Uganda: Museveni’s onslaught brings together Bobi Wine and Besigye

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Monday, 15 August 2022 13:52
Bobi Wine and Dr. Kiiza Besigye in Nairobi during Kenya's elections on 9 August 2022. (photo: @bonny_wandulu)

After years of walking different paths, Uganda’s opposition doyens: Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine of National Unity Platform (NUP) and veteran opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye have pledged to work together as they continue refining strategies of ousting president Yoweri Museveni.

During a meeting in Kampala on 2 August, the duo, together with other key opposition figures and political parties, made a pledge to work together. Previous attempts to bring the two figures together had failed. Besigye, who was Museveni’s main challenger in elections from 2000 to 2016, sat out of the 2021 election, giving Bobi Wine space to take on Museveni who has been in power since 1986. Besigye did not campaign for anyone, including a candidate fronted by his own party.

Bobi Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, won majority seats in parliament, replacing the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which was founded by Besigye as leader of opposition parties in parliament. Following the election, Bobi Wine made overtures to bring together all opposition parties, but they were not receptive.

For the past decade, Besigye has become a critic of using elections to depose Museveni. That became the main point of contention between him and other opposition figures. He rejected calls from his party to be a presidential candidate in last year’s election. As parties were preparing for elections, he was dissuading them from taking part.

At that time, Bobi Wine was full of optimism that Ugandans could overpower Museveni’s regime through elections. He sent a veiled message to Besigye saying “don’t talk about democracy and stand four times, [but] on the fifth time, you tell us democracy doesn’t work. We believe it works”.

After the election season, Besigye formed ‘The Red Card Front’, a pressure group that he has been using to rally masses against the ruling party. He invited Bobi Wine and his party to join him, but never got a positive nod. When he tried to mobilise people against the high cost of living and Museveni’s dictatorship months ago, Bobi Wine’s party only offered him verbal support.

Why unity now?

First, Bobi Wine has come to admit that elections can’t dislodge Museveni from power. He garnered 3.6 million votes against Museveni’s 6 million votes in last year’s elections and later claimed to have been rigged out by the ruling party. There have been a series of by elections in which the ruling party came hard on opposition candidates by intimidating and arresting them. There have also been cases of voter bribery in by-elections.

Let’s go into elections not looking at them as normal elections because they aren’t normal

The most recent parliamentary by-election, held at the end of July in Soroti city, eastern Uganda – which has been an opposition stronghold – was one that the FDC candidate would have easily won. However, in the wee hours of the voting day, tens of senior FDC officials, including the party president, were arrested and detained. Throughout the day, many more party officials who had been assigned supervision roles were arrested.

There were clear cases of ballot stuffing at some polling stations and police, for the first time, used drones to tear-gas voters who were protesting.

Besigye and Bobi Wine campaigned for the FDC candidate, but he lost by a margin of about 600. Days later, the duo announced that they would be working together. They now agree that opposition parties should be going into by-elections not to win, but to mobilise the population against Museveni.

“Elections should be more for sensitisation than winning. Let’s make elections, however small they are, a spark to chase the junta,” Bobi Wine said on 2 August when they announced their collaboration. “Let’s go into elections not looking at them as normal elections because they aren’t normal.”

By fighting each other, Bobi Wine argued that opposition leaders have made it easy for Museveni. Besigye also echoed the same message: That unity is the only way to reclaim power from the head of state who has ruled Uganda for more than 35 years. “I can see it beginning to happen,” he said. “Even if it is tomorrow. If all of us – united – said let’s do this, the regime has no capacity to stop us.”

Disdain, new breed proving loyalty

Museveni has never hidden his disdain for opposition parties, threatening to wipe them from the map of Uganda. He also believes that the Western world notion that opposition parties are meant to hold the government accountable is ‘childish’. Museveni’s decades-long strategy has always been to co-opt opposition politicians into the government.

His latest catch is Norbert Mao, the president of Democratic Party (DP), the oldest party in Uganda. Mao was appointed justice and constitutional affairs minister last month after his party signed a cooperation agreement with the ruling party. The Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), founded by two times president Milton Obote, has also been working unofficially with Museveni for years. The party is led by Obote’s son Jimmy Akena, whose wife is a cabinet minister in Museveni’s government.

Museveni’s onslaught against the opposition has seen other key appointments. They include prime minister Robinah Nabbanja, who was a junior minister before last year’s cabinet appointment; vice president Jessica Alupo, who was out of cabinet between 2016-2021; speaker of parliament Anita Annet Among, who was poached from FDC a few years ago, among others.

Both Nabbanja and Alupo are known to frequent campaign rallies, unlike their predecessors, and have been accused of superintending voter bribery and ordering arrests of opposition figures.

A good strategy

Mwambutsya Ndebeesa, a political historian at Makerere University, Uganda, says the strategy that opposition politicians are adopting is good as long as they stay realistic. He acknowledges that the ruling party will keep rigging elections , but urges continued focus on the push for democratic space.

Uganda is a moving political accident. You just mobilise and you never know when things will turn around

He warns that they shouldn’t expect a change from inside the ruling party because everyone supports the use of the military to stifle the opposition during election season. “From NRM’s leadership base, use of [the] military is popular. Nobody is against it. Nobody is abhorred. In their point of view, it’s a legitimate tool to win elections,” he says.

As to whether opposition parties can push Museveni to cede democratic space, Ndebeesa says, nothing is impossible. “Uganda is a moving political accident. You just mobilise and you never know when things will turn around. In 1980, who knew that Museveni would come into office. It was unthinkable,” he tells The Africa Report.

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