Bobi Wine, the singer, actor and politician previously known as Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has long struggled to be considered a legitimate opposition figure by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). With countless and continuing legal run-ins clouding his political message, what is less spoken about is what a potential win for his presidency might offer.
Days before votes were cast in Uganda’s presidential elections on 14 January, an announcer in a truck mounted with huge speakers made the last announcements for Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) in Rugaba in Kampala, reminding residents to vote with the exhortation: “Go with your own pen.”
Wine released a new song for his campaign, Tulonde, which loosely translates as “Let’s vote”, in which he says he’s here to end the 35-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni, and that he’ll liberate military-governed Uganda.
On Tuesday he claimed his house was raided by the military. Other opposition figures reported incidents of violence by security forces. Social media platforms and messaging applications were shut down by the country’s communications regulator.
Next to the blaring truck a short, aggressive man is thumping his fist on his chest. He is Mukasa Aloysius, the NUP’s candidate representative for Rubaga district.
“We want a government that does not spill blood. We want an independent judiciary, a police that serves the people, as you can see many of our members are incarcerated,” he says. “I have an ambulance that takes the sick without asking for fuel, […] it doesn’t ask what political affiliation you belong to or ask your tribe.”
The party leader’s new song suggests voting will help to usher in “Uganda empya”, translated from Luganda as a “new Uganda”.
In early November, Wine rubbed his eyes, stinging because of tear gas, as he presented his manifesto to a relatively thin and controlled crowd at the Kakyeka stadium in Mbarara district. With a firm voice he said: “The greatness of any nation does not lie in a beauty of a manifesto or how many beautiful policies that have been written — the greatness of any nation is in the commitment of the leaders to say what they mean and to mean what they say.
“The greatness of a nation lies in leaders who focus on the next generation and not the next general election,” he added, as police across the field continued to fire tear gas canisters.
He handed the microphone to a translator, who converted his English message to Runyankole, a language common in the south-western region from which President Museveni originates.
Wine had a long list of promises: to restore the constitutional term and age limits, and make it treasonous for anyone to tamper with them; have a leaner, servant-based administrative government; close the income gap between the rich and poor; ensure the opposition of the future is not an enemy of the new government; promote gender equality; restore confidence in the diaspora; recreate farmers’ co-operative unions; start a trust fund for school dropouts; ensure foreign and local investors are treated equally; allocate 15% of the annual budget to the health sector; establish a maternal health facility in every subcounty; institute a reasonable tax era; create a policy for the informal sector; end rampant land-grabbing; create five-million jobs for the youth and improve civil service provisions for healthcare workers, teachers and security personnel.
He closed his speech by singing, “I am the president of the future and the future is today.”
Human rights activist Sarah Bireete, executive director of the Centre for Constitutional Governance in Kampala, believes the election winner should be able to strengthen a democracy that promotes dignity and works for everyone.
“What any president needs is [a] winning team. The question should be, if Bobi Wine wins, is he capable of forming a winning team, and my answer is yes,” she said.
Arguably, Museveni came to power in 1986 with a “winning team”. But Bireete argued Museveni forced experienced professionals to withdraw. “That winning team for Museveni has since abandoned him because he had over the years compromised their principles and bent the rules to entrench himself in power.”
According to Bireete, a winning team should comprise experienced professionals in key government positions. “A winning team should work in an environment that respects the rules of engagement and rule of law together with strong institutions that can check the excesses of leaders.”
Wine is a man of many surprises, but he shocked both his supporters and the ruling regime when he endorsed a ruling NRM party candidate, Dr Charles Ayume, to represent the people of Koboko in parliament. Although Wine will likely pick his own team to govern the country should he become president, he has shown a willingness to work with those on the opposite side to create a smooth transition.
“We are not fighting against the NRM. We don’t have any personal differences with the NRM, our differences [are] with the dictator who has misruled this country,” Wine said on national television, arguing that he wanted intelligent legislators in parliament, who represent unity as a virtue that will encourage a more unified body.
Ayume’s Koboko constituency is located in northeastern Uganda at the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. It has been an NRM stronghold for years, but Ayume dramatically toppled incumbent party competitor Evelyn Anite, who has gone to lengths to help keep Museveni in power.
Anite supported the idea of Museveni as a sole candidate. She also spearheaded the removal of presidential term and age limits, saying: “We have the majje [the military].” That bold declaration may have led to her downfall as she became so close to Museveni that she got tangled in the messy, internecine politics of Kampala and lost her constituency at home.
Speaking of his win, Ayume told the Mail & Guardian that flamboyance was not the ticket to win the hearts of the Koboko people. “Making noise does not make one the best cook,” he said.
After beating the “strong woman of the region” in the polls, Ayume applauded the community, noting that they vote out those who fail to deliver. “The community are the best auditors,” he said.
Asked if he welcomed the NUP’s endorsement, Ayume said he thought Wine was trying to become a smart politician by tapping into the Koboko “frequency”. “When people admire your wife, it does not put her in any position to divorce you, it should actually make you proud as a man,” Ayume said.
However, he thought Museveni’s sixth-term win was imminent.
Ayume is not the only NRM candidate Wine has attempted to lure. He also tried with the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, telling voters in Kamuli district: “Tell my auntie that Bobi Wine said that you are a good resource, but when he becomes president he will give you a much better position in his government.”
Amid much smooth talking on both sides of the political divide, there is significant optimism that new policies are possible and that “Uganda empya” is on the horizon, according to Ndebesa Mwambutsya, a history lecturer at Makerere University.
But he sounded a note of caution: If a new Uganda was to materialise it needed to put an end to divisive “political disagreements”.