2018: The year of Bobi Wine and rise of People Power in Uganda

Mike Tyson once said, "I'm the past, the present and future of boxing. Nobody discusses boxing without mentioning Iron Mike." In a way, Bobi Wine can say, "I'm the year 2018, calendar 2018 and season 2018 of Ugandan politics. Nobody can discuss 2018 politics without mentioning Ghetto President."

YEAR REVIEW | It was in 2012 that Bobi Wine accepted Bebe Cool’s challenge to a musical duel. Dubbed “Battle of the Champions,” the nemesis agreed to perform on the same stage. Silk Events did a good job at Kyadondo Rugby Grounds in partitioning the stage so that Bebe Cool and Bobi Wine each had a separate space to themselves on the same stage.

By the time Bobi Wine was done and had turned to insulting Bebe Cool and demanding he brings up live performance, the son of Bidandi Ssali was just starting. Bobi Wine was left fuming for he had performed his popular songs while his rival was still ‘testing microphones.’

Even the most ardent of Bobi Wine fans that May of 2012 left Kyadondo in agreement that Bebe Cool had stuffed Bobi Wine real good and left him to ponder his size. At the time, Bobi Wine was arguably the least popular of the triad (Bebe Cool Bobi Wine and Jose Chameleone).

Sendo Cleaners

But four years later, everything changed. With electioneering calendar dropping in, Bebe Cool came up with a project he sold as Tubonga Nawe with which he put together local artistes of various talents to endorse President Museveni’s re-election.

Bobi Wine took exceptions and criticised his fellow artistes for siding with the regime that he said was responsible for the socio-political injustice against Ugandans. With the majority of citizens disillusioned by the government’s failures and excesses, Bobi Wine’s stance resonated with all and sundry but at the dining table.

Ugandans couldn’t stop stop praising Bobi Wine. Even those who did not like his music and his personality were suddenly talking of buying them, of downloading, of playing them on repeat on YouTube… In a way, the artiste whose music career looked to have faded was back.

The electioneering of 2016 had set Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu on a political pedestal, with probably the highest popularity rating of any Ugandan offering himself for a vote. With the millage he gained from denouncing the regime, Kyagulanyi announced he would offer himself to Kyaddondo East voters when the MP seat was vacated by a court order. The response was hysterical.

Despite Museveni and Besigye campaigning for their official candidates, Kyagulanyi polled 25,659 votes in a landslide victory. Nkunyingi Muwada got 575, NRM’s Sitenda Sebalu polled 4,556 while FDC’s Apollo Kantinti scored 1,832. Sowed Kayongo Male came last with 377 votes.

Beyond reproach

From that victory onward, Bobi Wine and his dear ones have become beyond reproach to his bevvy of followers, especially on social media milieu where saying anything unflattering of the pop politician or his family is considered “criminal” with summary execution on the spot.

Mike Tyson once said, “I’m the past, the present and future of boxing. Nobody discusses boxing without mentioning Iron Mike.” In a way, Bobi Wine can say, “I’m the year 2018, calendar 2018 and season 2018 of Ugandan politics. Nobody can discuss 2018 politics without mentioning Ghetto President.”

He wouldn’t be wrong. If there was a ‘Time Person of the Year’ for Uganda, the Kyaddondo East legislator would win it hands down even if Don Wanyama, Ofwono Opondo and Sylvia Owori were the editors, voters and cover designers, respectively.

Initially, there were many attempts to downplay his meteoric rise on the political arena with critics calling it the passing cloud. But it would be easier now to search for a needle in a haystack than to find those same critics today — they have been washed away by the torrential rainfall from Cloud Bobi Wine.

Wherever Kyagulanyi has traversed on a political mobilisation, he has left behind footprints that his rivals cannot bear to look at even in passing. The crunching defeats in Jinja, Rukungiri, Bugiri and Arua by-elections spoke of a young man with the clout on his red beret.

Perhaps Rukungiri and Jinja can be taken out of the equation. Betty Muzanira’s win over Winnie Matsiko and Paul Mwiru’s triumph in Jinja East were not necessarily credited to Bobi Wine. Rukungiri is Opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s backyard and perhaps remains the only place in Uganda where Bobi Wine would face a run for his fame if he stood for any seat and Besigye campaigned against him.

When Muzanira was taking off with her race, Bobi Wine joined Besigye and his FDC party officials there. But his clout wasn’t felt. In fact, one of the things he is remembered for in Rukungira is being forced to apologise after an action deemed insulting to Dr Besigye.

In Jinja, the Opposition was almost united. The FDC force and Bobi Wine support proved too strong a challenge. Museveni was humiliated as even alleged efforts to engage in rigging were thwarted by Ingrid Turinawe’s forces on the ground.

However, Bobi Wine’s clout was unmistakable. He was commanding massive crowds. Some said they were just excitable youth and musical fan base, but there was no hiding. In days that followed, Bobi Wine was under pressure.

Sources say the ruling NRM party officials were in constant touch with Bobi Wine, asking him to join the dining table. At the same time, President Museveni saw in Bobi Wine the chink that has been missing in the armour has had trained at Besigye for the last 18 years.

Here was someone with enough supporters and fans on the ground to shake Besigye’s entrenched following across the country. If there is anyone who has challenged and driven Museveni to his back since his political career started in 1953 — as he claimed — it is Besigye. But Bobi Wine has been threatening Besigye’s and Opposition support base and no one would like that more than Museveni.

If he used Bobi Wine, the youthful politician would eat into chunks of Besigye’s following and divide the Opposition. In a way, Museveni would rather stand against Bobi Wine in 2021 (it is easier to convince a few cautious voters that “the young man can wait for his time in due course”) than the prospect of facing Besigye again — not after the state of affairs in the last two presidential elections.

In 2011, Museveni had been declared a winner but was so unpopular he had to count on Kale Kayihura’s brutal tactics to crush civic disobedience. In 2016, it was even worse. Votes for several urban centres, especially the Metropolitan districts, were not tallied eventually with Badru Kiggundu announcing they were too insignificant to alter the outcome of the results.

After Kiggundu had dusted his hands with a shameless coup on the ballot boxes, it took a while for Museveni to finally come out. Hushed voices in the corridors suggested Gen Museveni spent days balancing thoughts of exile in his mind following February 18, 2016, declaration.

On the streets, ‘strange’ soldiers combed every nook and cranny and wore such mean looks Ugandans cowed in bed. Some sources have said that if after that Kiggundu result the people had stormed the streets in protest, Museveni would have sued for peace or fled the country.

But now there was Bobi Wine. He was the ideal card to use against Besigye and this has not been lost on the Opposition leader at whose home Bobi Wine has dropped in a couple of times to seek advice on what to do with the pressures and being instigated to go up against Besigye.

Bobi Wine cuts his teeth

But go up, he started doing. Bugiri Municipality election was the testing stone. FDC had decided to root for its official candidate in Eunice Namatende, Bobi Wine went with Jeema leader Asuman Basalirwa in a contest that played out on Facebook as much as it did on the grounds.

Museveni and Besigye both pitched camp in Bugiri to campaign for respective party candidates but the crunching defeat they suffered left a mark on the status of Bobi Wine — he was not a joking subject.

Straight from Bugiri was the time to fill the void left by assassinated Ibrahim Abiriga in Arua Municipality. Bugiri had left simmering differences in ideology and a clash of paths to take in advancing the cause against the regime. Any doubts about this was soon dispelled as Kassiano Wadri, then an FDC senior official, decided to drive the short distance from Maracha to the municipality.

But there was Bruce Musema, the official loser from the previous race to the late Abiriga. The party had to make a choice between the two. Musema thought he was close to Bobi Wine and had counted on his support. He said he had received a call from Bobi Wine assuring him of the support in the campaigns and had even printed some posters with Bobi Wine’s picture and name included to woo voters.

However, at Najjanankumbi, FDC leaders decided that Musema was the rightful challenger for the seat and Wadri was a stranger — the latter was asked to step aside for Musema. He refused and decided to go Independent.

Bobi Wine had been expecting FDC and Besigye to back Wadri but not he found himself in a boat without a coxswain. He was not sailing. He decided to row himself fast before he was caught up by a strong wind. He called up Wadri and announced he would support his candidature.

It became clear then that Bobi Wine was set to walk a parallel footpath from Besigye’s. And to make it certain, on that fateful August 13, he crossed path with the FDC leader at the party rally venue before that fatal incident with Museveni’s guards.

The voting was conducted with Wadri and Bobi Wine under military detention. The arrest and torture of Bobi Wine would for the next two months be the talk of town and beyond, sucking in US senators and congressmen and giving People Power ‘movement’ a banner like never before.

Bobi Wine’s popularity shot to the ceiling (forget the pun about where he was arrested from). Even Museveni found himself in a rare territory — having to go on the defensive. Letter after letter, he wrote, to try and explain the arrest and detention of Bobi Wine. The country was told of an attack on presidential motorcade, of MP Francis Zaake escaping from custody even when it was known he was unconscious…

The pressure on Museveni’s government was so much that the mean and strange soldiers were poured back on the streets and in suburbs where they continue to earn their bread from to-date. For the first time, Museveni backed down on a charge he had levelled against a politician when guns and other exhibits Police had hurriedly gathered and paraded before the media as belonging to Bobi Wine in an attempt to build a treason case was dropped even before it had started.

The charges before the military court in Gulu turned into a ceremonial affair as almost everyone knew Bobi Wine would be released. The military dropped the charges and turned Bobi Wine over to Police, who released him. The subsequent trial before a civilian court has never taken place.

Upon his return from the US where he had gone for further medical management of injuries sustained during his military detention, Bobi Wine announced he would hold a concert. He went in for Mandela National Stadium, Namboole, but authorities would have none of it. After more than a month of back and forth talks, the Kyarenga concert was finally allowed to take place from his private property at One Love Beach in Busabaala.

In just one year, almost everyone has tasted the popularity of the Kyaddondo East legislator. Those who tried to test it have rued their decision. Indeed, saying anything unflattering about Bobi Wine is the last card you can throw on social media and emerge with your head intact. Sylvia Owori went for Barbie Kyagulanyi and got a hiding.

Besigye was not spared, last weekend, when he discussed tribalism and mentioned ‘Twebereremu, a slogan associated with Bobi Wine. Not known to respond to attacks on social media, the Opposition leader gave in and apologised even while maintaining his message had been taken out of context. Perhaps, Besigye, like Museveni and everyone else, has learnt that in 2018 — and for the next 13 days — you only praise Bobi Wine, never criticise.

A year is twelve months long but for local politics, 2018 was a Bobi Wine brief.

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