Why I pity but also sympathise with Bobi Wine

Bobi Wine

Bobi Wine

Forming a political party does not strengthen him. It weakens him. It renders him a familiar enemy. Bobi Wine’s genius was in his unusualness as a political activist: an incoherent, marijuana-smoking-dreadlocked clown – an entertainer that people like. 

The robadoba stylist.  The singing activist was more powerful than this dandy fellow in three-piece designer suits.  The singer gave Museveni sleepless nights.  Museveni was clueless on how to deal with him. The entire legal and political machinery Museveni has assembled over 35 years had encountered an unfamiliar enemy. They were dumbstruck.

While Bobi Wine operated within the law – singing and holding shows – Museveni was left outside his own laws. He also learned quickly that intense violence against Bobi Wine only heightened his stardom.

What has happened over the past two years, however, has been the undoing of the singing activist, and creating a traditional politician. 

Sadly, the traditional oppositional politician – in suits and ties speaking Victorian English – is no longer the enemy to Museveni but, rather, an appendage to the system.  The Museveni juggernaut needs this traditional politician for he does not threaten it but, rather, gives it the most necessary hue – as a democratic government with a thriving opposition. 

By becoming one – chairman and presidential candidate for a political party – Bobi Wine has made it easy for Museveni to not only manage him but also harvest him.  While our sycophantic opposition politicians who had made it a habit harvesting Bobi Wine have actually lost their kill, Museveni’s harvest has only begun. 

With a little sophistication, Bobi Wine has unknowingly joined that stealthy club of noisy but tameable or already tamed rebels.

The “little sophistication” with which Bobi Wine joins other ordinary oppositional players ought to be understood before throwing him under the bus.

I am sympathetic with Mr Wine for it was not going to be easy to overcome the structural challenges of his/our political time.  His options seemed to have been pre-defined by the political space in which he exercised his agency. Let me explore both sides separately:


Let me start by reiterating two old theoretical positions of mine:

(a) Our modern autocrats – Museveni, Mobutu, Mubarak, Al-Bashir, Kagame, Biya – never exit office through elections.  Rather, elections are the ways in which they reproduce themselves. These men are protested out of office.  They are protested to the point that the vultures around them see them as a liability to their eating interests – and are thus motivated to chase them or negotiate their exit.

(b) It is practically impossible – as has been historically demonstrated – to move from an autocrat and end with a clear-cut opposition politician.  You cannot move from Mubarak to Morsi; from Kagame to Ngabire; from Mugabe to Chamisa.  Change often takes an internal journey before moving outside.  Painfully, however, it takes the struggles of the Morsis, the Chamisas, and Ngabires to propel the wheels of internal change.

There is no illusion that Bobi Wine could make a fine president, stating this as one of his core ambitions early on was strategically right – for his life, and keeping out of prison – but politically over-ambitious.

Bobi Wine’s major contribution had to be captured in a more modest stake: using his celebrity status to mobilise bodies of Uganda’s slum-dwellers onto the streets of Kampala. The campaign to get voter’s cards, slogans such as “twebereremu” had to be intensified and made more visible. 

Wine had to compose more danceable bangers following up on Kyarenga – the love song that is simply political.  This was Bobi Wine’s genius.  But he chose to drop the “omubanda” label for an English gentleman. Whilst ditching his dreadlocks, torn jeans and T-shirts looked like a touch-up, it was a strategic mistake.  

Bobi Wine should have been doubly worried when Museveni invaded his territory in downtown Kamwokya, Kisenyi and Katanga laden with sacks of cash. He should never have lost Full Figure or Buchaman.

These embodied his core constituency. Even after Museveni had bought off these fellows, Bobi Wine did not have to stop calling on them and being more charitable. Sadly, he took the direction of the more careerists and professed opportunists. Avoiding this turn – towards careerists – sadly, is also easier said than done.


As a tragedian character of sorts, Bobi Wine must have spent time deciding whether to form or not to form a political party.  While it is doubtless NUP traditionalises, and effectively reduces his appeal, chroniclers and commenters ought to be more sympathetic to Bobi Wine’s tragedian complex:

(a) The possibility of Museveni introducing legislation barring independents from standing – argued as in spirit of advancing multi-party democracy – must have concerned him a lot. Yet standing for the presidency actually guarantees him continued relevance and more public security.

(b) The necessary evil in Third World politics, donors: One needs money to run a gigantic campaign. Donors, despite generously funding campaigns, also mess them up. This is either out of ignorance of local context or in pursuit of own agendas. The turn towards NUP doesn’t smell organic, but rather coerced.

(c) For what they are, movements often last small periods, and are born to champion specific projects. People Power had actually aged, and the brains behind it had to transform. At the same time, over the years, the movement diversified and became more ambitious.

Moved away from simply seeking to end Museveni’s rule to sending legislators to parliament. These are not goals pushed through a  movement but, rather, a political party. Sadly, political parties have been defined by a national condition of instability and endless in-fighting.


The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd