Ugandan big-time rapper-turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine, is making waves again. He has been holding national rallies and drawing the kind of massive and frenzied crowds last seen in the early days of his presidential campaign for the 2021 election.
The “People Power” leader’s popularity wave in 2020 and 2021 ran into the blunt edge of Ugandan politics under President Yoweri Museveni and ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). He endured the kind of torment matched only by that which befell former opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye, who went up against Museveni four times.
Shot at, beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, and held up at military police roadblocks where the tyres of his vehicles were punctured, Bobi Wine spent a few cold nights in his car on the roadside as he was caught up by Covid-era curfews.
He was forced to take to campaigning in bullet proof vest, helmet, and moving around in an armoured car. Shortly after the vote in January 14, 2021, the police and military laid siege to Wine’s home, and he wasn’t able to get out for days.
Yet, here is today, freed from the cage, travelling around the country with the level of ease he has never had. On the whole, opposition politicians in Uganda are going through the least repressive phase they have seen in nearly 30 years (the once-formidable Forum for Democracy has used it to destroy itself in internal fights).
Both outsiders and Ugandans in blogs and social media, have argued that President Museveni has taken his boot off the necks of his opponents as insurance against the coups that have swept the West Africa-Sahel region and Gabon in recent times. Buoyed by their man’s performance and crowds, Wine’s supporters got the hashtag #TheRevolutionIsOn trending.
However, Museveni has been in power for almost 38 years, nearly twice as long as all the previous short and long-lived seven Ugandan rulers combined. You don’t get to do that in Uganda’s treacherous politics if you aren’t good at the game. A wily and strategic player, there is great method to what sometimes seems like Museveni’s craziness and governance delinquency.
The Uganda president is juggling many balls. At 78 and clocking nearly four decades in power, he has got up quite a bit in biological and political years. Yet, all signs are that he wants a ninth term in 2026.
However, one of the world’s youngest countries has fallen considerably out of his grip and tired of a rule that has been marred by violence, corruption and nepotism.
The economic conditions on the ground have become harder, and the effectiveness of brutal force in containing disaffection is now doubtful. The oil pipeline to Tanzania is hobbled by many issues, and he needs to give it more momentum by easing the human rights issues campaigners have used to knee cap it.
Among the potential challengers to his job, is the president’s own son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, previously Commander of Uganda’s Land Forces, who was shunted to presidential adviser on Special Operations, when his campaign for a presidential slot in 2026 grew too noisy. The Muhoozi story is complex, though. For while he is again campaigning freely, it is not clear whether he will go head-to-head with his father in 2026, and why if Museveni sees him as a spoiler, he is still enabling his politics.
This is where the old wily Museveni, and the bit on the freedoms politicians like Bobi Wine seem to be enjoying, come in.
Those knowledgeable about Museveni’s methods say Muhoozi is plan B, or even plan C. Should his bid for a ninth term run into some unforeseen hurdle he can’t overcome, then Muhoozi can slide in as a substitute candidate.
If Museveni still manages to break through, then he can co-opt the youthful enthusiasm and structures Muhoozi is building as his own, in exchange perhaps for a promise to support him in 2031. In any event, it is not tenable for his son, to continue campaigning in breach of the rules against serving military officers dabbling in politics, while repressing opposition politicians like Bobi Wine, who are granted such rights under the law.
Yet others say Bobi Wine is being used by Museveni as a bellwether. First, to see how popular he is relative to Muhoozi, so Museveni can know where to put his political money or get an early evaluation of how another face-off with the former rapper in 2026 will look like. On current form, if he went against Bobi Wine in 2026, it looks like he will have to throw the kitchen sink at him again.
But should he read a ground swell of opposition he can’t easily overcome, he might fashion a political deal with selected opposition groups as part of a new political reform and civic liberalisation compact.
Of course, Bobi Wine might not do himself any favours. After a few months, he will have to turn the wave of popularity he is riding, into a substantial alternative political platform to Museveni and NRM, which is more than just fatigue with the president’s long tooth. He could burn out on the trail.
Museveni then wouldn’t have to bloody his hands dealing with him again.
Then again, Museveni might also have miraculously learnt from former Kenya President Mwai Kibaki that the most profitable way to deal with the opposition, is to allow them so much freedom, that they drown in it.
The author is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3