About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Besigyesisation of Bobi Wine

Why it is sad that Bobi Wine has moved to Besigye’s dangerous position of permanent protester

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week former presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, pulled out of the Supreme Court case in which he had alleged he was cheated in the January 14 presidential election.

He claimed the courts of law cannot give him justice and he was taking the case to the court of public opinion. This meant organising street protests.

Like Kizza Besigye before him, Bobi Wine seems to have lost faith in the electoral and judicial process. His new call suggests he wants to change government by ultra constitutional means. It is a strategy that will lead him on Besigye’s long trodden path of failure and frustration.

In many ways, Bobi Wine’s actions, like those of Besigye before him, reflect the dilemma Uganda’s opposition has faced since President Yoweri Museveni’s government opened up political space for electoral competition in 1996.

Museveni came to power by military means. But rather than rule militarily, he chose to rule politically. Hence he put in place a constitution-making process that ushered in electoral competition. Yet the aim of these elections was not to ensure genuine competition for power but to legitimise Museveni’s power.

Because of the role he played in the armed struggle, Museveni enjoys effective personal control over the core institutions of the state. This gives him the ability to manipulate the electoral process to his favour. The opposition knows this even before they participate in the elections. Their dilemma has always been this: should they participate in a flawed electoral process? If they do, it would give them an opportunity to rally the masses around key grievances but at the price of legitimising Museveni’s “election.” However, if they boycott the elections entirely, they would lose a chance to make their voices heard and thus sink into political oblivion.

I sometimes sympathise with the opposition on this issue. They are caught in a Catch 22 situation with complicated tradeoffs wrought with contradictions and risks. However, I initially thought the opposition would see this and participate knowing the benefits exceeded the costs.

Museveni is transient. I felt they would see participation in elections as a way to build themselves as a viable alternative by highlighting key deficits of the Museveni administration. Slowly they could build capacity so that when Museveni is gone, they can have a real chance of gaining power.

But with time, I noticed that the opposition, especially the most effective one led by Besigye, lost this insight. They began to see elections purely as a means of winning power immediately not of building an alternative policy platform. Power became an end in itself, not a means to an end. When they could not gain it, and knowing the electoral process was flawed, they concluded that elections are meaningless.

Besigye convinced himself that the only road to power is through street protest. From then onwards, he saw elections as an opportunity to organise a mass uprising to topple the government.  

When Bobi Wine came on scene, he seemed to reject this view. In one speech he said, referring to his disagreement with Besigye: “Don’t talk about democracy and stand four times and then on the fifth time you tell people democracy doesn’t work. We believe it works.” He seemed to downplay the effect of electoral unfairness and focused his energies in calling upon young people to register to vote. I felt Bobi Wine was up to something different – breaking despair and resignation that Besigye had inculcated in the opposition and turning them into permanent protestors.

It now seems Bobi Wine did not know the nature of the political waters into which he was treading. In an NBS interview, Besigye had warned that with time Bobi Wine would come full circle to the very point of resignation and despair and retreat from democracy to protest and from elections to insurrection. He has been proven right. But this only shows that Bobi Wine’s political statements were not based on a strategic analysis of the situation, instigating a calculated response. Instead it shows that he was being naïve.

The opposition in Uganda, like very many elites in Africa and their cheerleaders in the Western press, diplomacy, media and academia, seem blind to the realities of democratisation. As former U.S. President Barak Obama never tired of saying, democracy is messy. It takes a lot of time to build, requiring a long-term commitment to upholding it even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Democracy is a journey, not a destination. Perfecting it is a continuous and tedious process. There are myriad challenges. Uganda is going through that protracted process.

But the opposition is bent on power, not democracy. They only see democracy as an opportunity to gain power, not to build their own party organisation, broaden the political participation of the masses, develop an alternative policy agenda and envision a new future for Uganda. Therefore elections only make sense if they win. If they lose then elections are meaningless. The judicial process only makes sense to them if it overturns the election of the president.

Opposition leaders denounce the judiciary in spite of the fact that Uganda’s judges have continually ruled against Museveni and the state in the vast majority of cases they have taken to court. Our judges have protected the rights of opposition politicians, journalists and activists. I am a beneficiary of this, our judicial independence. And so are Besigye, Bobi Wine and so many others. The blindness of the opposition to this reality only shows that they only see judicial independence in how it can help them get power.

It is sad that Bobi Wine has moved full circle to Besigye’s sad and dangerous position of permanent protester. Since he seems to admire America’s democracy, he needs to draw lessons from it. Although the Declaration of Independence stated, in 1776, that all men are born equal, and the constitution of 1789 restated this ideal, black people were counted as two thirds of a human being. Many were slaves, denying them all human rights. Native Americans, other ethnic minorities, women and poor white men did not have a right to vote. Universal white male adult suffrage was achieved in 1832 (56 years later), women got the right to vote in 1920 (144 years later) and African Americans in 1965, (189 years later).

Across its history, America has suffered from various forms of electoral fraud. White supremacist gangs employing violence and chasing black people from polling stations, white dominated state legislatures massively disenfranchising certain minorities, redistricting, etc. But American liberals have never lost faith in democracy because of these myriads unfair practices. Will our opposition listen?


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