Uganda: Ending Museveni’s tyranny an uphill task?

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Bobi Wine and the beginning of the end of Museveni’s power

by Rosebell Kagumire

AL JAZEERA

After close to two weeks of tensions in Uganda, a court in the northern town of Gulu granted bail to four opposition legislators including MP Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, fondly known by his stage name Bobi Wine. In videos circulated on social media, Kyagulanyi was seen in the courtroom moving with difficulty using crutches.

The lawyer of the 36-year-old singer said he had been “brutalised” in detention. Kyagulanyi initially was charged with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition in a military court while the other three MPs were detained and charged with treason on August 16 along with 31 other Ugandans. After ten days in military confinement, the military court dropped Kyagulanyi’s charges but he was re-arrested and also charged with treason.

  • Ugandan pop star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, celebrates shortly after being sworn in as a member of parliament in Kampala, Uganda in July 2017 [AP] [Daylife]

The detainees have been accused of pelting a presidential motorcade with stones on August 13 in the town of Arua; at the time of the alleged incident, President Yoweri Museveni was not in any of the cars and had long left the town. That day, political rallies were held by the ruling party and the opposition ahead of important by-elections.

After the rallies ended, the police and the Special Forces Command of the military descended on Arua, raiding hotels and violently arresting legislators, hotel guests and bystanders. Kyagulanyi has claimed that his driver was shot dead before the raids.

Two days later, independent candidate Kassiano Wadri, whom Kyagulanyi supported and who was also detained, won the vote in Arua. This was the third parliamentary by-election Museveni’s party lost to the opposition and Kyagulanyi, or Bobi Wine, played a key role in the outcome of the vote.

The presence on the political scene of the 36-year-old musician-turned-parliamentarian, who took up politics after 15 years in the music industry, is seen as a growing threat by the ruling elite. These fears and the violent reactions they are generating might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why is Bobi Wine a threat to Museveni’s power?

Bobi Wine’s magnetic pull on the electoral scene, which has helped the opposition in key by-elections, has increased paranoia within the ruling party. The realisation that the ground is slowly shifting under their feet has sent those in power into a panic.

These few electoral victories are a sign of what awaits President Museveni if he tries to run again in a country where around 65 percent of the population was born after he took power. His previous tactics of paying off voters and using the trauma of the past to coax people into voting for him are no longer working. And his attempt to talk to the young generation has ended in complete failure.

Young people have responded with contempt to Museveni calling them his “bazzukulu” (grandchildren); their aspirations largely do not include him ruling Uganda past his 77th birthday.

Young Ugandans face high unemployment rates and a lack of economic opportunities. What was once touted as Museveni’s greatest achievement – security – has been put to a great test the last two years. Crime has increased, with around 43 women targeted, kidnapped, raped and murdered within Kampala and the surrounding areas in the last 18 months.

Trying desperately to cover up the fact that his popularity is rapidly declining, the president has blamed the recent electoral setbacks on the Electoral Commission, which he has accused of being “full of rotten people”. This is a president grappling with defeat and fearing he could lose the next presidential vote.

Nothing about the arrest, torture and charges against Bobi Wine is new. Museveni has handled his main opponents and their supporters in the same way in the past. What is new is the ability of young people to organise, speak up and mobilise on and offline, galvanised by a young voice who is just like them – Bobi Wine.

His is the story of an outsider who brought his own folding chair to a table no one expected him to be at. Whether he will continue with the same gusto after his release and medical treatment remains to be seen. What Kyagulanyi has given young Ugandans is an idea and a hope for a post-Museveni future that the president cannot just wish away.

However, it will take a lot more effort on part of the opposition – beyond Bobi Wine and a growing cult-like following – to bring down Museveni’s rule.

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