Two movements captured world attention at the same time 33 years ago.
As Corazon Aquino was riding on the crest of the People Power wave that swept autocratic Ferdinand Marcos and his insensitively ostentatious wife Imelda from the Philippines, Yoweri Museveni’s guerrilla army was taking charge of Uganda after a short five years of locally grown insurgency.
Uganda’s case was interesting to the outside world because it had split two allies USA and the UK, with Washington insisting that the “elected” post-Idi Amin government of Milton Obote was as bad its predecessors while Britain swore that the regime whose army Her Majesty’s military was training was clean.
Uganda sighed with relief when the National Resistance Movement guerrillas took over and most of the country in 1986 gave Museveni 101 per cent leadership rating. He was for a while seen as the icon of a “new breed” of African leadership.
As Kampala gave Museveni an extended honeymoon, it is likely that few Uganda watchers had heard of a man called Michael Kaggwa. He was an elderly fellow who from day one opposed NRM’s suspension of political party activity. But he belonged to the Democratic Party, whose president general, Paulo Ssemogerere, had joined the NRM coalition government as Internal Affairs minister.
So whenever Kaggwa’s so-called DP Mobilisers tried to raise their heads and hold public gatherings, it was policemen working under their very own party leader who cracked down on them.
One Cardinal’s word
Once a relatively wealthy man, Kaggwa withered away, broke and dejected after several years of struggle at a time the public did not want anyone to disturb the new national “saviours.” His struggle came at the wrong time.
When NRM’s four years in power (to which they had committed) came to an end, they introduced a motion to extend their rule by another five years. The MP for Kampala Central, Joseph Wasswa Ziritwawula opposed the move and even resigned his seat.
As he was heckled out of the august House, Mr Ziritwawula glanced over his shoulder for support, but not a single person followed his lead. In fact, after revered Catholic prelate Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga “advised” the nation to give President Museveni the five-year extension to complete the work of returning the country to constitutionalism there were no further questions about the legitimacy of the extended rule.
The NRM’s interim legislature was expanded through nationwide elections in 1989, in a very clean election where money was not a factor; and as a result, several young idealists who had not fought in the NRM’s bush war became MPs. They included the late anti-corruption crusader Basoga Nsadhu, current Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and former VP Dr Specioza Kazibwe.
Following the first elections after enactment of the 1995 Constitution, the Sixth Parliament took office in 1996 and it was simply phenomenal.
It had more young fighters like current Oxfam International boss Winnie Byanyima and present DP president general Norbert Mao. Though political parties were still under suspension, the non-partisan Sixth Parliament became the most powerful and reformist in Ugandan history.
To the chagrin of President Museveni, they censured and forced several of his Cabinet ministers to resign over corruption allegations. The MPs were bent on enforcing the idealist constitution.
Collectively, the Sixth Parliament was on the verge of delivering a transparent, fully accountable government. But its term was limited to five years and by the 2001 elections, the executive had regrouped and clearly identified its opponents despite the country being under a non-party system.
Individuals had to fight to retain their seats and some luminaries like Mr Mao retreated. Mr Mao suffered for hailing from the north, in a Uganda where the more populous and less poor South had not yet forgiven “those northerners” who had messed up the country since Independence.
Although they shook the Establishment, the Sixth Parliament simply lacked the cohesion and staying power to deliver democratic and governance reforms.
The third force to shake the NRM tree was the emergence of Dr Kizza Besigye as a presidential candidate in 2001, to start challenging Museveni every five years including the last general election.
While previous challenges by Mr Kaggwa and the Sixth Parliament were directed at the NRM as a system, Dr Besigye was the first person to target Museveni the man, for both contested under the NRM in 2001.
But Besigye was up against an executive that was still very solid in all aspects — enjoying popular support, in charge of implementing the law and controlling the means of coercion. Dr Besigye scratched President Museveni in 2001 but did not shake the man or the system.
In fact, while many in NRM faulted Dr Besigye for impatience instead of respectfully letting the president complete his second and last term under the constitution in 2006, the constitution was changed in 2005 to allow Mr Museveni to vie again and again until he reached the constitutional presidential age limit of 75 years.
Besigye’s security situation had become unbearable after losing the 2001 election with roadblocks being enacted along roads whenever he was travelling and was even getting pulled off flights, so he fled the country.
He returned ahead of the 2006 elections and has since kept losing to President Museveni every five years. He even had capital offence charges slapped on him, got nominated for the election while in prison and spent much of the campaign period in court.
After the 2011 election, Dr Besigye took over the Walk-to-Work campaign to protest the harsh economic situation occasioned by the wild election expenditure and turned it into a potent political tool.
It often turned riotous and saw him pepper sprayed to near blindness and routinely clobbered by police. What Besigye succeeded in doing was to cast the NRM state in a horrible light, but his influence was on the wane. His struggle failed to rise to any other level besides protest.
Matters were not helped when the split in his own FDC party became public and his differences with the former party president, General Mugisha Muntu drove many supporters against Besigye.
The focus finally shifted from candidate Besigye in 2017 when his young friend, musician Robert Kyagulanyi whose stage name is Bobi Wine, won a by-election to join parliament, after defeating Museveni- and Besigye-backed candidates in Kyadondo East constituency.
Later in 2017, the 75 years presidential age limit was also removed, clearing Museveni to remain president for as long as he continues to win elections.
It was during the bitter debate to remove the age limit which turned physical when soldiers dressed in business suits attacked parliament and fought opposition MPs until some of them were injured and hospitalised, that the fourth force to shake the NRM became clearly identifiable. Bobi Wine.
He choreographed a musical resistance to the soldiers who attacked parliament, though he did not suffer serious injury himself that time. Then, to disprove the notion that he was only a Kampala phenomenon, Mr Kyagulanyi started leading campaigns for parliamentary candidates (there are elections all the time in Uganda) and his preferred candidates seemed to win, regardless of the region.
Mr Kyagulanyi’s relative success in appearing to disturb the Establishment more than the first three forces can be attributed to at least two factors.
The first is obviously the changing demographics, with possibly 70 per cent of the population born after Museveni took power and who therefore identify with Bobi Wine and, of course, his music. That music is not a small issue because it actually affects the other factor.
He is taking on a system that had become experienced and efficient in dealing with forceful opponents.
The NRM government has crushed armed rebellions, built a formidable army, humbled aggressive politicians like Dr Besigye but is yet to learn how to counter a peaceful musician armed with a political message.
What could possibly go wrong for candidate Bobi?
It is not accurate enough to say that Bobi Wine is near to achieving what Kaggwa, the Sixth Parliament or Besigye did not.
The reason is that Museveni is a strong fighter who spends “25 hours” a day working on strategy; The president is already aware that brute force, which elements in the security services obviously favoured, against Mr Kyagulanyi may not work. And so, he must be working out a smart, non-violent response to Bobi Wine.
Second, Mr Kyagulanyi has charisma and appeal but no structure; no vehicle to carry his dream. He has already distanced himself from the existing political parties as he just lumps them together with the NRM and continues to make short work of them together during elections.
Third, there are a significant number of powerful, middle-aged members of NRM who dare not question the leadership, preferring to remain loyal in the hope that prosperity remains theirs and wait for succession to come to one of them that way, and are very angry at an outsider readying to make a grab at “their” prize.
They also see nothing wrong with the status quo and are mad at the youngster trying to upset the cart. They are mad at Kyagulanyi’s “People Power” and will no doubt fight him passionately.
Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.