Uganda: Bobi Wine - the Making of People Power

"People Power, Our Power" is a slogan that has in the recent weeks gained more public traction and recognition.

It identifies what Kyadondo East MP, Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine, represents; a transition from pop star to the new poster child of regime change. The slogan has been adopted as the rallying cry by a movement spearheaded by young professionals, with the help of some mainstream opposition political actors, to create political change.

People in the know reveal that a few months ago, a group of young professionals started meeting to plan on how they can influence Uganda's politics.

"These meetings are impromptu and are attended voluntarily but are intended to mobilise the young people to influence the political direction of Uganda since we have the numerical strength," one member said.

There are young lawyers, IT specialists, artists, student leaders, journalists and youthful businessmen meeting because it has dawned on them that if they organise the demographics are in their favour.

"As you can see, we have just started and there is no concrete structure that is in existence yet everyone has felt us. We have the numbers and energy," one of the participants, a former guild president of Makerere University, said.

According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics, close to 65 percent of Uganda's 39 million people, is between 15 and 30 years. That translates to over 70 percent of eligible voters in 2021.

Prof Sabiti Makara, a lecturer of political science and public administration at Makerere University, observed that "they speak to the aspirations of the voters in 2021; it shows that the issues will be employment and not NRM transitional politics like it has been the case in recent elections."

Makara has written books about Uganda's last three elections. His view is that 1996 election was about multi-party elections while 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016 revolved around transition within the NRM revolution.

"It is to that effect that the major players, including Dr Kizza Besigye and [former premier] Amama Mbabazi, are people identified with the NRM revolution," Makara said.

"The rhetoric of the revolution is no more you are now dealing with people who are unemployed, yearning for better standards of living, want to compete in the global market and are interested in issues like free speech, good governance and rule of law. So, any person, like Bobi Wine who blends well with the youths because of age and his music, if he provides leadership to this desperate group, they can be a big threat to the status quo."

NRM's Lwemiyaga MP, Theodore Ssekikubo, a critical voice within the NRM seeking transition, says "this debate should be traced to the failure by the ruling party to allow a smooth transfer of power from one generation to another".

"There was no deliberate effort by those in the senior leadership of the party to think about these questions and now it is with us. How are they going to respond to these issues?" Ssekikubo asked.

Towards the close of the 1990s, some insiders within President Museveni's government learnt of Museveni's scheme to scrap term limits. From Besigye's perspective, this was a betrayal of the revolution.

But some of his senior colleagues, including, Amanya Mushega, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Miria Matembe and Dan Wandera Ogalo, gave Museveni the benefit of the doubt - that he would respect the institutional safeguards he had helped put in place.

At the time, Museveni had been in power for only 13 years and was only three years into his first constitutionally provided term as a president of Uganda.

Besigye failed to convince some of the senior NRM-historicals to join him. Some of the youthful leaders of the NRM who convened under the Young Parliamentary Association, who thought they were being groomed to take over from the old guard, actually scorned Besigye. They included Maj. John Kazoora, Salaam Musumba, et al.

They thought he was being impetuous but they have since joined him to form the Forum for Democratic Change, when into dawned on them that Museveni had very long term designs on power.

VACUUM

Bugiri municipality MP, Asuman Basalirwa, who became part of "People Power" movement during the by-election through which he joined parliament, says that since 2001 he has been an activist for change but they had not paid attention to the demographics.

"We who were the young people then were not power hungry or were not looking for posts. Instead, our seniors concentrated on fighting for positions of dominance. Now, see this movement has come and it is serious," Basalirwa said.

At the beginning of 2000 when discussions about transition started gathering steam people like Bobi Wine were ambivalent. His hit songs Akagoma, Funtula, Sirimba, Mwekume, Dembe, Nakazzi, Nalumansi, Kadingo et al, may have been socially conscious but still largely apolitical in the strict sense.

While at a seminar organised at the Makerere Institute of Social Research on August 25, 2017, Bobi Wine said that "as you grow up and become a father you begin nurturing new thoughts and ideas. You start seeing the world around you differently and look at some things more critically than you used to."

It is after the 2006 election, that Bobi Wine started to seriously reflect on Uganda's political direction. Basalirwa says that "if you listen to his music, he started to mobilise with us around that time... but eventually he gave up on his career to join the front line when things seemed not to be happening."

In 2017, when a by-election was declared in Kyadondo East, it presented an opportunity for Bobi Wine. Unfortunately, at the time Bobi Wine made the decision to stand, there was no formidable political formation under which he would stand, except the Forum for Democratic Change.

However, FDC disappointed him after party authorities invoked a precedent - which is ironically against an entrenched provision of the party constitution that provides that any position must be competed for - by requiring that the former flag bearer, Apollo Katinti would retain the flag.

Bobi decided to stand as an independent. A few days later, a group of the Uganda Young Democrats, a subsidiary of the Democratic Party, convened a press briefing addressed by former presidential candidate, Samuel Walter Lubega Mukaku, and vowed to support him.

Other individual politicians like FDC's Ibrahim Kasozi, who is the Makindye East MP, also joined and developed Bobi Wine's message.

"Hon Kyagulanyi was disparaged by colleagues within the party as a muyaye. But, me at an individual level, joined other colleagues who believed that he has good ideas. You see in politics there is no popular person or party. What is important are ideas and how those ideas are packaged. Hon Kyagulanyi had ideas, which were well packaged through a medium that is accessible to all. What we did as a team was to develop on what he had to see that he became a member of parliament," Kasozi said.

Whereas different accounts claim that Bobi's campaign was supported by civil society and even the ruling party, Kasozi says "those are falsehoods intended to damage Hon Kyagulanyi's reputation as someone funded by foreigners or government insiders to deflate Dr Besigye."

"The truth is that we collected that money from within our camp and I know where I got that money."

Bobi quite sensationally won in Kyadondo East, defying the odds and returning a shock landslide victory. Then the presidential age limit constitutional amendment debate started just as Bobi was learning the ropes in the House.

As expected, he would stand with those who rejected Museveni's latest designs to remain in power for life. He composed and produced a song titled Freedom to mobilise public opinion.

Journalist Gaaki Kigambo points out that "Freedom has a faint echo to Redemption Song by Bob Marley - a huge influence on Bobi Wine's life. It opens bemoaning the reversal of the"fundamental change in the politics of our country" Museveni promised in 1986 when he captured power... rebellion. It castigates his dogged efforts to remove presidential age limits in order to extend his 35-year rule beyond 2021 when the next general elections are expected. It rounds off with a clarion call to all young people to rise up and take active roles in building the better country they would like to live in."

Bobi went on countrywide tours with UYD strategists, making quite an impression. Soon, the government had seen enough and banned his concerts-cum-rallies.

It is around this time that youth groups, including the aforementioned professionals started to conceive the idea of mobilising under his umbrella.

"It is at this time when things started to be real. We started to receive attacks from within the opposition and the NRM," said one of the youths who coordinates the digital influencers in movement.

PUSH BACK FROM FDC

It emerged that the FDC group led by Besigye was concerned about Bobi's rising popularity. But because the Besigyes were distracted by FDC's other internal contradictions and leadership wrangles, their concerns about Bobi remained quiet until the Jinja East by-election.

The current Jinja East MP, Paul Mwiru, who was FDC's flag bearer, reached out to his former colleagues in UYD, who not only convinced the DP leadership not to have a candidate but they also placed their infrastructure at his disposal.

The UYD team thought this would allow Bobi become head of Mwiru's campaigns but the FDC group objected. Indeed, a few days to the election, this group petitioned the party headquarters in Najjanankumbi complaining about the involvement of the DP in the campaigns.

Consequently, Ssemujju was made the head of the Mwiru taskforce deputised by DP's Samuel Walter Lubega. Other DP members were also involved, including Kenneth Kakande, Derrick Mutema, John Mary Ssebuwufu, former MPs Joseph Mutebi Balikuddembe and Dr Lulume Bayiga.

However, Mwiru, personally invited Bobi to be with him for almost a week. Insiders within the movement say that this resistance from FDC-Besigye faction continued, even during the Rukungiri by-election.

All along the People Power group was willing to operate within a united opposition, including the Besigye faction-even when the latter was pushing back against a united front, except if led by Dr Besigye.

Insiders say that it is during the Bugiri by-election in July in which FDC refused to withdraw its candidate in favour of Basalirwa who was more popular, that Bobi gravitated towards forging other ties. The faction of FDC led by former party leader, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, united to campaign for Basalirwa.

"It is during this election that the lines were drawn. In fact, when I won some people were penalised by being reshuffled from the parliament leadership. However, this was a blessing in disguise because it is during this very period that the real pact binding us opposition who detest individual dominance of political space that we became effective," Basalirwa said.

Before the Bugiri by-election, "the People Power" movement had identified Robert Ejiku -who run in the Arua Municipality by-election as its candidate because of being youthful and part of their movement. However out of pragmatism, Bobi was convinced to switch to the Arua Municipality MP-elect, Kassiano Ezati Wadri.

Kasozi says that "the Muntu group argued that we unite behind Hon Kassiano because his win will be a punch against not only the NRM but FDC as well. So, it is against that background that the unity has grown."

NOT YET STRUCTURED

By the time of his arrest and subsequent indictment for treason, the People Power idea had not yet crystallised into a proper structure as most of it operated in patches.

"We are waiting for the developments in the FDC. If the Muntu group leaves and we are joined by other forces like UYD, civil society members working for political change and other forces that believe in a united front... ," said a member.

Given the current political tensions, members are not willing to be named in print for now. And especially since even with the movement not yet formally structured, that government has started to hunt it down.

For instance, during the Bugiri by-election 13 members, including two females, belonging to the group, were arrested and released after nine days in detention without any formal criminal charge. They included Ramanthan Lukwago, Andrew Nabimanya, Patience Kemigisha and Roy Ssemboga.

Ssemboga, who is a former guild president at Makerere University, told us that several of their colleagues have been intimidated.

"Before the current crackdown they have been threatening; making phone calls. But we shall not give up because most of the members are volunteers and remain anonymous, except a few of us who are exposed by the fact that we are leaders in our own right," he said.

It is instructive that the overwhelming international response to Bobi's arrest is partly attributed to Rikki Stein, the former manager of Fela Kuti (the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and noted musical superstar who died in 1997). Stein activated his international networks to generate most of the responses that came from international figures.

"We are just doing to help Bobi. I met him in Kampala when I came for the 25th coronation anniversary of the Kabaka of Buganda and I was fascinated by his ideas as someone who cares about others," Stein told The Observer.

And that is the attraction the idea being weaved around Bobi has; the caring for community so as to ultimately empower the people...

skakaire@observer.ug

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