With the 2020 general election campaign season starting to take shape, the national political scene has been invigorated by the emergence of a force that will re-arrange the cards.
This is People Power, the group that formed in 2018 around the youthful musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, referred to for the rest of this article by his stage name of Bobi Wine.
This week, People Power dominated the news when the police prevented it from holding a consultation meeting in Kampala and later that afternoon one of its ardent supporters, Rita Nabukenya, was mortally wounded in a motorbike incident while heading to town to join Bobi Wine.
Much of the public remains sceptical and suspicious of the police account of the circumstances of Nabukenya’s death.
In June 2017, Bobi Wine won the vacant Kyadondo East parliamentary seat in one of the most popular victories in Uganda in recent years.
So popular and well-received was his victory, that the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and government joined the Opposition in wholeheartedly congratulating him.
At first, few people took Bobi Wine seriously, which is why his Kyadondo win was so well-received.
Comedians, radio presenters and musicians had won election into Parliament in recent years, so Kyagulanyi was seen as joining this novelty as one more unthreatening figure.
It was one thing to win the Kyadondo by-election by a landslide. But how would he fare as a full-time politician?
The first test of this came with by elections in Sheema, Bugiri in July 2018, Jinja East in March 2018 and Arua Municipality in August 2018.
Candidates behind whom Bobi Wine rallied started to win. It was not clear if these candidates won in part because of Bobi Wine’s campaign effort or Bobi Wine had read their momentum right and got behind them in the first place.
Either way, it demonstrated that he had a good grasp of the mood on the ground and aligned with it.
Arua Municipality was, of course, Bobi Wine’s baptism of fire. Badly beaten by the security forces, along with another MP Francis Zaake, his mistreatment shocked the nation and region.
At some point in late 2018, it seemed Kenyans were angrier with the Uganda government over the brutality meted out to Bobi Wine than Ugandans.
Bobi Wine came into full national and international light and from then on, his profile began to soar.
“His arrest won him international sympathy and put him in the ranks of young Africans challenging the old guard’s hold on power – alongside Rwanda’s Diane Rwigara, who at 38 has stood up to Paul Kagame’s presidency,” commented London’s The Guardian newspaper on October 4, 2018.
People Power by the start of 2020 had become a national force, the most-referenced political brand in the country.
The rise of People Power runs parallel to a discernible re-emergence of Buganda nationalism and political ambition.
Since the mid-1960s, Buganda has had to watch from the sidelines as other regions, particularly northern and western Uganda, divided the political spoils.
Buganda was co-opted into northern and western power mainly to give the northerners and westerners the image of inclusion and broad appeal.
Depending on what milestones one chooses, the three-day September 2009 unrest that came to called the “Buganda riots” was the first indications of a pushback by the Baganda against their perceived marginalisation and humiliation by the State.
In 2014, a new, relatively youthful voice, Charles Peter Mayiga, was named Katikkiro (prime minister) of Buganda and set about vocally stating Buganda’s demands and position on national issues.
Mayiga also initiated a large-scale fundraising campaign for completing some Buganda Kingdom commercial property.
The reunion in 2019 of the Uganda Young Democrats (UYD), the youth wing of the DP, was another notable recent move by Baganda to shake off their political malaise and start to think once again as a political bloc.
People Power, then was formed amid this atmosphere of a Buganda reasserting itself and seeking to drop its apologetic and ambivalent tone of the 1990s.
Most of the land-grabbing in Uganda takes place in Buganda, a particular sore point for Baganda for whom land is both physical asset and cultural identity.
Also, since most of Uganda’s cash economy is centred in Buganda, Baganda youth feel most acutely the effects of unemployment and underemployment.
All this, not to mention how ordinary Baganda feel about their kingdom that is seemingly stagnant while, according to the common perception, all lucrative government jobs, benefits and contracts are given to westerners.
What is intriguing about People Power since the start of 2020, is that its appeal has now spread beyond Buganda. In some tracking data, People Power sometimes shows a higher profile in western Uganda than in its home base of central Uganda.
It is the most-widely discussed and monitored political group in eastern and northern Uganda.
Under normal circumstances in Uganda’s post-independence history, any hint of a powerful, united or arrogant Buganda has attracted resentment from the other regions and caused these regions to unite to contain Buganda.
But because of the accumulated years of frustration, youth unemployment, displacement by civil war, rampant corruption, nepotism and tribalism under the NRM, Buganda and the other regions now feel they have a common cause against the westerner-dominated NRM government.
Western Uganda over the last 15 years has become what Buganda was in the 1940s and 1950s, with westerners now perceived by the rest of Uganda as the dominant, arrogant, corrupt, tribal lot.
Since 2019, police started to impose preconditions and requirements on People Power that seemed ridiculous to many observers, such as People Power providing sniffer dogs, fire-fighting trucks and toilets for their proposed meetings.
The State, which in 2017 warmly congratulated Bobi Wine after his Kyadondo win, had since late 2018 woken up to the real challenge that Bobi Wine’s movement presented.
President Museveni in late 2019, in a tacit acknowledgment of People Power’s grassroots urban appeal, tried to win back this demographic by wooing various local singers with a Kampala “ghetto” following.
What next for People Power?
Clearly, People Power is now a fully-established national brand.
The next step is how to convert this popular support and brand recognition into bureaucratic, structured organisation ahead of next year’s general election.
Rather than focus on consultation meetings seeking public feedback whose responses are already easy to predict, People Power would have to start drawing up names of prospective candidates for seats ranging from parliamentary to district local council offices and village LCI positions.
Many political activists and aspiring 2021 candidates for various offices tend to introduce themselves on radio talk shows as being DP and People Power, FDC and People Power, and some even as NRM and People Power.
This dual identity, in which aspiring candidates declare themselves as belonging both to People Power and a third party, reveals the need to ride the popular mood of the moment, but also recognition that to be viable a candidate needs some institutional structure under them.
This will be one of People Power’s first challenges. Its main appeal is in bearing forth a message that sounds broad and urgent, a call for Ugandans to defend their country from sinking under corruption and political misrule.
That gives it the status of an umbrella body, like the 1979 UNLF whose formation in March 1979 in Tanzania became the focal point of the various anti-Amin armed and political groups.
The UNLF’s eventual demise ultimately was that although it was a uniting front, nobody really owned it or felt intimately a part of it and by the first anniversary of Idi Amin’s fall from power, the UNLF started falling apart and Ugandans returned to their traditional parties, the DP and UPC.
This is People Power’s moment on the national stage. It must retain its uniting and cross-party image across the country but at the same time needs to establish itself as a stand-alone political grouping distinct from the DP, NRM, UPC and FDC.
This is why it needs to start identifying candidates who are People Power-first and prepare to train, equip and fund them ahead of 2021.
It would also need to draw up formal papers and documents that state what it is about, what it hopes to be and do for Uganda and why a voter should choose it over the other parties.
What is People Power? Is it a political party, a political movement or a pressure group?
In what capacity will it seek to participate in the forthcoming general election, as a conventional party or as a partner in an Opposition coalition?
It would have to get candidates and MPs who either profess first loyalty to it or their parties, to make up their minds on which of the two to follow.
Short of that, People Power could end up having played the important role in mobilising the despondent and frustrated population toward the 2021, only to find itself without many parliamentary seats.