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Uganda: Besigye’s return to frontline raises suspicion within Bobi Wine camp

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 18:57

Uganda's Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye
Uganda's Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, and Kizza Besigye arrive for a joint news conference in Kampala, Uganda June 15, 2020. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

The return of Kizza Besigye to the political frontline in Uganda to lead a new pressure group called The Front for Transition, was snubbed by the main opposition party National Unity Platform (NUP) of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. The new party has upped suspicion among Wine supporters, but has also reignited debate of what has been the main problem bedevilling opposition parties in Uganda. And the problem is disunity.

The pressure group, which was launched in early October, is yet to hit the ground and start actualising its anti-Museveni plans because it has been engulfed in debates on whether Besigye is trying to steal the limelight from Bobi Wine, who emerged as leader of the main opposition party during the elections in January. It was the first presidential election that didn’t have Besigye on the ballot since his departure from the ruling party in 1999.

Social media attacks

On social media, thousands of rank and file supporters of Bobi Wine questioned Besigye’s credibility, particularly on his silence during the presidential election season when the pop-star turned politician and his supporters were brutalised by the regime. They are convinced that Besigye should be following Bobi Wine, not vice versa.

As rhetoric against Besigye mounts, he recently received a telephone call from Bobi Wine who expressed  concerns about the social media attacks. However, during an interview with NTV Uganda, Bobi Wine argued that to accuse him of failure to reign on NUP supporters is “intellectual dishonesty” because he has no control over them.

“I cannot control public anger. While I always call upon people not to always be combative, I also encourage people to express themselves,” Bobi Wine said. “You will remember that in the past, Dr Kizza Besigye had always been called upon to restrain his supporters which I believe he has no control over.”

With Bobi Wine’s presence, the whole struggle against Museveni has been turned into a celebrity contest…”

Though Bobi Wine’s party wished the protagonists of the new political group well, it didn’t give a plausible explanation on why an invitation to meet was snubbed. Nevertheless, the party insists that different anti-Museveni groups can take different paths as long as they aim for a common goal of ousting him from power. When pressed harder, the party  said it tried to unite the opposition groups but failed.

The NUP of Bobi Wine has also refused to join Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD): a platform that brings together all political parties represented in parliament. David Lewis Rubongoya, NUP’s secretary general,  says: “The regime has turned IPOD into a forum in which party principals meet for a cup of tea, followed by a photo opportunity.”

Struggle for unity?

Prior to the start of the election season in October 2020, Bobi Wine said he tried to get endorsements from other political parties but failed. Even after the election, he said his group tried to reach opposition parties for meetings on how to move forward, but the requests fell on deaf ears. Bobi Wine cited high profile members of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – the party that Besigye led four times as a candidate for the presidential elections – who publicly declared that their party would never work with his.

“We have had a number of meetings, way from 2019 trying to work together. We have had up to 18 meetings,” Bobi Wine said during the NTV interview. “We in NUP were of the view that we needed unity as we were going into the presidential election because it was important that we front one candidate.”

Even during Besigye’s time as Uganda’s main opposition candidate, unity among opposition parties was never achieved. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Besigye pulled out of a coalition that favoured Amama Mbabazi — a former prime minister — who had been axed from the ruling party for expressing interest in replacing Museveni as the party candidate.

Though Mbabazi was touted as a candidate who would bring in votes from the ruling party and give Museveni a run for his money, his performance in the election was dismal. Mbabazi scored less than 2% and quietly returned to Museveni’s fold, vindicating Besigye’s fear that he wasn’t a man worthy of the trust and support of opposition parties.

It should be delight[ful] to anyone that someone is seeking to energise the forces of change…”

Yusuf Serunkuma, a political theorist at Makerere University, argues that opposition parties waste time trying to forge unity, which they will never achieve. “I have never understood why opposition groups in Uganda want to unite when they know […] it is impossible,” he tells The Africa Report. Serunkuma says it’s foreign funders of opposition parties who usually try to force them into unnecessary coalitions.

Opposition parties are disunited because of their own internal weaknesses and contradictions, says Moses Khisa, a political scientist at North Carolina State University. He adds that the struggle for positions and recognition within opposition parties has become apparent. “With Bobi Wine’s presence, the whole struggle against Museveni has been turned into a celebrity contest. There is not enough sober minded and thoughtful approach to the problem at hand,” he tells The Africa Report.

Both Besigye and Wine have downplayed arguments that they are struggling for positions. Besigye has called for a media-moderated public debate to discuss questions, such as whether there is a need for political transition from Museveni’s gun rule, what the best strategies of ousting Museveni are and how transition would be managed.

Different personalities, strategies

Five months after Museveni took oath for a sixth term, which will see him extend his stay in power to four decades, Bobi Wine’s party has gone quiet.

The party is said to be struggling with internal divisions on how to crackdown on legislators who don’t hold Bobi Wine in high regards and suspected infiltration by Museveni sympathisers who often buy off high profile members of opposition parties. The party has ostensibly become the antithesis of what it was before the election.

Serunkuma says Bobi Wine’s movement is simply dead.

“In truth, people power died, and was buried. NUP is simply its walking ghost,” he said in The Observer. “The death of people power marks that crucial moment in Uganda’s recent political history. It was a movement that promised to change the fortunes of Uganda, and indeed, Museveni was scared to the bone.”

Yet, Besigye kept Museveni and security agencies on their toes after the election season by announcing protests, an alternative government with ministers or taking oath as the peoples’ president. For his vibrancy in opposing Museveni and the tens of arrests that ensued, Besigye was once falsely given the title of the most arrested man in the world.

As Bobi Wine goes quiet, Khisa argues he is failing the test of consistency, which Besigye passed during the time he was the main opposition figure. That worry could be what has pushed Besigye to return to the forefront. Khisa adds that Besigye has provided a proper diagnosis of Uganda’s political problem and offered the best medication of the time: given that political parties are incapacitated, a grand coalition of different forces is what will work.

Both Khisa and Serunkuma heap praise on Besigye. “It should be delight[ful] to anyone that someone is seeking to energise the forces of change,” says Serunkuma. “And if this is Kizza Besigye, he should be welcomed.”

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