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 strength of a powerful but oppressive state into handicaps. It is incredible how, even without strategic thought but sheer gut, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine is using the same strategy and quite successfully against Museveni.
Over the last month, Bobi Wine has created a serious 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 (people power) is a ticket to happiness. Bobi Wine is short on policy and strategy, but he is sincere with his feelings, which resonate with this segment of our society. 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. So Bobi Wine needs proof of this. He 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 dominates. 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 the role of the guerrilla should be to 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 doing exactly that. Yet Museveni is not acting differently from how he has handled previous opponents, political or armed. 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 mobilisation (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.
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. Those it had, it has sidelined or ignored them because its core has been captured by self-seeking, money-minded elites looking for the next big job or deal. Museveni can pour billions at this problem but cash cannot replace ideological commitment as a platform for generating mass enthusiasm. Siasa needs a faith.
Second, the longer Museveni has stayed in power, the more authority has shifted to him individually. This authority is today radiated from him through a small circle of family, close kin and friends. 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 or Noble Mayombo did. This is why the president’s campaign is a one-man-show starring Museveni alone.
Hence there is internal paralysis in NRM, no creative thinking, too much inertia; everyone waits for “Mzee” to make things happen. But Museveni has grown old. He lacks energy and zest. He often postpones addressing critical issues because he is overburdened and exhausted. Thus many issues in need of attention remain unaddressed. 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 plan across all the districts he has visited shows that he had been underestimated, grossly. The political and security apparatus lack both the political and the security smarts to handle him, hence the arbitrary use of violence. So the biggest coverage about Museveni is not what he is campaigning to do but the violence and brutality he has unleashed on Bobi Wine.
The NRM is not able 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. It is a government led by a political party that has degenerated into a cash and carry mentality. Without faith in its mission, the NRM no longer seeks to convince but to bribe and/or coerce. 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 50 vehicles, hundreds of boda bodas, and an army of about 180 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 lose sight of the symbolic significance of this especially among our peasant population. Bobi Wine is not an existential threat to the NRM and Museveni’s power. But he is, without doubt, a strategic threat.