Every few days on Kenya top Twitter’s top trend, you have Ugandan musician turned politician, MP Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine.
Bobi Wine has captured the imagination of Kenyans since he was elected in a sensational by-election in 2017. When he visited Nairobi, with his red beret, he was embraced by Kenya’s militant and revolutionary political contingent.
Bobi Wine trends mostly for the wrong reasons – when he has been beaten to near-pulp by the Ugandan police or the presidential guard; arrested to stop him addressing a rally or holding a concert on his own property.
Now he’s a presidential candidate in next January’s elections, and his torment – and that of his supporters – have mounted. A month ago, he was roughed up and arrested immediately after his nomination. Another candidate, Patrick Amuriat of the main opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), wasn’t allowed to convey himself to the Electoral Commission with the pomp he had planned.
He was arrested, and bundled at the election commission, in socks, his shoes having been lost in the scuffle. It was not all in vain. He and some party members have now taken to appearing at their rallies barefoot, as a heroic symbol.
Just over a week ago, he was arrested allegedly because he had more people at his rally than Covid-19 rules permitted. Protests broke out in several towns, and the state rushed out militias, the police, and the military to quell the upheaval. By the time it was done, about 50 were dead, according to official accounts. The opposition claim “hundreds” were killed.
It was a horrid day, the country looked like a slaughter house. Since then, Bobi Wine has been blocked from entering towns, been stopped from travelling and forced to sleep in his car on the roadside until dawn, and his vehicle shot at.
Even by Uganda’s brass-knuckled politics, the violence is unprecedented. Why all that firepower at a musician with only three years in politics, and at 38 is exactly half the age of 76-year-old President Yoweri Museveni who he’s trying to oust? Museveni is the longest ruling non-monarch ever in all of eastern Africa (only Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie surpassed him).
Yet age, and Museveni’s longevity in office, while important, don’t begin explain all the events unfolding in Uganda.
Bobi Wine’s entourages and rallies can be unnerving with the feverish support he gets. As he drives by in some places, people just go into hysterics. But, all that doesn’t really matter. In Uganda it isn’t the candidate that wins the most votes that gets to be president; it is the one that counts the most votes that does. Today, Museveni’s side are still the vote counters.
It’s not the votes that Wine is taking away from Museveni. It is his legitimacy. A large part of it goes back to the circumstances that brought Museveni to power in 1986. He led a five-year guerrilla war, which was largely based in the “Luwero Triangle” in southern Uganda (Buganda). One of the masterful things about that war, is that Museveni isn’t from the south, but the west. He became among the very few successful guerrilla leaders in Africa who didn’t base his war among “his people”, but around a broad alliance that exploited a lot the historical grievance against the government of Milton Obote, who stole the December 1980 that sparked the insurgency.
What Wine has done, is that he has broken the southern compact that was critical to Museveni winning power in 1986. And he has become the first challenger to truly steal the large youthful constituency from Museveni, on whose backs it was his plan to construct his legacy.
One difference between Kenyan and Ugandan politics explains the extreme violence. In Kenya, the campaigns are often not so chaotic or bloody. Hell breaks loose after the election, and the counting gets underway – and after the winner has been declared.
In Uganda, it’s before, during, and after the vote. The difference is explained by the nature of the states. Uganda is a heavily militarised state, and violence is the principal instrument for both deterrence and control.
Charles Onyango- Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans [email protected]