KAMPALA — There is a wave of excitement in favour of Bobi Wine and his bid for the presidency. The recent riots and their spread across the country only provide a glimpse into the popular interest in him. Anyone who has seen the traffic on social media would know his appeal. To underestimate his potential would therefore be to bury one’s head in the sand. Yet NRM seems impervious to these realities.
Many factors favour Bobi Wine. He has been a popular musician, so he has name recognition and a strong brand. He is also fresh because he is not been in politics before. He is young, and our country has one of the youngest populations in the world. He is Muganda, Uganda’s largest tribe. He is a Catholic, our country’s largest religion. Then he has his roots in the ghetto where the poor and dispossessed in urban areas live; so they identify with him.
Meanwhile, our president is old and makes little effort to make himself appealing to the young. He is strong on public policy and affable but often looks exhausted. I wonder why he stages his televised campaign events in such a state. He gives a litany of his achievements but has failed to articulate any reason why people should give him yet another mandate to govern for another five years.
Now while Bobi Wine’s campaign has passion and enthusiasm, Museveni’s team also looks tired, bored and disinterested in what he is saying but in awe of him. They seem incapable of grasping the structural transformation that this government has engendered. So their campaign strategies are out of step with the new Uganda that Museveni has created. Given the rancour of Bobi Wine supporters, a sophisticated Museveni campaign can expose the dangers of this group.
The biggest structural transformation in our country has been in social technology. Social media is now the biggest influence on this campaign. Yet the Museveni campaign team, if there is any such thing, has no viable social media strategy, save for poorly designed and ineffective isolated, not coordinated, efforts. The paradox is that if Bobi Wine performs very well in this election, it will be more because of Museveni’s achievements than his failures.
According to the Uganda Communications Commission by October 31st 2020, there were 20m Internet subscribers in Uganda, up from 15m as of December 31st, 2019, and up from 4.7m as of December 31, 2015. Internet traffic between July and October averaged 19m. Part of this growth is global; a result of declining costs of both smart phones and Internet access, but government policy has made it possible.
Then the demographics: we have a population of about 43m people. Of these, only 45% are 18 years plus. Bobi Wine is 38 years old while Museveni is 76. The people aged between 18 and 40 years constitute 80% of the adult/voting population. The people aged 75 years and above are 1.7% of voters. The people aged 50 years plus, the constituency most likely to appreciate where Museveni has bought this country from, are only 13% of the voters. Many young Ugandans not appreciate our gains and take them for granted.
Bobi Wine is enjoying an 85% advantage on social media, Museveni only 12%. Yet the spread of social media is evidence of the achievements of the Museveni administration. Millions of young Ugandans today are connected on social media via smart phones. This means they have sufficient disposable income to by smart phones and divert money from food and other basic needs to data and OTT. It also means they are educated to be able to read and write, thanks to UPE and USE, Museveni’s signature achievements.
These factors have made young Ugandans highly aspirational. Yet the rate of growth in their aspirations is (and can only be) faster than the rate of growth in opportunities. The mismatch between aspirations and opportunities is what is driving social frustration reflected in hostility to government. This is the new challenge of Museveni’s developmental state. It has produced a social group that wants to see the president go, a contradiction Karl Marx identified with capitalism.
Marx argued that for the bourgeoisie to accomplish its project of accumulation, it has (inevitably) to produce a social class, the embittered proletariat, whose interests are at odds with the interests of capital. This class, Marx predicted, would raise and expropriate the owners of capital. He called this the gravedigger problem. The same risk faces Museveni’s developmental state; it has cultivated its own gravediggers – the embittered urban and semi-urban youths. Will they raise and overthrow the state that has produced them?
Marx’s embittered proletariat did not overthrow capitalism in the West. On the contrary, communism succeeded in the least industrialised part of Europe – Russia. The failure in Marx’s prediction was that he failed to anticipate the internal self-correcting mechanisms in capitalism, especially its political arm, liberal democracy. Expanding democratic participation led to reforms that increased the social and economic benefits flowing to labour, thereby undermining the need for violent change. Reform became the enemy of revolution.
Museveni needs to learn from Western Europe and adapt his political methods to the new realities. He needs to put in place a smart social media strategy. He needs to find a way to connect with the young. He doesn’t need to act young; he needs to act like a sage, a cool grandpa. I meet many young people, especially young pretty girls, who really find Museveni cool and prefer him to Bobi Wine. He just needs to reach out to many of them. Finally he needs to provide a reason why at his advanced age, and having ruled this country for the last 35 years, he needs another mandate for five years.
Museveni’s campaign (or the sad imitation of a campaign) looks out of place. It is not cool to be seen to defend Museveni. It is cool to be seen with Bobi Wine. This can change and Museveni needs to expand his reach to the young. He needs to create an emotional connection with them. He can show them that he has brought the ship Uganda from far, through turbulent waters. But there are small speedboats all over the place promising shortcuts at the risk of accidents.
“I am here asking you to trust me as an experienced captain,” he can tell them, “I hear your voices and feel your anxieties. Trust my experience at navigation, even though you worry about my age. Here are the plans I have for you and your future which my opponents don’t have.” For now, the president and his team need more police than votes to manage the campaign, which is really sad.