The last quarter of 2018 undoubtedly belonged to the musician-cum-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. He has assumed an unparalleled position and in quick order taken a frontline role in the struggle to end the decades-old authoritarian and decadent rule of Mr Yoweri Museveni.
In Tanzania’s tourism and diplomatic capital, Arusha, I was surprised to find that staff at a hotel patronised by tourists know quite a bit about Bobi, not so much for his music as his political exploits.
The Bobi phenomenon is deeply arresting and deserves careful study. We don’t know enough of what is going on and how to make sense of it. I was away from Uganda for most of the last quarter of last year; so, I have not been up to speed with exactly the underlying dynamics at play.
To get a handle I recently tried to glean some insights from discussions with perceptive people and those with a firm grasp of what is at stake. It turns out that the issue is both quite straightforward but also complex.
As one behind-the-scenes political actor told me, there has been a fundamental ‘demographic transition’ in Uganda in recent years. And Bobi has emerged as the de facto leader at the helm of speaking the language and providing the inspiration that sits well with this transition.
In addition, I learnt something instructive: Uganda is basically a ghetto country and Bobi is the self-styled president of the ghetto. He had warned that if parliament does not go to the ghetto, the ghetto will go to parliament.
He is now in parliament and he has taken the ghetto there. That said, for a keen observer, especially looking in from the outside, there have been two particularly curious reactions to the Bobi phenomenon that merit attention and raise intriguing questions. There is a sense in which the two are related and it is even possible that one drives the other. The first is the sheer, unprecedented international and diplomatic attention granted to Mr Robert Kyagulanyi.
No Ugandan politician, in fact no Ugandan public figure, across the board, has attracted and received so much international media attention, from the major newspapers in Europe to leading cable television networks in the United States. There remains an intriguing why question here and we may not get the full answers anytime soon.
The second reaction has to do with the intensity and zealousness with which the Museveni regime has tried to tame the Bobi threat, actual or perceived. Museveni has always been adept at over-estimating the threats to his power, perhaps partly the reason he has misruled Uganda this long; so, it’s understandable that he, his apparatchiks and the state apparatus have gone on a roll and at some point in overdrive to counter MP Kyagulanyi.
Museveni does well by playing safe through overestimating the threat levels rather than run the risk of underestimating; so, nothing catches him by surprise. This though has its own limits: overestimating may well backfire or it may trigger a cascade that becomes impossible to contain.
But the energy, the resources and the time invested in dealing with Kyagulanyi suggest there is something that Museveni and his people see as posing a decidedly regime existential threat. So, what is it about Kyagulanyi’s ‘people power’ movement that makes it risky and a threat to the regime such that his musical shows are banned in such brazen manner?
At the start of Kyagulanyi’s international media attention, the regime’s activists and handlers peddled a rather pathetic narrative that he was an agent of Western interests. He could well be, and time will tell, but between someone who has only endeared himself to the West and been in the news for just a few months and the one who has been serving Western interests for decades, and that is Mr Museveni, who of the two is the real agent of the West?
I have argued in these pages that the course of nature is utterly random and knows no bounds and limits. Uganda as a society has been and will remain on the march and there is little control that Mr Museveni and his regime can do to forestall that march.
It is Bobi but it may well have been some other person leading the front. It is ‘people power,’ it could have been some other movement with a different set of repertoires and tactics. Whether or not he is the right person to lead a national movement for change is neither here nor there.
Societies get the leaders they deserve. And leaders emerge, they step forward when there is a vacuum, when there is a hungering for something new and reassuring even if lacking in real substance. The ideal is one thing, the real is quite another. The world tends to be more of the latter than the former.
Stopping Bobi Wine from performing at musical shows may slow down the momentum but will not take away the grievances fuelling his movement and the clamour for change. It is just a matter of time and the rulers know this but choose to hide their heads in the sand!
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.