Kampala, Uganda — Did the May 6 agreement between Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye to "partner" against President Yoweri Museveni weaken the People Power leader? Did it strengthen a sinking Besigye?
Besigye, representing the People's Government, and Robert S. Kyagulanyi, the Kyadondo East MP also known as Bobi Wine, representing the People Power Movement and their teams met on May 06.
The cover for the meeting that took place at Bobi Wine's home in Magere, Wakiso District, was that they were there to welcome him from jail. Bobi Wine had been jailed on April 29 and released on bail on May 02.
It was an unexpected turn because before it, Besigye and Bobi Wine had been lobbing sharp criticism at each other and their supporters appeared divided. Some were excited to see them working together but others were not.
In a joint statement after the meeting, Besigye and Bobi Wine had said: "we agreed that despite belonging to different formations/fronts, we must all work together as partners".
What does being 'partners' mean? This was the main issue when the joint statement signed by Besigye for the People's Government and Robert S. Kyagulanyi, the Kyadondo East MP also known as Bobi was released to the press on May 08.
But Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze who spoke for Besigye and erstwhile NTV news anchor turned politician Joel Senyonyi who spoke for Bobi Wine either stuck to the vague statement or issued clarification after clarification.
The statement said: "We acknowledge that the forces of change are stronger when we work together and speak with the same voice as we confront the common enemy".
Does that mean that Besigye and Bobi Wine camps will field one presidential candidate in 2021, journalists asked.
"At this moment, it is difficult to talk about candidates," Nambooze said.
She added: "We are in discussion. What is best for Uganda is that they see us as one team at the polls".
Meanwhile Senyonyi said: "We hope we can pull all entities together and then we discuss".
Both said each group will continue carrying out its own, separate activities but added that there would be some joint activities.
When it became clear that nothing was clear yet, some commentators said Bobi Wine, who appears to be surging ahead of all opposition leaders, had squandered his popularity by being associated with Besigye whose popularity is said to be sinking.
But did the May 6 agreement weaken Bobi Wine? Was Besigye sinking and did Bobi Wine rescue him? Was that a smart move? And can Besigye now cause trouble for Bobi Wine ahead of the 2021 presidential election?
In any case, Besigye appears to have embraced the renewed links to Bobi Wine.
At the most recent activity for his mother party; Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leaders and supporters at the party headquarters in Najjanankumbi on May 12, Besigye scoffed that those who thought he had failed to overthrow President Museveni. He said that they had reached an understanding with Bobi Wine that in the war to overthrow Museveni, they faced the same challenges and that if they were to overcome them, they have to cooperate in that fight. Party leaders and supporters, he added, should not sit whenever Bobi Wine is mistreated.
The event comes after recent poll by Research World International (RWI) put Besigye behind Bobi Wine in popularity.
The poll showed that if elections were held today, Bobi Wine would get 22% of the vote and Besigye 13%. It is the first time any opposition leader is ahead of Besigye in a poll.
But Bobi Wine remains a far second to President Yoweri Museveni who got 32% in the popularity vote. That is why many think only a joint opposition candidate can challenge Museveni.
Besigye's biggest challenge is that after four attempts, many see his efforts as an exercise in futility. The excitement appears to rotate around Bobi Wine. But can Besigye, who has rejected such moves in all previous elections, allow to Bobi Wine to lead the opposition?
These events are also happening when Besigye, who is a former FDC flag-bearer, has intensified activities in what appears an effort to shore up his support ahead of the 2021 elections.
He has been holding events across the country in recent months. His name has been in the headlines as police has teargased his meeting, dragged him out of radio stations, and occasionally detained him. These events are aimed at maintaining his position as the de facto leader of opposition.
Also, perhaps as a strategy, Besigye and FDC party loyalists have ignored or dismissed the poll showing Bobi Wine's popularity.
FDC stalwart Salamu Musumba says polls gauge the opinion at the time they are done and do not determine how people will vote in future.
In any case, FDC spokesperson and opposition Chief Whip Semujju Nganda says, polls conducted in the past have not been accurate about Besigye. They have showed Besigye to be unpopular yet he has gone on to score highly in elections.
In the run-up to the last election in 2016, for example, the emergency of former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi as a contender, had led many senior opposition politicians to write off Besigye.
They claimed Mbabazi had a better chance than Besigye of defeating Museveni. They insisted on Mbabazi as a joint opposition candidate. But Besigye rejected him and run as the FDC candidate. By the time the election ended, Besigye had posted one of his best performances ever.
Back in 2001, Besigye got 2,055,795 votes representing 27.82% against Museveni's 5,123,360 or 69.33%.
In 2006, he got 2,592,954 or 37.39% against Museveni's 4,109,449 or 59.26%. This meant that while Museveni lost over a million votes, Besigye gained over half a million.
But in 2011, Besigye secured only 2,064,963 or 26.01% against Museveni's 5,428,369or 68.38%.
This was easily Besigye's worst performance both in percentage terms and number of votes.
In 2016 Besigye was, as is happening now, told that he has no chance having been given three chances and failed to dislodge Museveni and Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu appeared set to be the FDC presidential candidate.
Besigye changed strategy. He repeatedly said he would not participate in elections if the electoral process was not reformed. He was even abroad during the party nomination period.
However, at the last minute, in the last week of June 2015, he wrote an email to the FDC's Electoral Commission indicating that he was picking nomination forms - by proxy through Godfrey Ekanya and Ingrid Turinawe.
Besigye told his supporters that Museveni was at his weakest and would be defeated this time. A few critics reminded Besigye that he had pronounced Museveni to be at his weakest the previous times but failed to dislodge him.
Still, he ran against Muntu and defeated him to become, once again, the FDC flag-bearer.
But more hurdles lay ahead for Besigye. The opposition was planning on a joint presidential candidate under the Democratic Alliance (TDA).
The FDC under Muntu, Democratic Party (DP), Uganda Federal Alliance (UFA), UPC, the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), Justice Forum, Conservative Party (CP) and Pressure for National Unity leaders had all signed a protocol as members of TDA.
And majority seemed to favour former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi as the joint opposition candidate.
Besigye initially appeared to go along with the TDA process but later abandoned it when it became clear that he would not be picked as the flag bearer. He decided to run on his own.
At the time, Busiro North MP and DP stalwart Merdard Segona likened Besigye to tiny and cheap silver fish (mukene) in terms of political clout, with Mbabazi as the bigger, richer Nile Perch.
Then, while addressing the press on September 29, 2015, party spokesperson Kenneth Kakande said that with Besigye, the the opposition has been having a good player but never scored any goal and "we think Mbabazi knows the tricks as to how we can secure that victory".
Some FDC MPs like Beatrice Anywar openly criticised Besigye and the party responded with threats to crack the whip forcing other members like former Leader of Opposition Morris Ogenga Latigo to come out and state publicly that they do not support Mbabazi.
Despite all this, Besigye ran one of the best campaigns in 2016 and posted one of his best performances so far.
He got 3,508,687 or 35.61% of the election. Amama Mbabazi who many had marketed as the better shot against Museveni only managed 136,519 or 1.39%. But Museveni still won; with 5,971,872 or 60.62%.
Besigye felt strengthened. He declared that he had in fact won the election, was clandestinely sworn-in and formed the 'People's Government' that Bobi has ended up agreeing to "partner" with.
However, ever since Bobi Wine joined elective politics in 2016, the view of Besigye as the lead opposition contender since 2001 has changed. Bobi Wine is seen as the biggest political threat to Museveni ahead of the 2021 elections.
Behind Bobi Wine popularity
Part of the reason is that Bobi Wine's music is seen as his most lethal mobilisation tool. His November 2018 Kyarenga concert at the One Love Beach in Busabala, which he owns, is to-date the biggest concert by any Ugandan artist.
Since then, the artist claims that the state has blocked 124 of his music concerts in what is seen as an effort to cripple him both financially and politically. But it is not clear how the state will deal with Bobi Wine's music when the campaigns proper start. His rallies might be music concerts.
Previously Bobi Wine was just a pop star and even his music was more social issues-oriented than political.
Then in the build up to the 2016 elections, he made the switch; focusing mainly on political music, and targeting President Yoweri Museveni's government directly. In just two years, he has been christened Uganda's king of protest music in Uganda.
Using protest music, Bobi Wine challenged the ruling party shortly before and after the elections. His music set the stage for him to win the Kyadondo East election in 2017 but his supremacy was seen as he defeated candidates fronted by Besigye and FDC and Museveni and the ruling NRM.
Immediately he was sworn in at parliament, he led the campaign against the ruling party's move to eliminate the presidential age limit. He became the centre of both local and international attention as a desperate Museveni deployed soldiers to invade parliament to force the vote.
Then the Arua Municipality by-election happened. The seat had been held by maverick NRM stalwart Ibrahim Abiriga and Museveni was determined for NRM to retain it.
He campaigned there vigorously. Besigye and the FDC also fielded a candidate. But Wadri, a late entrant who Bobi Wine campaigned for won.
Bobi Wine's credentials as the opposition leader were cemented because he paid the highest price; his driver was killed in what was seen as an assassination attempt on him. He was later badly tortured and locked up on trumped up gun possession charges.
Bobi Wine was not the only opposition politician who was arrested and beaten. But both international and local media focused on him. This exerted pressure on the state to release him and allow him to get medical treatment in the U.S. for him to recover from the injuries he suffered.
While in the U.S. Bobi with the help of U.S. based lawyer Robert Armsterdam held a press conference that won him unprecedented air play on most major international cable networks.
Back home, Bobi Wine's touch was credited for other opposition victories. Many started seeing him as a kingmaker hardly a year after he joined elective politics.
The Buganda, Catholic factor
Apart from the music, Bobi belongs to three major voting blocs--he is catholic, which is the biggest religious group in Uganda, he is also a Muganda and therefore belongs to the biggest tribe, and at 38, he more than anyone else amongst the presidential hopefuls, appeals to the youth who ahead of the 2021 polls could make up over 70 percent of the voters.
Observers say tribe, religion, and the youth card might play a bigger role in the 2021 elections. Already, videos have started emerging showing priests either singing along to Bobi Wine's song or using the pulpit to call on the state to stop blocking his concerts.
In one video, a priest is seen urging followers to fight for the truth just like Bobi Wine is doing even in if it means being killed. The youthful priest says this is the turn for youth.
The Catholic and Buganda leadership have in previous elections either spoken in favour of the opposition; especially Besigye or used the opposition as a bargaining chip to win concessions from Museveni.
In return, President Museveni has always tried to create the impression that he shares power with the powerful Baganda constituency. Al Hajji Moses Kigongo has been ruling party vice chairman since it came to power in 1986 and all vice presidents except one have been Baganda; Samson Kiseka (1991-94), Gilbert Bukenya (2003-2011), and Edward Ssekandi (2011 to present). Sekandi and Bukenya are also Catholics.
None of these could challenge Museveni in an election.
All presidential elections have featured a Muganda, although most have been also-run without any chance of winning. Only Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere was a credible challenger, first to Milton Obote of UPC in 1980 and to Museveni in 1996.
Bobi Wine is now seen as Buganda's best shot at the presidency, he runs in 2021. As he plans for the 2021 elections, Besigye must bear all this in mind. It is the first time he is running against or alongside an opposition candidate who is seen to be more popular than him.
Bobi Wine is also different from President Museveni and Besigye in many other ways. They are in almost the same age bracket (Besigye 63 years and Museveni 75 years), they fought together in the 1981-86 war together, are from the same religion--protestants, and come from the same region--western Uganda.
In contests where these things have tended to play a role, Bobi Wine is a clearly differentiated product.
Besigye has always benefited from the sympathy vote owing to the brutal treatment from security forces. With Bobi Wine facing the same treatment, the sympathy vote could at the very least be split between them. For now, whether Bobi Wine working with Besigye will appeal or put off voters is the question.