While watching a radio/TV talk-show, #BigTalk, on Next Media last week, I got prompted to think through the theoretical-practical shifts in People Power, especially after its core activists formed/joined a political party, National Unity Platform (NUP).
As I shifted through my wandering thoughts, an outrageous – or arrogant – thought struck me: none of Bobi Wine, Joel Senyonyi nor other spokes of the movement appreciated or had the coherence to extricate themselves from the ideological muddle NUP had thrown them into.
On several occasions, Stella Nyanzi has eloquently articulated this confusion on her part, and it was classic display during the talk show. Many other hitherto passionate associates of People Power are even more confused, if not quietly disenchanted. [Senyonyi has sadly constantly dismissed this disenchantment as elitist].
Working my head further, I reached a sobering conclusion: in turning towards NUP, Bobi Wine had done the most noble thing of liberating the movement from himself.
In that single decision – no matter how it came, knowingly or unknowingly – Bobi Wine had returned power to the people he had so fervently sought to awaken. He demonstrated that no single individual – including himself – was above or more powerful than people power.
Indeed, despite Museveni’s shameless misfortunes towards registering People Power as a political party, it would have been a terrible mistake had People Power gotten registered as a party. It would be to colonize a rather exciting idea narrowing its reach and diverse ambitions into one small project – unity.
It would be collapsing a broad movement into a narrow strip. So, in truth, Bobi Wine decided to stand aside of the movement, and allow it a life of its own, without confining it to mere party membership. Bobi Wine practically allowed People Power to continue attracting membership from across the different political-ethnic divides.
The problem, however, is that Bobi Wine and company want to have their cake and eat it: they let go, but do not really want to let go. They still claim ownership of the movement because they have been its champions.
One of the biggest challenges now is that they, too, have to come to People Power as outsiders, not as owners or curators. They are at pains recognizing that forming a political party meant leaving People Power to everybody else.
But let me return to the story of #BigTalk that day to put my perspectives above in context. My friend, the unconventional Stella Nyanzi battled with two other women who, as herself, have showed interest in the Kampala Woman Member of Parliament seat.
The show started off explosively with Nyanzi and Malende getting locked in over their association with People Power movement.
While Nyanzi argued she was both FDC and People Power, and felt pushed out of the movement if she didn’t become NUP, Ms. Malende seemed to reassure her that “no one was being forced to abandon their political parties for NUP to belong to people power.”
It was a good point, which, however, contradicted earlier positions of the official spokesperson, Joel Senyonyi that had caused consternation to many people power fans.
Appearing on NBS’ Morning Breeze on July 22, 2020, Senyonyi reiterated many times that “People Power had acquired a political vehicle, and a symbol,” which was NUP. To this end, it got understood or was misunderstood as “whoever claimed being People Power had acquired a political vehicle.”
Later, Senyonyi would say they were not forcing people out of their parties, but would be inviting people towards a “people power alliance.” This made matters murkier throwing loyal fans such as Nyanzi off the grid.
The problem: our activists never explicitly articulated the aspirations and ambitions of the movement. Neither did they fully appreciate what it actually meant running a movement. Whilst claiming they ran a movement, they behaved and acted like People Power was a political party.
Scholars of political movements have made some educated conclusions: Notably, movements work through volunteering coordinators, and intellectual icons/ celebrities, not hierarchically structured organizations.
They never have an official spokesperson or regional reps. Instead, everyone who believes in the project becomes spokesperson. And can advance any argument in the spirit of the movement.
In addition to lasting only a small period as long as the specific project is being sought, movements never have membership cards, and neither do they seek to front candidates in elections. There are lessons from walk to work, defiance campaign, Women’s Match, Black Lives Matter, etcetera.
If forming a political party had been understood as liberating the movement from its celebrity curators, Senyonyi would have said: “activists in People Power now have a political party of choice, and it is NUP, but they are free to join all other parties.”
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.