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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

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Bobi Wine’s misleading resurgence

Bobi wine while in Luweero. Photo via @HEBobiwine

Why the big crowds at his rallies are misleading indicators of actual voter behavior at the ballot box

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | As expected, police have “suspended” the countrywide mobilistion tour by Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. After pulling large crowds across the country, I am sure government got scared. I am sure that even this scare is partly misguided but also partly a result of NRM’s lack of a strategic response. Therefore, from thence henceforth, Bobi Wine’s movements will be closely monitored and restricted. Police will look for every flimsy excuse to stop him in order to contain the growth in his popularity. Yet in trying to stop him, police will give him extra publicity for his cause and help him grow. This is a classic Catch 22 situation.

Since he captured power, President Yoweri Museveni has made it a point to restrict his opponents from organising against him. He has been successful at this because he enjoys effective personal control over the security services. The army, the police and intelligence organisations are always used as an arm of the president to bolster his politics. Anyone who have lived in Uganda over the last few decades knows this. What intrigues me, therefore, is that the opposition have employed the same losing methods to respond to this challenge for the last 38 years. Are mass matches through towns the only effective vehicle to mobilise?

The other major problem of the opposition is messaging and audience targeting. Bobi Wine has a very good intuition of the grievances that drive many Ugandans, especially male youths in urban areas, against Museveni. So, when he speaks, he touches their souls. I also think his charisma has made him the most potent threat to Museveni in an election among his tribemates, the Baganda. But this has come at the very high price of alienating the rest of Uganda, except Busoga, from him. The results of the last presidential elections of 2021 speak clearly and loudly about this.

In the north and north eastern regions where Kizza Besigye used to score between 40 and 70%, Bobi Wine got only 20% in Acholi, 23% in West Nile, 25% in Lango and 7.8% in Teso. In Western Uganda where Besigye used to get 30% of the vote, Bobi Wine got 8% in Ankole,7% in Kigezi, 22% in Tooro/Rwenzori and Bunyoro 21%. Yet in Buganda where he won, his margins of victory were not enough to compensate for the loses in other regions. He got 55% in greater Masaka, 65% in Mpigi, 65% in Mukono, 47% in greater Mubende, 53% in greater Luwero, 76% in Kampala and Wakiso. In Busoga, he won 48% against Museveni’s 43%.

Therefore, it is clear that the Bobi Wine wave was restricted to Buganda (his home base) and Busoga (Buganda’s poodle). Even within Buganda itself, it was restricted to predominantly Baganda districts – Mpigi 72%, Butambala 73%, Gomba 54%, Masaka 66%, Masaka City 77%, Bukomansimbi 69%, Kalungu 69%, Lwengo 56%, Kyotera 65%, Kalangala 70%, Mukono 72%, Kayunga 64%, Buikwe 65%, Buvuma 65%, Mityana 65%, Kasanda 54%, Luwero 70%, Kampala 73% and Wakiso 76%. Museveni won in the districts of Mubende, Kiboga, Kyankwanzi, Nakaseke, Nakasongola, Lyantonde, Sembabule and Rakai.

Bobi Wine’s loses in other regions of Uganda and some districts within Buganda itself shows that youths, outside urban areas, actually did not vote for him. Yet this is not a big problem.

The lesson from the above results is that for Bobi Wine to grow, he needs to reach out to Ugandans outside his narrow circle of ethnic Baganda and to some extent Basoga. This means he needs to cultivate support among youths in rural areas, women and non-Baganda and non-Basoga. He needs to convince people outside his traditional ethnic and demographic support base that he is presidential.

To do this, Bobi Wine needs to realise that male youths in urban areas do no constitute the majority of male youths, leave alone the wider community of Ugandans. Yet from his rhetoric he keeps reciting the grievances of this group without adding anything except ethnic grievances of Baganda. Technically it is hard to accuse him of ethnic politics. But within the cultural context he is speaking, we all know what he is talking about. These appeals to ethnic sentiment will most likely hurt Bobi Wine as his opponents will use them to paint him as a Muganda chauvinist. This is the image he needs to avoid.

Secondly, one of the biggest challenges Bobi Wine faces with his demographic base on urbanised male youths is their disloyalty. In the last election, male youths in urban areas had the lowest voter registration share of any demographic group. Uganda’s median age is 16.7 years. Youth in Uganda constitute about 70% of the electorate. Yet in all major towns, they are only 35-40% of registered voters. This means only about half of youths register to vote.

Bobi Wine and his supporters keep complaining that their votes are stolen without addressing this problem. It is possible that large crowds that follow him at his rallies reflect public enthusiasm without reflecting the potential voters on the register.

The Uganda police is scared that the crowds Bobi Wine is pulling are a sign of his popularity. That is only partly true. Rallies are misleading indicators of actual voter behavior. Amama Mbabazi pulled large crowds across Uganda and got only 136,000 votes. Bobi Wine himself pulled huge crowds in Arua City but got only 28,000 votes in the city, only 8,000 in the wider district. I am inclined to believe that left on his own, Bobi Wine is likely to self-destruct and alienate many potential voters. This is because he is effective at rallying his base but very poor at growing his appeal.

Yet I am also aware that Museveni takes no chances and no risks on such matters. He is likely to restrict Bobi Wine even if there is a very low risk of growth in his popularity. Therefore, knowing Museveni’s consistent strategy, it is incumbent upon the opposition to design new ways and tricks of mobilisation that do not attract the attention of the police. One would imagine that they have such tricks already and are using these public rallies as a decoy to divert police attention from the real place where they are doing the actual work. But alas, I doubt they have such thinking!


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