FALSE START FOR BOBI WINE: Can he pass the next two tests?
Kampala, Uganda | JOSEPH WERE | Since he emerged as the head of the People Power pressure group in 2018, the Kyadondo East MP Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, has faced one critical test; whether he would convince the leaders of political parties to rally behind him as the sole opposition presidential candidate in 2021.
On July 22 he confirmed he has failed the coalition forming test when he announced instead that he has formed a political party, the National Unity Platform (NUP). According to many analysts, it was also the day People Power’s popular appeal evaporated.
Emerging with a party showed that Bobi Wine has ability to be creative and spring a surprise; something that has so far lacked in the opposition. But his focus on forming a coalition can be seen in the name and symbols of his new party. The name could have been National Unity Party. It was initially, the National Unity Reconciliation and Development Party (NURDP), but Bobi Wine chose “platform”; meaning a unifying vehicle for public discussion. The Umbrella in Ugandan politics is also symbolic of efforts to unite various factions under one roof, a test which Bobi Wine appears to have failed to pass.
The test Bobi Wine faced is not new. Renowned opposition politician Rtd. Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye faced a similar test in the 2001 elections. He was the new kid on the opposition bloc. He was popular and was the de facto head of an amorphous pressure group; the Reform Agenda, formed by people opposed to Museveni’s continuing in power.
Besigye also, like Bobi Wine, needed to convince the leaders of established parties to back him as their coalition presidential candidate. Besigye succeeded.
The established opposition parties; the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), the Democratic Party (DP), and the Conservative Party (CP) agreed to support him as their candidate against Museveni. That election saw one of the highest voter turn-outs at 70.3% of registered voters. Only the 1996 election, also driven by a protest against Museveni extending his stay in power, registered a higher turn-out at 72.9%.
Voter turn-out which is a measure of how excited voters are about an election has been low since. In the last election in 2016, voter turn-out was just 67.6%.
Museveni won that election with just 6 million votes or just 40% of the 15 million registered voters. Up to nine million voters or 60% of registered voters did not vote for Museveni. About four million voted for the opposition candidates and Besigye got his highest vote tally ever; at 36% of registered voters. The rest of the voters, about five million of them, stayed away.
Coalition versus ambition
Looking at those numbers, political analysts have argued that the opposition has a high chance of defeating Museveni if, one; they field a single coalition candidate, and two; if they mobilise voters to turn-out in large numbers.
According to analysts, Bobi Wine could lose support because of his decision to form a party instead of a coalition with existing parties.The argument is that Ugandan voters opposed to Museveni prefer a single opposition candidate instead of each party fronting a candidate.
The trouble is that the politicians can never agree on who should be their joint candidate. Also, the idea that Uganda’s opposition, if united in a coalition, would defeat Museveni in a one-on-one race has never been tested. Uganda has never had only two candidates on the presidential election ballot. The opposition had the Inter-Party Forces Coalition (IPFC) in 1996 which backed then-Democratic Party (DP) leader, Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere but the ballot also had Muhammad Kibirige Mayanja of the opposition Justice Forum (JEEMA) Party. In 2001 there was the Reform Agenda platform which supported Kizza Besigye but the ballot had four other candidates. Attempts to get an opposition joint candidate under the Inter-Party Coalition (IPC) in 2011 and The Democratic Alliance (TDA) in 2016 failed.
Bobi Wine, as the leader of the People Power pressure group appeared to be on the path to achieving both an opposition coalition and riding on the momentum created to effectively challenge Museveni. But Bobi Wine now, as the head of just another opposition political party, has placed both ambitions in doubt.
Bobi Wine appeared too different but he has become like the rest. He is blinded by personal ambition. He is seeking to lead an opposition party even if that is at the expense of a stronger united opposition to the NRM.
Bobi Wine must now confront the factors that make opposition parties in Uganda weak, including lack of funding, unclear programmes, weak organizational structures; especially at grassroots level, conflict within and with other parties, and oppression by the state. Bobi Wine faces all these challenges, plus the added limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.