As musician-turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine lies at the Makindye military prison near Kampala, where he has been detained, talk has shifted to the impact the 35-year-old is having on Uganda’s politics, having burst onto the scene only a year ago after winning the Kyadondo East by-election last June.
Mr Kyagulanyi stands in the middle of archrivals Yoweri Museveni, 73, and longtime challenger Dr Kizza Besigye, 62, causing significant discomfort to both.
How the MP has succeeded in inserting himself into the centre of Uganda’s politics has taken many by surprise.
His music background and images of a younger Bobi, a cloud of smoke drifting past his blazing red eyes below a dreadlocked head in the Kamwokya ghetto to which he assigned himself as president to today’s red beret, red overalled political warrior, has left many in awe and rattled the political cage.
Mr Kyagulanyi arrived on the political scene by sweeping to an easy victory a year ago in a by-election for Kyadondo East constituency in Wakiso near Kampala in a result that was seen as a defeat for both Besigye and Museveni’s National Resistance Movement.
He followed these with victories in Bugiri and Arua municipalities, where candidates he supported trounced those backed by the two rivals, stirring a national debate on whether he was beginning to re-order the political landscape in the country.
While NRM supporters used Bugiri to mock the Forum for Democratic Change and Besigye, it is Wednesday’s Arua Municipality by-election to replace slain MP Ibrahim Abiriga that cemented Mr Kyagulanyi’s arrival as a defining factor in Uganda’s politics. The response from President Museveni has been to subject him to a military trial when he is a civilian.
Special Forces Command
Dr Besigye has not fared too well either, seeing Kyagulanyi run away with the torch of the opposition leader.
In an interview with a local TV station before the MP’s arrest, Dr Besigye said that the young politician cannot electorally defeat Museveni under current circumstances, suggesting that Dr Besigye did not want to lose the main opposition politician tag to the young Turk.
Mr Kyagulanyi was three years old when Museveni and Dr Besigye arrived in Kampala from the Luwero bush after a five-year guerrilla war; he was 18 in 2000 when Besigye broke ranks with his comrade-in-arms and patient, Yoweri Museveni, to become the new face of the opposition.
In Arua on Monday, soldiers of the Special Forces Command were apparently angered after meeting the MP leading a crowd of Kassiano Wadri’s supporters chanting “Bobi Wine is our president” as President Museveni’s convoy snaked its way through the crowd. A stone was lobbed at one of the cars in the motorcade, shattering its rear window.
When the car in which Museveni was travelling arrived, eye witnesses say the president waved his driver through and was safely delivered to his waiting helicopter, but his security, smarting from embarrassment at the incident, returned later to unleash violence, beating up supporters who had retreated to the hotel being used as a tactical headquarters for Mr Wadri’s campaign.
A soldier reportedly walked up to Mr Kyagulanyi’s pick-up truck and shot the MP’s driver Yasin Kawuma as other soldiers proceeded to search the hotel.
Mr Kyagulanyi was later cornered, reportedly hiding in a ceiling. He was beaten then whisked away to an army barracks where the beating continued.
On Thursday, Mr Kyagulanyi appeared before a military court in Gulu, where he was charged with offences related to gun possession, the army confirmed in a statement.
The court martial remanded him until August 23. He was transferred in the night to Makindye in Kampala.
The military’s presence has been Museveni’s strongest indicator of how seriously he rates his opponents.
When he fell out with Besigye in 1999 and early 2000 he considered a military trial for his former doctor who was only saved by a delegation from his native Rukungiri that pleaded for him not to be tried.
Besigye had just retired from the army but in 2005 when he returned from exile in South Africa, Besigye was subjected to a parallel trial at the High Court and the courts martial.
That Mr Kyagulanyi is following the same route despite not being a soldier means Museveni takes him as a serious challenger.
Upsetting opposition cart
Mr Kyagulanyi’s disruption could even be bigger for the opposition. In Arua, he attracted a wide array of disaffected opposition figures especially from the main opposition FDC whose official candidate Bruce Musema came a distant fourth while the candidate supported by Bobi Wine, Kassiano Wadri, coasted to an easy victory even when he and many of his key supporters were in custody at the time of voting.
That former army commander and FDC president Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, a number of MPs and other supporters rallied behind the amateur politician has raised talk of the emergence of a Third Force to challenge the dominance of both Museveni and Besigye.
Makerere University law don, Robert Kirunda, however, cautions that the celebration of that so-called Third Force may be coming too early.