Museveni, Besigye’s politics will determine next move
Kampala, Uganda | GAAKI KIGAMBO | When first term lawmaker Kyagulanyi Robert Sentamu, best known by his artistic moniker Bobi Wine, headed to Uganda’s north-westerly town of Arua on Aug.12 to stump for his choice of candidate in a by-election, only a super psychic would have predicted what eventually happened to him.
A day later on Aug. 13, soldiers of the elite Special Forces Command (SFC) that guard President Yoweri Museveni kidnapped and tortured music star-turned-politician to near-death. They accused him of obstructing the President’s convoy, in which one of the cars was allegedly stoned, and being in illegal possession of firearms. Both claims failed to wash. The latter charge was withdrawn as soon as he was arraigned before the military court martial and the former charge persists by a thread and is in civil court. The ordeal earned Bobi Wine the kind of outpouring of love and sympathy in Uganda and beyond that every politician craves. It cemented his place on Uganda’s political stage in a fraction of the time it took those who, at the very least, must now share the national stage with him.
The candidate Bobi Wine backed in the Arua municipality parliamentary by-election; Kassiano Wadri, won. And, since winning his own Kyaddondo East constituency by landslide last year, Bobi Wine has backed winning candidates in by-elections in Bugiri, Jinja, Rukungiri. The self-styled “Ghetto President”, a title appropriated after Kampala’s Kamwokya slum in which he grew up, has become a bona fide MP maker and a threat worth undercutting in the best way Museveni knows how.
Since his armed rise to power in 1986, Museveni has set life as the ultimate premium for anyone who dares to challenge his hold onto power. He has responded to those who have stood against him in elections with the same ferocity as those who have taken up arms against him.
The public has responded by reserving the most respect for opposition politicians who demonstrate willingness to pay Museveni’s absurd price. In Uganda today, the political rite of passage involves daring to face everything Museveni will throw at opponents, to the point of death.
For nearly 20 years now, only Col. (Rtd) Dr Kizza Besigye has consistently met Museveni’s price. His “extraordinary courage and resilience in the face of extreme physical and psychological suffering at the hands of vicious regime enforcers places him in the number one spot on the honour roll of those who have challenged the personalised rule of President Museveni,” noted Dr Munini Mulera, a prominent social and political commentator and until recently a top official in Uganda’s main opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
In 2011, Besigye suffered in full public view what security forces unleashed on Bobi Wine in the dark. His car was smashed with a hammer and pistol butt. He was pepper sprayed to temporal unconsciousness as one would were she killing vermin. He was then stuffed under a police patrol van, driven at breakneck speed and dumped in a fetid cell some 30 Km away from the site of his attack. By risking death (Besigye had to be airlifted to Nairobi for emergency care), Museveni’s former physician had ascended hallowed political ground from where nobody dared to question him. Thus birthed his so-called defiance campaign, which has strangled and all but split up his FDC. This earned him ascension to hallowed political ground from where he has been untouchable in opposition circles. In Arua, Bobi Wine was catapulted into this exclusive territory.
Lessons from Besigye
If the lesson out of Besigye’s ordeal is that upon paying the ultimate price in Ugandan politics today one gets a blank cheque, there are only trinkets for guessing which way the country will head with the Bad Man (from Kamwokya), as Bobi Wine self-praises in one of his popular songs by that title.
The fabled million-dollar question now is what the 36-year-old multi-gifted independent legislator who has found love all across Uganda and beyond, will Bobi Wine do with it. Will his ‘People Power, Our Power’ campaign, as Bobi Wine’s movement seems to be called, subordinate or accept to co-exist with others like Besigye?
Bobi Wine is a reprise of Besigye. For what he lacks in military background, he has more than made up for with his past hard knock life. He has translated it into a potent militancy decked in red berets and overalls. He has stamped himself on the national psyche as a fearless fighter against social injustice because, as he says in his 2007 hit song `Ghetto’, he speaks exactly what is on the poor and oppressed person’s mind. In Uganda today, those come in droves.
But again, if history offers any pointers, newfound fame seems harder to manage than to attain. And, as a musician Bobi Wine possibly knows this. In music it is not uncommon for a new star, especially in his favourite Afrobeat/Dancehall genre, to talk down everyone he finds on stage. Bobi Wine was in this place when he started out in music in the early 2000s. His first songs were the happy-go-lucky types, a number of which dissed his supposed rivals. Then he switched to the political themes he is now associated with.
In Arua, Bobi Wine pulled up at a rally of his erstwhile mentor, opposition stalwart and four-time presidential contender, Kizza Besigye and appeared to paralyse him. Besigye, who was stumping for the choice candidate of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC); Uganda’s strongest opposition party, was for at least a few minutes silenced. Now many ask whether that was a hint of things to come between Bobi Wine and Besigye.
Bobi Wine appears articulate against disunity in opposition ranks. On Aug. 12, a day before his world would turn upside out, Bobi Wine tweeted: “I have said it before that any party that tells you that it can single handedly (sic) liberate Uganda is a jocker (sic). For us to defeat President Museveni, it will take more than one political party, more than one tribe, more than one religion and yes, more than one generation…We can no longer be limited by the walls of the parties, we can only realise that we’re all prisoners. We’re in the eater and eaten situation.”
It is a message shared since 1996, when different opposition formations tried to coalesce around their shared desire to break Museveni’s monopoly on power. They have failed. As Dr Catherine Promise Biira notes in her 2013 book `Collapse of the Opposition Inter-Party Coalition in Uganda’, after the 2001 election the desire by Reform Agenda (now FDC) “to enter into a formal cooperation agreement with the opposition parties (the DP and the UPC) was met with disdain, ostensibly because they felt they were too big to work with a pressure group”.
Beyond Bobi Wine’s scorecard
Bobi Wine has framed his landslide victory in his own Kyaddondo East constituency last year in nationalistic terms and embarked on his first ever nationwide music tour. Uganda’s politicised Police was rattled by it and blocked him. He got into a heated exchange with Museveni, who roundly dismissed him as an undisciplined, uninformed and arrogant young political upstart – charges he has maintained in an ongoing entanglement with him.
Bobi Wine retorted that 74-year-old Museveni has grown too old and out of touch, inflexible and unfit to lead Uganda anymore. He presented himself, or at least his generation, as more than ready, willing and anxious to take the country’s reins and lead it into the future it deserved, which Museveni was unable to even imagine. While the challenge was altogether not new, the brash and irreverent way it was delivered was. When SFC soldiers invaded parliament at the height of the removal of age-limit debate in September last year, Bobi Wine singlehandedly staved off some members of the SFC while all around him colleagues either got paralysed with fright, scampered for dear life, or sought safe distance and watched in utter disbelief. The soldiers had invaded Parliament’s debate chambers to force through debate to scrap presidential age limits from the Constitution to clear the way for their Commander-in-Chief to extend his 32-year rule to date. Bobi Wine also organised and led public demonstrations against a social media tax the government imposed to undercut online criticism against Museveni. Bobi Wine’s protests forced Museveni to promise to review the tax. Bobi Wine has defeated Museveni in five parliamentary by-elections. Will Bobi wine now see the ultimate victory as effecting change at the top?