As it should, the victory of musician Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) in the Kyadondo East by-election has caused a lot of excitement. Running as an Independent, Bobi Wine, the president of the ‘Ghetto Republic’, beat the ruling NRM juggernaut, and the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which tends to be the political powerhouse in and around Kampala.
It was remarkable, really. The NRM poured in a lot of resources, especially of the security variety. Looking at the TV footage and media photos, it seemed at one point there were more police and soldiers in Kyadondo East than voters. Energised youth weren’t intimidated. They guarded Bobi Wine’s votes with their lives, turning it into an “unstealable” election. Some have declared that the Museveni era is over. That we are seeing the beginnings of the end for the old NRM-FDC Political Establishment. That angry jobless youth have finally arisen and a new movement is about to sweep Ugandan politics. I think we can all agree that something dramatic happened in Kyadondo East, though what exactly it is, we still don’t know.
But a little bit of history might help us. Was there a political wave and spontaneous mobilisation that brought rank outsider Bobi Wine, or was, therefore, a structural shift? And, most importantly, how will it end? There are many examples, but we shall pick two from the 1996 elections – in Mbarara Municipality, that was won by Winnie Byanyima after the NRM threw everything at her, and in Gulu Municipality, that was won by Norbert Mao. Again, the NRM threw everything that wasn’t nailed down at Mao, but he prevailed.
Clearly, their running in urban constituencies helped. Like Kyadondo East, Bobi Wine’s victory is easier in urban and peri-urban constituencies, so the change that makes it possible might not necessarily be purely political, but more demographic and economic.
However, Byanyima and Mao in 1996 still represented very different and intriguing political realities. Byanyima was a prodigal daughter, the first “internal dissident” in the NRM, who went against the leadership. Mao was contesting in a Gulu that was still bearing the brunt of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion on one hand, and an NRM that ruled the place like a penal colony, on the other. The region was in thrall to a visceral and grievance politics that had made it all but impossible to run a centrist campaign as Mao did. The election of the cosmopolitan and urbane Mao was, therefore, a big surprise.
Byanyima and Mao won and came to Parliament. Power responded in very different ways. In Byanyima’s case, the decision seems to have been to end “progressive contagion” in the NRM. Her victory kicked off a process that, eventually, ironically, led to Col Kizza Besigye’s dissent, and to the near complete purge of moderates/progressives in the party.
Today, there are barely a handful of moderate voices in NRM: Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, although some say he is mild mannered, not moderate; and Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire, whom many argue, is too immoderate and intemperate to be a progressive.
In Mao’s case, the strategy was that of co-option. Not co-opting Mao the MP, but appropriating his political posture.
In response to the meaning of his victory, the NRM actually moved from the reactionary position it had dug itself into in Acholi, and shifted to a more balanced and enlightened approach in the region. The unintended outcome was that Mao pushed NRM into a position that made it easier for it to defeat the LRA! We have had a kind of détente in the north since, in which the Mao’s remain in power, but the NRM has also grown its electoral support as Kony stays away. In the ripples set off by Byanyima, while Besigye became leader of FDC, there was a turning point in 2011. Fighting the NRM on its terms, it was felt that Besigye had edged himself and FDC into a hardline position that was alienating the middle class.
In 2011, a bunch of young people were given a key role in Museveni’s campaign, and they played to the youthful digital-savvy constituency that rallied to Bobi Wine last week. Besigye’s loss in that election got FDC worried that Museveni was now able to steal the youthful and more elite vote that they had banked on.
It was felt that FDC needed to be softer, and move back to the middle. Besigye stepped down as party leader and “gentle” Gen Mugisha Muntu was elected to lead it. In many ways, there is now a prolonged stalemate between NRM and FDC.
Bobi Wine broke through it. But as 2011 taught us, what he represents is important, but it can still be co-opted. In the Kyadondo East chess game, Museveni lost a queen, not a king.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3