KAMPALA —Bobi Wine is without any doubt a great guy. His greatness does not lie in his thinking but in his character. And that could be the problem. A little over three years ago, he was largely known as a weed-smoking Rastafarian who sings good music often with strong political undertones. Then by one stroke of political intuition, he transformed himself into a major national political figure and international star, totally eclipsing Dr. Kizza Besigye, the principled, courageous but belligerent leader of Uganda’s opposition. He then took on the indefatigable President Yoweri Museveni by the horns for the presidency and gave him a real run for his money.
How did this singer turned politician come from nowhere and stage such a brilliant political coup? Many people, including me, grossly underestimated the power of Bobi Wine’s appeal. His bid for the presidency exposed the soft underbelly of the Museveni electoral coalition. First it proved that our hitherto invincible president could be defeated in an electoral contest in his Buganda base. Second, and as an insight from the first, that the much talked about rigging machinery of the NRM is actually a myth.
If Museveni is so good at rigging, why did he lose Buganda so miserably to this upstart? Where did his rigging machinery go? Why did he lose the North in 1996, 2001 and 2006 by huge margins but do well there in 2011? Why did he in 2016 lose Rukungiri and Kaseese in Western Uganda? How come he has often lost Kampala and Wakiso? What does the opposition do in all the areas that they can transplant to other regions? This is where the rigging mantra fails to add up. If it exists, this shows that with good support and proper organization, it can be beaten. Period.
Yet Bobi Wine, perhaps because he was carried by his emotions as opposed to his insight, failed to see the blow he had delivered against Museveni. Like Besigye before him, Bobi Wine saw the trees but missed the forest. He is a man of tactics, not strategy. He retreated to that old and tired mantra that has blinded Uganda’s opposition of the possibilities in front of them – allegations of rigging. So Bobi Wine refused to concede defeat and regurgitated the claims that Museveni stole his votes. Once you lock yourself into this echo chamber of opposition activists’ victimhood card, you lose sight of all the opportunities before you.
Museveni’s electoral coalition has always been based on holding his Western base, keeping Buganda under his thumb as the Mecca of his revolution and being competitive in the East. Museveni has always been willing to lose the North. In 1996, 2001 and 2006, Museveni was badly beaten there, but he never lost any sleep over it. Then comes Bobi Wine and by one stroke redraws the electoral map by literary chasing Museveni out of Buganda. What a feat! Does he see this? Do his handlers see its significance?
What if in 2026 Bobi Wine kept Buganda, took the North with the margins Besigye had and became competitive in the East, what would happen to Museveni? Bobi Wine is not a tribal chauvinist as his NRM critics allege. I don’t even think he has much attachment to his Buganda identity. Bobi Wine grew up in the ghetto in Kamwokya. That is his real tribe where his true feelings of belonging lie. At worst he is a ghetto chauvinist, selecting many around him based on their social-economic background than their ethnicity. If Baganda voted for him in large numbers, it is because they saw him as their son more than he saw them as his kin. They were opportunists who sought to cling on his brand.
The real danger Bobi Wine paused in central Uganda is that by his sheer charisma, he was able to win over two very powerful social institutions at the heart of Museveni’s political survival – Mengo (the seat of the powerful Buganda Kingdom, home of Uganda’s largest tribe) and Rubaga (the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, Uganda’s largest religion). The shortfall is that his bromance with Rubaga did not go beyond Buganda, but he has the potential to take it across the country. Bobi Wine also suffered a demographic deficit in these two social institutions, with many elderly people not seeing him as presidential and thus opting not to vote.
Yet this is only a short-term handicap, if Bobi Wine sought to play the long game. He can rebrand himself and by 2026 (who knows?), he can look presidential. But Bobi Wine is focused on the here and now (tactics) and has missed tomorrow (strategy). There were many irregularities and some rigging. But anyone serious enough to look at the numbers would see that Museveni would have won anyway. In fact I think the torment by security services against Bobi Wine played into his hands. It gave him free prime time publicity on radio and television where he had been blocked. By election time, his brand awareness was above 90%.
For Museveni to hold Bobi Wine’s momentum towards 2026, he needs him to reject the electoral results. This is a signal that Bobi Wine wants his supporters to challenge the results on the streets i.e. stage an insurrection. It is this suspicion that justifies the security cordon around Bobi Wine. So for the next five years, he is going to be tightly monitored and controlled because his every movement around Kampala, like Besigye’s before him, will be attracting large crowds supporters demanding action to reclaim “people power.”
These efforts are emotionally gratifying but not politically productive. They play into Museveni’s security-and-stability hands. The constant street battles with the security services will leave Bobi Wine psychologically and physically exhausted. This will take away the energy and focus he needs to build his brand in the north and east where he has good chances of growth if he can win the Catholic Church there. Now that is the long game I am talking about.
What should Bobi Wine do? He should concede defeat, even though pointing out the many irregularities in the electoral process. He should tell his supporters that: “we know Museveni and expected all these irregularities. We entered the race factoring them into our electoral equation. But now we need to move on and focus on 2026 and I appeal to all of you my supporters to follow me on project 2026.”
To calm Museveni’s nerves further, Bobi Wine would not do anything in Buganda – not for now. He has it already. He would begin with West Nile, move to Lango and Acholi, ignore Karamoja and focus on Teso, Bugisu and Bukedi. He already has Busoga. Museveni is unlikely to mount serious charm offensives because he is old and tired. And many around him don’t believe in his vision anymore. They believe in their individual survival. By 2026, candidate Bobi Wine could surprise us big time and shutter the myth of Museveni’s electoral invincibility. All Bobi Wine needs is faith and the ability to look beyond the immediate and play the long and quiet game.