out on a critical plane of human self-expression.
Wine’s fiery speeches against Museveni were a mark of his campaign in 2017 when he vied for the Kyandodo East parliamentary seat in a by-election. They have continued and indeed, turned up a few notches with every bullet fired at him and his supporters and with every life lost in his campaign. In November after he filed forms to contest in the presidential election, 54 people were killed in clashes between his supporters and the police. That is more lives lost than in the entirety of the 2016 electioneering process.
Museveni is anything but an idiot. In the last few years, observers of the African political scene like myself have had to concede that the 76-year-old makes the closest to a formidable argument for serial power-wielders. They are not to be booted out simply because one thinks their time is up or that they are old. The fragility of the African democratic process and its evolution means that life and living shall not easily be trusted to the devices of teething institutions. Strong fixtures, i.e. benevolent strongmen, are necessary while democracy is young.
I understand it is aberrant to argue that while democracy crawls, benevolent strongmen are useful. In fact, in his case, Museveni has spent 34 years not creating and empowering the institutions that can guarantee Uganda’s democracy. He is rather devolved into a paternalistic and condescending bully unrecognizable from the revolutionary of the 80s and 90s.
Far be it from me to hold the citations of honor given by America as a sort of scale but in 1997, Magdalene Albright called Museveni a “beacon of hope” in a “uni-party democracy” in Africa. The solution to the Ugandan AIDS crisis and the relative stability enjoyed by the country is chiefly due to Museveni’s governance. But somewhere along the line, the plot was lost and the light gave way to soul-shattering bleakness.
“Why did such a prized revolutionary decide to become one of the world’s most despised dictators?,” Bobi Wine asked himself in an interview with the BBC in 2019. “Only the idea of building strong institutions that can save us from ourselves.”
Before these institutions will be built, from scratch or in continuance, the old has to give way to the new spirit. Museveni will survive today’s battle but the future has been previewed and he knows it. It is incumbent upon him, and only him – as the most important politician in that country – to begin to make plans for his exit. Having seen what the young think of him, it would be most irresponsible if he plans to sink his claws in further like his late friend Robert Mugabe did.