Uganda’s next general election is less than a year away. The 37-year-old musician and opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine — will run against President Yoweri Museveni for the top job.
Bobi Wine will struggle to win the election in 2021, for many of the same reasons that veteran opposition leader Kizza Besigye has failed to unseat the incumbent, despite many attempts.
In Uganda, the police, the military, intelligence agencies, resident district commissioners, the Uganda Communications Commission and the Electoral Commission all work to ensure that the electoral process is a mere feature of Museveni and the governing party’s hold on power, not the basis for it.
Museveni has been in power since 1986 and has won just about every election since his first with a clear, albeit declining majority (Museveni won with 75.5% of the vote in 1996, 69% in 2001, 59% in 2006, 68% in 2011 and 60% in 2016).
Despite this history, Bobi Wine does not seem to be daunted. In past months, Bobi ran a campaign encouraging young people to register for a national ID, so they can vote in 2021. He has been rumored to be in multiple conversations with select opposition political parties to form an alliance or announce a joint candidacy.
His emergence as a political alternative to Museveni has created understandable excitement in certain circles. Young Ugandans, despite their numbers and visibility in political processes, remain highly underrepresented in the national political game because of their lack of power within Uganda’s political parties. Bobi Wine has smartly cast himself as one of them: a man of the (young) people, who will fight to create and extend opportunities to them. Bobi has also been a firm fixture in Ugandan popular culture — his record as a famous musician brings considerable star power to his foray into politics.
Making a politician
Since his election to Parliament in July 2017, Bobi Wine’s prominence as an opposition figure and champion of the country’s youth has grown exponentially. Bobi’s “People Power” message is rooted in a call to Ugandans to challenge a status quo that works for a few powerful individuals. At his Kyarenga concert in November 2018, he explained his policies to supporters as: “What matters is for people to reclaim [our] power and, once we are in charge, we can determine which direction we want our country to take.”
Bobi gained nationwide prominence as a political actor in Uganda for his outspoken leadership against the Constitutional Amendment Bill (No 2) — the controversial legislation intended to remove Uganda’s age limit of 75 years on presidential candidates. The bill, which was eventually passed into law, was perceived to solely benefit the incumbent, Museveni, who was 74 at the time and would have been ineligible to run again in 2021. Parliamentary opposition to the “age-limit” bill, in part led by Bobi, ended with plain-clothes military officers barging into Parliament to forcefully remove the dissenting MPs.
After failing to block the constitutional change in partnership with his opposition MP colleagues, Bobi Wine began appearing alongside candidates from various opposition parties competing in municipal elections and parliamentary by-elections, energising their supporters and bringing unity to opposition parties in a way other political figures had not achieved. He also spoke out against new taxes on social media access and mobile money. This messaging resonated with young people, who were disproportionately affected by the taxes.
This demographic, alongside scores of Ugandans in the informal sector, street vendors and boda-boda riders in urban centres across the country, form the core of Bobi’s support base and refer to him as the “Ghetto President”. They see him as one of their own: someone who rose to political power on the basis of his talent, integrity and conviction that less privileged Ugandans deserve better. Opposition supporters see him as a kingmaker, whose star power won elections for a number of candidates and continues to draw crowds of both young and old. He is the articulate, defiant detainee in court; the powerful artist facing off against police barricades blocking access to his concerts.
A beret-wearing family man, Bobi is considered the personification of the Ugandan muntu wa wansi: brutalised by police, leaning on a mahogany walking stick, clinging hard to his wife’s hand.
Bobi the Messiah?
With the election season afoot, it is important to reflect on whether Bobi Wine has the strategy to run an electoral race in the current political climate. He is a relatively inexperienced, albeit charismatic and seemingly radical politician. Ironically, he started out as a moderate critic who wanted Museveni to reform. He admitted in an April 2019 Deutsche Welle interview that he had no policy disagreements with Museveni.
However, in the Museveni administration there is no room for moderate critics who also attract big crowds.
Bobi’s undoubted popularity is also a threat to other opposition leaders. He continues to operate as a celebrity, speaking in slogans, hyper aware of his brand. He has been slow at making meaningful strategic alliances with other actors that would deepen his political base and provide the breadth of structures to mount a serious contest against the incumbent. Veteran opposition politicians appear to lack trust in Bobi, or are afraid that his rise will consign them to political oblivion.
Bobi initially resisted transforming his People Power campaign into a political party, preferring to attack the status quo of the Ugandan political landscape through the power of a movement — people power in its literal sense. However, this technicality created uncertainty on the status of the People Power movement, its membership and leadership, and allowed a number of opposition politicians to wear the red beret and exploit Bobi’s political capital without pledging allegiance to growing the movement.
Eventually, Bobi realised that one cannot change a game while playing outside its rules. With a move that surprised many and annoyed his opponents, in July 2020, Bobi announced his People Power movement had “acquired” a registered but dormant political party: the National Unity Platform (NUP). Bobi displayed a level of political astuteness by realising that it would be futile to run as an independent candidate and that the Electoral Commission might thwart his efforts to register a political party.
Despite Bobi’s shrewdness, with only seven months left until the election in February 2021, the NUP will not have enough time to build the nationwide membership and vote-protection infrastructure required to win an election. How will he take those parts of the country that are not yet captivated by the Ghetto President? How will he beat the governing-party machine, whose web spans from State House to the village-level leadership? Bobi is silent about the very real role of the military in maintaining the status quo of Uganda’s leadership, whose elite leadership is made up of young men like him.
In July 2019, Bobi put together a campaign team comprised almost entirely of the old guard from the existing opposition movement. It barely reflects his core base: the young people whom he claims to be fighting for. He speaks for youth, but has yet to speak for or to the youthful women of Uganda, who have been campaigning for months against the brutal kidnaps and killings of 42 women since 2015. He is conspicuously silent against the divisive, sectarian rhetoric of opportunistic politicians who have repeatedly threatened to hijack his campaign.
In September 2018, Bobi was silent when his fans hurled bottles at a fellow musician on stage — a musician who had chosen to publically back Museveni’s campaign to lift the age limit. As a “new”-style leader, Bobi should be able to think about intersectionality. Young people comprise young women; young fans can be violent, even as they themselves are victims of violence. Bobi should be on the record speaking out against these issues as a commitment to the new Uganda he seeks to create.
Bobi continues to be too slow at making meaningful strategic alliances with other political actors that might be valuable in a contest against Museveni.
The 2019 by-elections in Hoima are perhaps the clearest signal of what is to come for Bobi and his party. Asinansi Nyakato, a candidate from Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, was persuaded to align herself with Bobi’s People Power Movement, which meant that she was no longer supported by her own party’s vote-protection machine — crucial-support that Bobi’s movement could not replace.
At the same time, the governing party, in an effort to put an end to Bobi’s streak of endorsing winning candidates, put on a show of force with Museveni himself publicity canvassing for votes in favour of his party’s candidate. At the end of a controversial day, the opposition candidate was defeated, claiming she had been abandoned by her party and by Bobi, and that false results had spread over social media. People Power was left with enemies on both sides.
Winning the presidency
How does Bobi get from the idea of an effective political party to actually implementing it? How does Bobi Wine ensure that the crowds he is pulling are there for a political rally, not just a concert? Statistically speaking, the odds don’t favour candidates who run against incumbents. Successful opposition campaigns thrive not by chance, but because they are awake to the odds and forces against them. Failing campaigns, on the other hand, assume they already have public support and take the system for granted.
Bobi’s celebrity and myth is an advantage that he has long needed to lock down with solid infrastructure. Beyond working to resurrect a defunct political party, Bobi needs to cultivate deep contacts and representatives in the different districts across the country that can brief him on local politics, influencers and opinion leaders, so that when he arrives in a specific area, he is speaking to local and community issues. Considering the strict guidelines on in-person public campaigns created by the Covid-19 pandemic, these representatives would also be able to speak on Bobi’s behalf in the scenario that he is unable to meet citizens.
Veteran politicians will tell Bobi of the fate of many a talk-show appearance during campaigns in which radio programmes are switched off or opposition appearances blocked. With a clear message that resonates and creative use of WhatsApp audio and video messages, Bobi could leverage young people in university guilds, betting halls and boda-boda stages to be ambassadors, campaign agents, voters and vote-protection teams, who must be resourced and organised.
Many Ugandans do not necessarily want a president that repeatedly speaks of gross domestic product figures and economic forecasts — we already have that. Bobi appears to speak to the Ugandans who want a president who feels with and for them; who understands that our bread-and-butter issues are rooted in the actions of bad leaders and a corrupt political class. “People make history,” commented Karl Marx on the Napoleonic wars, “but they don’t make it as they wish.” Politicians are not entirely free actors: they are the product of certain circumstances, and their actions are, at times, a convenient response to those circumstances.
Although Bobi wants to make history, he may not make it as the president of Uganda. However, there is an opportunity for him to recast the opposition and political landscape in Uganda by rebuilding the NUP, attracting a new breed of politician to his cause, galvanising the party membership with his fans and supporters, and building on his influence and kingmaker status. If Bobi can play the long game, he might prove to be more than just an idea that is dazzling in this moment.
Su Muhereza works on governance and political transitions in East and Southern Africa.
Eshban Kwesiga works on contemporary issues on rights, governance and human development in the Great Lakes region.