Last weekend Ugandan opposition politician Bobi Wine had planned to stage a concert in Jinja, Uganda’s second largest city and one-time industrial hub. The concert did not take place.
A few hours before it started, elements of the Uganda police rounded up many of his associates and locked them up, or forced them to return to Kampala.
Bobi Wine, perhaps wanting to avoid what had happened to him a few months ago in the northwestern town of Arua, where security agents beat him mercilessly for reasons that remain contested, went into hiding.
Early this past week he took his case to parliament and appealed to fellow legislators to help get the police and security organs off his back.
He, like other Members of Parliament such as doctors and lawyers who continue to do professional work outside parliament, would like to continue to work as a professional musician.
Parliament responded well, with parliamentarians condemning the actions of the police and asking the right questions of their political masters. In the firing line was army veteran and Minister for Security General Elly Tumwine.
The way Tumwine responded, however, was as predictable as it was callous. It was predictable because he, as with many others of his vintage in the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, has a reputation for what he may think is straight-talking, but which others see as arrogant and insensitive conduct.
Tumwine has made no secret of his belief that opposition parties and politicians and what he calls their propaganda are responsible for the problems Uganda is experiencing right now. And he has made clear his dislike for multiparty politics.
According to media reports, he does not see how Bobi Wine can “disaggregate his career as a musician from his status as a politician.”
Tumwine’s dismissal of what happened to Bobi Wine in Jinja and of other similar incidents the latter has been involved in, which have seen him blocked or disrupted by the police as “professional hazards,” which must therefore be understood in that light.
He sees Bobi Wine’s concerts not simply as music shows, but as political activism.
Herein lies one of the challenges Bobi Wine must deal with as the country moves inexorably towards the next presidential campaigns and as he considers whether to run or not.
Observers of the political scene in Uganda know that among the sources of advantage for President Yoweri Museveni and the NRM over other candidates and political parties in any electoral contest, is early campaigning.
Usually, this is dressed up as poverty reduction tours across the country, supplemented by other activities designed to give them a head start.
Opposition parties have nothing to match these manoeuvres. And when they attempt to stage public events to enable them to also engage in undercover campaigning, the police and security agencies brandish this or that law or regulation, accuse them of violating it, upon which their activities are stopped or disrupted.
It initially seemed as if Bobi Wine’s entry into the fray as a musician with the right to stage music shows would come in handy both for himself and for opposition individuals and groups seeking to hitch a ride on his popularity.
The blocking and disruption of his concerts leaves no doubt about the government’s determination to deny him and his allies the opportunity to use music shows as a campaign strategy and possibly as a mechanism for mobilising much-needed resources.
Here, it is important to recall that another of the NRM’s strategies for winning has been ensuring that rival political organisations remain unable to raise adequate resources to mount a credible challenge.
Presidential campaigns are by nature expensive. Candidates must traverse the whole country and take their messages directly to as many people as possible.
For opposition groups and individuals whose access to electronic media is limited for all sorts of reasons, taking their messages directly to the people is particularly important.
This entails paying campaign agents to help with organising rallies. It entails organising transport to ferry people to rally venues. And those who turn up at rallies want refreshments to “wet their throats.”
Blocking avenues through which opposition groups and individuals can raise resources is therefore a political imperative for their rivals in government.
Bobi Wine and others looking to take a shot at unseating Museveni who has already declared his candidacy, must contend with these realities and figure out how best to navigate them.
Appealing to parliament for help is certainly one way to go about it. However, given the NRM’s overwhelming numerical dominance and the party’s use of “independents” and institutional representatives in the form of workers and army MPs to augment its numbers, this particular route contains significant limitations.
In recent days there have been noises of condemnation of the government’s conduct from powerful foreign actors. The question is what else they are prepared to do to help, in a context where the ruling party has all the advantages of incumbency and opposition groups have the odds so heavily stacked against them.
For Bobi Wine and his allies, the challenge ahead is as steep as it has always been for whoever has tried to take on Museveni.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]