Uganda: How Bobi Wine's Trumpet Charmed Disillusioned Masses

Bobi Wine.
17 September 2018

Bobi Wine's rise to prominence from a life of ruin inside the decrepit shacks of the ghetto does not fit within the conventional African story.

A young man thrust on the national stage by the rough and tumble of Uganda's elective politics, Bobi Wine is not a political scion riding on his father's legacy. He is neither a leader of a peasantry uprising that came to power through the treacherous fields of a shooting war nor is he the most gifted orator.

But Bobi Wine has made a mark, at least for now.

Beacon of Hope?

With all his imperfections, Bobi Wine's trumpet has carried a wind that has barreled through his supporters.

Through his own bootstraps, Bobi Wine was elected Kyadondo East MP with an overwhelming majority of 78 per cent in 2017. This was carefully- crafted as the era, which preceded his victory gradually marked a transformation of his music from afro-dancehall beats, to lyrics that carried a politically conscious message of empathy for the downtrodden.

He employed his poetry and street creed to build a story of hope among the poor masses and disenchanted youth who are seeking employment.

Today, he commands a legion of supporters across the spectrum that he recently carried three opposition candidates on his shoulders to win three by-elections for parliamentary seats.

With 80 per cent of its population below the age of 35, Uganda is the second youngest country in the World.

According to the Uganda Youth Survey Report of 2016 by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University, about 52 per cent of youth are unemployed. A 2017 Sauti wa Wananchi survey, conducted by Twaweza, a non-governmental organisation, indicated that 78 per cent of Ugandans thought the government is not doing well at creating jobs, while 81 per cent of those interviewed said the government was not doing a good job of keeping the price of essential goods down. Over the years, this redundancy has given rise to an upsurge of resentment.

At an age when they should be fulfilling their dreams, many youth are living a life of despair and hopelessness, becoming fertile ground where politicians of every hue have recruited demonstrators.

Bobi Wine's message like seeds dispersed on a barren land, has been sprinkled by this groundswell of resentment.

Yet sometimes he has appeared disruptive in his engagements. Shortly before a fracas broke out in Arua on August 13, Bobi Wine led Arua Municipality MP Kassiano Wadri's supporters to disrupt Kizza Besigye's rally.

Whereas he appeared like a protégé of Besigye in his early days, Bobi Wine seems to have charted a new path where some of his interests clash with the former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party president.

Fred Nyanzi, Bobi Wine's brother however, says the difference of opinion between the two politicians are not personal.

"Besigye was loved by the people in the Opposition. Bobi admired him because he was nearly advocating what he is advocating for. The only difference is believing that only a political party can cause a change in Uganda. Bobi found out that not a single political party can cause change. Besigye is aligned to FDC and Bobi cannot be FDC only. He has colleagues in DP and other parties," Nyanzi says.

Yusuf Sserunkuma, a PhD student at Makerere Institute for Social Research, says Bobi Wine is not naïve when he confronts other opposition politicians.

"He did the same in Bugiri. Now, if you call that imperfection, you are mainstream politician. But if you want to appreciate his movement and what he represents as an artiste, they thrive on challenging each other. And the challenges are open. He is a singing politician. When they (Besigye and Bobi Wine) appear to be against each other, he is going to mobilise his resources as an artiste to challenge Besigye in an open conflict. That is part of his trade. Conflict generates buzz," Sserunkuma says.

Lack of ideological clarity

Bobi Wine is not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative or an exponent of the left or centre. He lacks an ideological clarity that some of his critics have accused him of being a political greenhorn.

At the University of Dar es Salaam, President Museveni in his youthful day endeared himself to Frantz Fanon's theory on violence particularly as outlined in his book: The Wretched of the Earth.

Fanon prescribes the use of violence in fighting against colonialism. As his proclivities towards armed struggle grew, he left for Mozambique to join the Frelimo uprising.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher, has suggested that capitalists have maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology.

Timothy Kalyegira, a researcher and journalists opines: "If you are going to be a political leader, of course it's important to have a political ideology. That is crucial. It doesn't have to be text-book ideology like Marxism or capitalism or socialism, but you must know what you are standing for, have an understanding of what the problem is, understand how the country came to be what it is, and then have a clear idea of what should be done."

Kalyegira argues that the wider question that has afflicted Uganda is the governance or economy of the country.

"Why has Bobi Wine gone to the US for treatment? He hasn't gone for treatment for a complicated rare form of cancer or bacteria. He has gone for largely body trauma. So, how come our elite hospitals have not been able to treat him? If those hospitals, with all the money they make are able to pay good doctors but still can't treat Bobi Wine, then imagine Mulago, Masaka and Jinja hospitals or health centres?" Kalyegira argues.

In a nuanced response, Kalyegira says we must not continue voting for people based on victimhood.

"We must ask them about development, what they are going to do. Don't tell us how bad Museveni is. Show us what you are going to do. Not every day is there going to be a question of court and human rights, there is also going to be a question of roads, rule of law, agriculture," he argues.

"So, the question now becomes why is there high youth unemployment? Is it because the government doesn't care? But then, how come there is also high youth unemployment in Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe? Are all governments equally bad? How are jobs created?" he asks.

However, Sserunkuma says although Bobi Wine is a youth, his message cuts across generations.

"When Jennifer Musisi was messing up Kampala, the message was not meant for the youths. It was meant for Kampala. The elites of this country don't have the sophistication to appreciate political music. Most of them, being political scientists and historians, fail to appreciate this connection. As an organic intellectual, his job is to raise consciences. So, if you want to think about him as a politician, you make a big mistake. What he has done is take Parliament away from Parliament Avenue to the street," he says.

People Power has come off as a fluid movement that has been surprised by its successes. Nyanzi says the movement has an amorphous structure.

"We do not want to expose it so that our people are bought or threatened. We keep on changing those in the structure according to the time and what needs to be done. We are not saying that every policy of the government is bad. We shall correct what has gone wrong and develop our own policy with time, with the colleagues we have in alliance."

Probably, being an artiste, Bobi Wine's claim to political fame is a calculated use of imagery. Pictures of him posing with his crew in red shirts and caps and reading a book about Nelson Mandela while attending a public function have trended on social media.

And cares about political ideology and statecraft when the mere use of vivid pictures can cause tenterhooks in the high echelons of government.

But he is not without faults. After the Arua violence, a video surfaced of him disrupting Besigye's address at one of the last rallies held for the Arua Municipality by-election. The act came off as crude, even immature.

As a politician, Bobi Wine appears to be so naïve as to be used for hire to resurrect the dead careers of cunning politicians. His brother argues that if he is the vehicle the opposition is going to use to achieve change, then so be it.

Govt speaks out

Ofwono Opondo, the government's spokesperson, says Bobi Wine is being used.

"Bobi Wine is an offshoot of a fading political group of Mr Kizza Besigye. Besigye taking advantage of his leadership in FDC, also took advantage of some discontent within the Mengo establishment and they merged to form SUUBI (a political pressure group). And I think Bobi Wine, perhaps read particularly in Kampala, that Besigye after four failed attempts has come to the end of his journey and he thinks he can pick up that fringe that has been following Besigye for the last 17 years."

Even the international community seems to be falling onto the bandwagon to use Bobi Wine to achieve their ends in the country.

Bobi Wine was visited by diplomats during his incarceration in Makindye Military Barracks and one could say he has had a red carpet welcome in the Western World. Sserunkuma argues that the international community are opportunists.

He says: "What Museveni has done is to successfully, over the years, position himself as a guarantor of foreign interests in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Rwanda. But the international community is watching. They know they are defending a guy who has abused human rights terribly in northern Uganda. They are also conscious of movements which they have no control over. When they see a young politician who has built a constituency and he has potential, they quickly position themselves to safeguard their interests because they have seen potential in him."

Is Bobi Wine a threat to government?

With the deployment of soldiers on the streets of Kampala, it would seem that the government is panicking over the legislator who only a few days ago accused it, before international media, of torturing its citizens.

However, Opondo says the hullaballoo around Bobi Wine will fade over the coming days.

"This is not just about Bobi Wine. It is a growing culture of political violence which must be dealt with decisively at the earliest point. Secondly, we must send a signal to the leaders that impunity and indiscipline will not be tolerated. He is going to be a wave like the wave of Gen (David) Sejusa. Where is Sejusa? Where is Olara Otunnu? Where is Amama Mbabazi?" he asks.

However, Sserunkuma believes Bobi Wine is a threat the government is planning to deal with, decisively.

"President Museveni is so thorough that he sees this as an insurrection and he is going to do anything within his power to stop it. When Bobi Wine first came on the scene, he didn't know how to deal with him. He didn't know how popular he was. I remember Bobi Wine came to Makerere Institute of Social Research and he told us he has been receiving so many emissaries from the President to convince him to join NRM. So, they weren't sure at first. Now when he led a movement against three by-elections and defeated FDC and NRM candidates by landslide, he became a threat. And I can guarantee you the President will do whatever is possible in his powers to stop him," he says.

Will he stand for president?

Nyanzi says if the population wants Bobi Wine to stand for president, he (Nyanzi and his amorphous movement) will do everything possible to see that he wins the election. However, students of political trends advise caution.

"As an entertainer, he has had his following for a very long time. Now this following, some of us tend to think it is transformable into a political party. I disagree. I think Bobi Wine cannot win an election.

If he were to stand for president under the circumstances, he will lose because winning an election is bigger than raising a consciousness. Winning an election requires the muscle to actually go down hard road and fight the incumbent, have the money and have the networks to have a successful campaign. That takes time to build. If he stood for office it would require that he works very closely with those who have networks on the ground," Sserunkuma says.

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