Even though he has slim chances of becoming president after the 2021 election, Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, is viewed by his supporters as a serious challenger to President Museveni. They are energised by his youth, rags-to-riches story (of sorts), vitality and—crucially—political sloganeering and rhetoric. Last year, he famously said the “power of the people is greater than the people in power”.
People want to see change and believe Mr Kyagulanyi is the change they are yearning for, and he has all it takes to lead Uganda.
Yet those who say that the singer-turned-politician cannot lead Uganda are many. They think he is rather young and inexperienced—a political toddler who wants to step into oversized political shoes, so to speak. [Editor’s note: Uganda’s independence leaders were equally young: Milton Obote, 37, and Edward Muteesa, 38].
His detractors seem to base their views on what they see across Africa and other continents. Political leaders tend to be men and women with significant political experience and are often in middle age, some in the evening of their lives. Mahathir Mohamad, for example, was elected Malaysia’s prime minister in 2018 when he was 92, assuming a job he had previously held as a septuagenarian. And Tunisia’s Beji Caid Essebsi was 92 when he died while in office this past July.
Mr Kyagulanyi, aged only 37 and with just a couple of years of political experience, is arguably the youngest African gunning for the highest political office in his country. He is in the same league as South Africa’s Julius Malema, 38; Mmusi Maimane, 39; Zimbabwe’s Nelson Chamisa, 41; and Rwanda’s Diane Rwigara, 38.
But President Museveni and others think Mr Kyagulanyi is a political novice. He has publicly said that the singer should concentrate on his musical career and leave politics alone. That, of course, is what is expected from a president who still wants to be president—even after being in power for three decades—and keeps doing everything in his power to cling to power.
This past October, Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kahinda Otafiire also weighed in and said: “I don’t think that his [Mr Kyagulanyi] popularity is a result of political acumen. I would rather attribute it to his musical talent. Bobi Wine has never been put to the test as a politician. When has Bobi Wine ever been put to the test in a debate? Political acumen is tested in a debate, not in singing, not in sloganeering.”
And John Nagenda, who has served as Mr Museveni’s senior aide on media and public relations, said in an interview in January that if he met Mr Kyagulanyi, he would advise him not to exaggerate his importance. He thinks Mr Kyagulanyi does not have the experience required to manage the “very, very difficult job of being president”.
There is no shortage of people who are sceptical about Mr Kyagulanyi’s suitability for the presidency. But their scepticism loses sight of one important thing: If Mr Kyagulanyi became president, he would have to rely on other Ugandans to lead the country and to use the same financial resources as those at the disposal of Mr Museveni.
The competence, technical skills and resourcefulness of those Ugandans and the resources Uganda possesses matter much more than the strengths, political maturity and experience of the president.
Even if Mr Kyagulanyi were 10 times more competent and experienced than Mr Museveni, he would not be able to radically transform Uganda or fix problems Mr Museveni has failed to solve in, say, 10 years, assuming he comes to power and serves only 10 years after restoring the two five-year term limits that Mr Museveni removed from the Constitution in 2005.
Mr Kyagulanyi would inherit the existing ineffectual and corrupt civil service; a police force that the Inspectorate of Government has often singled out for being very corrupt and is poorly trained and underpaid; a Ministry of Health that operates on a shoestring budget and is largely financed by USAID, as annual reports on how the US government invests its money in Uganda indicate; a population that does not pay much tax apart from OTT and VAT; and a country with widespread poverty and unemployment. (Two IMF economists writing in the local press in May said Uganda would have to create more than 600,000 jobs per year to keep up with its growing population, but it hardly creates 100,000 jobs per year.)
For Mr Kyagulanyi, tackling these problems would be very challenging (just as it would be for even more experienced politicians), and the problems would put his ability to lead Uganda to a real test. Can he really tackle these problems? To answer this question, you have to look at Mr Kyagulanyi’s existing supporters and those he is trying to woo as potential voters.
Voters who will cast their ballots for Mr Kyagulanyi will be Ugandans who are just desperate for change; Ugandans who have lost all hope of having enough to eat and think new leadership can deliver change. They are many and, politically, they are the people that matter most for Mr Kyagulanyi.
His supporters are not going to evaluate his performance on an annual or daily basis and fire him if he fails to deliver. He can formulate policies to tackle the problems mentioned, but if the policies are ineffective—and sometimes politicians formulate policies that just do not work—Uganda will soldier on, just like it has when the current president fails to fix problems that the people he leads expect him to solve.
Mr Kyagulanyi may not have real policies already in place and has sometimes seemed shockingly ignorant about fiscal matters and the general economic management of the country, as a March 2019 NTV interview amply demonstrated. His critics and detractors have harped on that, saying that he would be a disaster if he became president.
But Mr Kyagulanyi is a Ugandan politician and has to behave and act like one. He is going to run for president in Uganda, not Belgium or Switzerland, where voters are choosy and expect high standards. Ugandan politicians do not go to rallies and bombard their supporters with details about policies they have for tackling problems afflicting ordinary people. They just talk about the problems people have and promise they will solve those problems.
By dismissing Mr Kyagulanyi as a political novice who is not fit to lead Uganda, his critics and detractors give the impression that vastly experienced politicians such as Kizza Besigye, Mugisha Muntu, Amama Mbabazi, Nobert Mao, Olara Otunnu, etc. can do much better and create a Uganda that works like Scandinavian countries, nearly all of which feature in the UNDP’s Very High Human Development category.
Uganda’s existing problems, which Mr Kyagulanyi would grapple with if he got elected, have remained unsolved despite the fact that Mr Museveni has been in power for decades and is a veteran politician—and works with veteran politicians.
A good example is the Ministry of Health. This is a key ministry, and it occupies a central position when it comes to the provision of social services. Nations become prosperous when they have healthy people. In fact, it is universally acknowledged that health is wealth.
So how has Mr Museveni, who is not a political novice, delivered on the health front since he came to power in 1986? The ministry has had nine Cabinet ministers. They include Zack Kaheru, James Makumbi, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, Jim Muhwezi, Stephen Mallinga, Christine Ondoa, Ruhakana Rugunda, Elioda Tumwesigye and Jane Ruth Aceng.
All the ministers, with the exception of Muhwezi, are medical doctors with proven clinical experience. They have all been appointed by Mr Museveni and vetted by Parliament.
But apart from a few successes—such as the immunisation campaign launched under the Expanded Immunisation Programme, women delivering babies in health facilities (as opposed to consulting traditional birth attendants) and substantial reductions in infant and under-five mortality rates, according to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS)—the Health ministry is still plagued by many problems and is far from tackling Uganda’s health problems.
Perhaps the best indicator of how woefully inadequate Uganda’s healthcare provisions are is the fact that none of the people in Mr Museveni’s government ever uses public health facilities. Cabinet ministers, senior politicians who are pro-NRM (the governing party) and high-ranking officers in the military and police have often gone to Nakasero Hospital, not Mulago Hospital, the country’s national referral hospital.
Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, for example, went to Nakasero Hospital when she fell seriously ill in March, and when her condition deteriorated, she was flown to Nairobi for better treatment.
The first minister of Health under Mr Museveni’s government died in a German hospital, and Mr Museveni once offered his official jet to her daughter to go to Germany and give birth. What’s more, Mr Museveni pledged in the 2001 Abuja Declaration to dedicate 15 per cent of the National Budget to health, but that number now stands at just seven per cent.
Zimbabwe and Liberia provide another good example of how experienced politicians can fail to address their countries’ problems. When Robert Mugabe was forced by the military to step down in 2017, many ordinary Zimbabweans were already fed up and wanted change. But since veteran politician Emmerson Mnangagwa took over, little or nothing has changed for the better.
In Liberia, the new administration of George Weah, who had been a senator for years before he was elected president in 2017, is facing accusations of corruption, and there have been street protests over corruption that have attracted global media attention.
Africa has had precious few young presidents and prime ministers. There are (and have been) notable exceptions, though. At 43, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed is one of the continent’s youngest leaders and is one of the few in their 40s.
A few Africans who came to power when they were young encountered problems because of power, lost power or abused it. Notable examples include Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso who became president at the age of 34 but was assassinated in 1987; Captain Valentine Strasser of Sierra Leone who seized power in a coup in 1992 when he was only 25 and was later overthrown in 1996; and Joseph Kabila, who became president in 2001 at 29 after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila.
Had they been still in power, these men would be veteran politicians but governing countries that are not different in terms of economic development from those countries whose leaders assumed power when they had considerable political experience. In politics, experience does matter but it is not the be-all and end-all of politics.
Mr Kyagulanyi can lead Uganda just like Museveni leads it, as long as he wins the 2021 election and is allowed to assume power—and as long as security forces do not interfere with him.
The writer is a veteran journalist and has previously worked for Al Jazeera as a digital editor in charge of the Africa Desk.