Populism faces test in Uganda and Kenya


As he sits atop the roof of a Toyota Landcruiser, a bulletproof vest covers his red overalls, with a matching, military-like helmet replacing his signature red beret. Likening the presidential campaign to a “war and battlefield”, Uganda’s Bobi Wine assures his supporters he is not backing down. 

In Nairobi, a sharply dressed William RutoKenya’s deputy president — braves hecklers as he voices his opposition to a constitutional amendment some people argue is a plot to keep President Uhuru Kenyatta in power in some capacity beyond 2022. He is at a crossroads — lie low and hope he is endorsed for president by the governing party, or go all out in his new outfit. 

Both relatively young and powerful orators have a near-similar political strategy — an onslaught against the establishment. Or so it would seem.

Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, is singing people power en route to Kampala as the king of the “bayaaye” — a term hitherto used pejoratively to refer to urban tricksters — that he has now co-opted as the identity of the new uprising against President Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year rule. 

William Ruto is steering the bumpy “hustler train” — a populist political narrative that advances an “us versus them” (haves versus have-nots) onslaught against the Kenyan political elite branded dynasties.  

In the psyche of the Kenyan public, political power has always been a contest between two dynasties: the Kenyattas — the family of Kenya’s first president — and that of Raila Odinga, who have perennially been in opposition. Ruto, who has been a minister and vice-president, has vowed to end this state of affairs.

Bobi Wine grew up in the Kamwookya slum in the Ugandan capital. The discography of his musical career can be summed up as a repository of the anti-oppression activism he calls edutainment.

After more than 15 years in music, Bobi Wine grew tired of subliminal messaging and launched his political career barely three years ago. Enchanted by his boldness and freshness, Kyadondo County East constituents gifted him a landslide victory, ushering a new era of opposition politics in Uganda. 

Bobi Wine has since faced the full wrath of Museveni’s state machinery, with the worst yet being the killing of more than 50 supporters by police in November 2020. In August 2018, he escaped death by a whisker when his driver was shot dead. 

Just three days before New Year’s Eve, a member of his security team was killed after allegedly being run over by a military truck, and a journalist documenting his campaign was shot in the head. 

He has been held incommunicado numerous times, assaulted inside parliament, survived torture, and energised the opposition to a far greater extent than Museveni’s perennial nemesis Kizza Besigye had managed, all the while raising a family of six. 

Kenya has always been a second home for Bobi Wine; a place where he honed his artistry skills and recorded his first hits in the early 2000s. At the time, Ruto was already an MP and the secretary-general of the detested then-governing party the Kenya African National Union (Kanu). He had already served 16 years in parliament and nearly one term as the second in power before Wine became a politician. 

Ruto began his political career at a younger age than Bobi Wine. He was 26 years old when he helped to found the Youth for Kanu ’92 — an infamous campaign tool for then-president Daniel arap Moi in the country’s first multiparty elections. The main tactic was to bribe voters with newly printed money, reportedly in billions of shillings, from which Ruto is said to have made his fortune. 

At the time, his fiercest opponent for the 2022 presidential race, former prime minister Raila Odinga  was just returning from asylum in Norway after being imprisoned for six years without trial, and having faced several arrests for campaigning against Moi’s one-party rule.

Although both Ruto and Wine, riding on the promise of uniting their nations against the pseudo-aristocratic elite, have faced their day in court, it has been for very different reasons. 

Unlike Wine, Ruto has never spent a night in jail, but is one of the few African leaders to have been charged at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity: murder, forcible transfer of population and persecution. He has consistently faced scrutiny over unexplained sources of wealth, including accusations of land grabbing. 

The People Power and the Hustler movements are undoubtedly important developments in the political journey of the East African people. 

Bobi Wine symbolises hope of a possible end to life presidency and the potency of a youthful revolution. Ruto is leading an experiment that, on paper, could herald a new form of identity politics, one that departs from ethnic mobilisation to economic inequality. 

Both promise a significant step towards true decolonisation that ideally should birth equity and development on all fronts. 

However, it cannot be forgotten that political slogans have often been used to prey on the psychology of the masses for a quick ride to power. 

The personas of these two leaders can be used to predict if indeed the populist movements they are leading are vehicles of convenience.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Eric Ndubi
Eric Ndubi is a Kenyan journalist and commentator.

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