Early last week, rising Ugandan opposition politician and MP Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, his stage name from his rapper days, was arrested in the northwestern town of Arua.
His arrest followed a fracas in which a car in President Yoweri Museveni’s convoy was stoned. In circumstances that remain murky, the presidential guard shot dead Kyagulanyi’s police guard. In a Twitter post, the legislator alleged they were aiming to assassinate him, but he was not in the car.
Also in Arua, was Museveni’s much-tormented old rival, Dr Kizza Besigye, of the Forum for Democratic Change, the country’s main opposition party.
It was hectic, so much so you’d have thought a general election was underway in Uganda and that Arua held the decisive swing votes.
But no, it was a by-election, to replace Ibrahim Abiriga, the ruling National Resistance Movement parliamentarian who was assassinated in shocking fashion on the outskirts of Kampala in June.
Museveni’s NRM doesn’t have to play high-stakes in by-elections. In a 426-member House, its share is 293. It can rely on nearly all the 66 independents; one or two strays from FDC’s 36; a handful from the Democratic Party’s and Uganda Peoples’ Congress 15 and 6 respectively; and all of the army’s 10, needless to say.
If push comes to shove, aided by his famous brown envelopes, Museveni has nearly 90 per cent of the vote in parliament locked down.
So why does Uganda now have the most hotly contested by-elections in East Africa? Not even Kenya’s famously fractious and drama-filled parliamentary contests come close.
Because, though fewer in numbers in the House, the opposition now own the political debate in the country, and have been able to amplify it several times on social media where there isn’t much love of Museveni’s 32-year rule. But primarily, by-elections have become a proxy for how and when Museveni’s regime will end, and who will inherit the kingdom.
The NRM has been defeated in a string of recent by-elections, feeding the narrative that Museveni, his government enfeebled by corruption and incompetence, is an emperor with feet of clay, who is slowly and surely losing grip. He can’t afford the symbolism of defeat in Arua Municipality.
Kyagulanyi has thrown a monkey wrench into Ugandan politics. He is not in FDC, and recently foiled the party’s candidate in a by-election in the east, by supporting a little-fancied third candidate who went on to win.
He came to parliament after beating both the NRM and FDC in a by-election in Kyaddondo East constituency in the south last year, propelled by a new form of youthful digital-age fury mixed with middle-class disdain for the political establishment that had not been seen in Ugandan politics before.
He’s ridden the wave, drawing huge crowds around the country, and hurling himself with lethal effect into all sorts of political crusades.
To the establishment, he represents an uncontrollable force that can’t be bought, if only because it’s hard to put a finger on it. Its recent militant streak scares the bejesus out of the elders.
To Museveni, it is probably a force that he feels he can’t negotiate his final settlement with. He has now caged its leader, but not, one suspects, the movement. And no one is sure what will come next.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]