KAMPALA —I have just been re-reading President Yoweri Museveni’s 1981 masterpiece on why he chose a protracted armed struggle to fight the government of Milton Obote. It provides an incredible insight into how a weak group can employ its weaknesses as strengths and turn the strengths of a powerful oppressive state into handicaps.
It is incredible how, even without strategic planning, Bobi Wine is using the same strategy successfully against Museveni.
Over the last month, Bobi Wine has created a rollercoaster campaign. He has positioned himself as an underdog fighting an entrenched dictatorship. To many young Ugandans suffering from anxiety over the future: whether employed, underemployed or unemployed, he has a simple but powerful message: “I am fighting for your freedom; all of you have to become freedom fighters to fight for your freedom. Some of us will die but it will be for the greater cause.”
This message is resonating with many young people in urban and semi urban areas who clearly see him as their hero, and who also think this “freedom” is a solution to their anxiety. Bobi Wine is short on policy and strategy, but he is sincere with his feelings, which resonate with this segment of our population. He is unlikely to win this election (even if it were free and fair) for reasons I will discuss another day. But for now he is the cool new kid on the block.
Here is Museveni’s real dilemma: Bobi Wine has branded him a dictator and needs proof. Bobi Wine has, without premeditation, lured Museveni into a series of street battles where more than 100 people have been killed. This slaughter has been captured live on social media, the platform where Bobi Wine’s base dominate. So he has provoked a powerful enemy in control of the state to use arbitrary violence to prove his accusations of dictatorship. This is exactly what Museveni did to Obote in Luwero.
In the aforementioned article, Museveni argues that a guerrilla movement should undermine a government’s credibility and legitimacy in both the domestic and international arena. By provoking state security forces to kill civilians, Bobi Wine is achieving exactly that. Yet Museveni is not acting differently from how he has handled previous opponents, armed or pacific. Indeed, the NRM/A was much more uncouth and violent in its early years than today.
Bobi Wine’s success at branding Museveni has been due to three factors: the presence of new technologies of social mobilization (social media), the decay of ideological commitment within NRM (death of siasa) and the collapse of the structures of demobilisation and counter mobilisation NRM used to have. The old grizzly bear (NRM) may not be defeated in this battle by the upstart Bobi Wine but its reputation has been grievously wounded.
For all its great achievements, NRM has failed to master social media. This is not because it does not see its value but because it is ideologically exhausted; lacks committed cadres with passion to tell its story. I meet young people with such passion for NRM and Museveni. But they are ignored or side lined because the core has been captured by self-seeking elites looking for the next big job or deal. Museveni can pour billions at this problem but cash cannot replace ideology as a basis for generating mass enthusiasm. Siasa needs a faith.
The longer Museveni has ruled, the more authority has shifted to him individually. Today this authority is transmitted from him through a small circle of close family and kin. There are no longer many people around him who are not family but who can exercise the influence people like Eriya Kategaya, James Wapakabhulo, Bidandi Ssali, Amanya Mushega, Kahinda Otafiire, Jim Muhwezi, Kale Kayihura, Amama Mbabazi, Noble Mayombo did. This is why the president’s campaign is movie staring Museveni alone.
Hence there is internal paralysis and inertia inside the president’s campaign and even the wider government. Everyone waits for “Mzee” to make decisions. But Museveni has grown old. He is now low on energy and zest. He often postpones attending to critical issues because he is over burdened and exhausted. Thus many issues in need of urgent attention remain unaddressed because there is no one to carry the ball down. His own style and approach makes matters worse. Museveni has little interest in young people. He finds them impatient and reckless.
It is in this context that Bobi Wine has surprised the system. The way he has rolled out his campaign across all the districts he has visited shows that he had been grossly underestimated, including by me. The system lacks the political and security smarts to handle him, hence the arbitrary use of violence. So the biggest coverage of elections is not what the president is great at (public policy) which Bobi Wine is intellectually handicapped at, but the violence and brutality government has unleashed on this singer turned politician.
The NRM is unable to change its ways because it has governed Uganda for 35 years using particular methods, which have served it well. However, Uganda has radically changed: its economy, the population, the level of education and exposure and its lifestyle and attitudes. Bobi Wine is a representative of this change. The previous candidates against Museveni came from the old political order (Paul Ssemogerere, Sebana Kizito) or from Museveni’s own camp (Kizza Besigye). NRM knew how to handle them. But they are clueless on how to handle Bobi Wine.
So the people in charge of the system are using old ways to cope with an entirely new phenomenon. And this is at a time when they have suffered deep institutional atrophy, terrible loss of energy, passion and morale, and a grievous decline in faith in their mission. The NRM has degenerated into a cash and carry party. Without faith in its mission, it no longer seeks to persuade but to bribe and/or coarse. This explains the retreat to violence as the one and only tool.
Now Bobi Wine is doing something politically dangerous: he is demonstrating actual power. He travels in a convoy of over 30 vehicles, hundreds of boda bodas, and an army of hundreds of people, who provide a human shield around him. His convoy is larger and seemingly more powerful than that of Museveni. It closes the entire highway turning it into a one-way road as police watch helplessly, often just escorting him. This projects him as a president in waiting. No one should loose sight of the symbolic significance of this especially among our peasant population.
To stop this momentum, government arrested him for violating electoral campaign SOPs, sparking widespread riots and deaths. He was released on bail on a clear condition that he should respect the SOPs. Since then he has been defying them with impunity, and government seems afraid of enforcing the bail conditions. Essentially Bobi Wine has placed himself above the law, and police seem unable to handle him, well because the matter is political. Bobi Wine may not be an existential threat to the NRM and Museveni’s power. But for now he is, without doubt, a strategic threat.