The 2021 presidential race has now been clarified, with the announcement this week by long-time Opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye that he will not contest in the 2021 election as a presidential candidate.
It will be a two-horse race between incumbent Yoweri Museveni and NUP/People Power leader Robert Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine.
Every other presidential contender and aspirant, from Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde to Maureen Kyalya, Charles Rwumushana, Joseph Kabuleta, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu and 35 more, is in single-digit national name recognition and opinion polling.
Many political analysts and media commentators had concluded several months ago that it would, indeed, be a two-horse race between Museveni and Bobi Wine and can now argue that Besigye’s decision was simply a case of him facing reality.
With Besigye not a presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years, the thorny challenge of the Opposition fielding a joint candidate and who this joint candidate should be, has resolved itself without friction and long weeks of negotiation.
There will not be an awkward situation such as we saw in 2016 with the popular Besigye on the scene, and a new entrant Amama Mbabazi being fronted as the insider with the intelligence dossier and contacts to better challenge Museveni.
The country can now focus on the manifestos and campaign tactics of Bobi Wine and Museveni.
What are Bobi Wine’s options?
The NRM campaign machinery is going to seek to portray People Power/NUP as a Ganda nationalist uprising led by a band of unemployed, marijuana-smoking youth.
It will hope that the thought of angry young Baganda setting westerners’ property on fire if they win the election is enough to scare westerners into voting for Museveni out of fear for their own safety.
Then in northern Uganda, the NRM will try to cast People Power as the revival of the Ganda arrogance and prejudice against northerners since the May 1966 Crisis.
Given this, People Power and NUP must do their utmost to expand their appeal beyond Buganda.
They must find a way to market NUP as a national force that has risen to defend Uganda as a whole from impunity and official corruption.
They must show this to be a class struggle, with the haves represented by the ruling NRM cabal bent on continuing to enjoy the best jobs, education and business opportunity while the downtrodden classes that include Ugandans of all tribes continue to suffer unemployment and dispossession of their land.
This means that NUP must work on its image and its campaign planning across the country.
It should bring to the fore and show in a very visible way non-Baganda leaders at its press conferences and campaign appearances.
NUP should abandon all campaigning in Buganda and only return to Buganda in the last two weeks of the campaigning, since it is already guaranteed overwhelming support in Uganda.
Its campaign agents should fan out across the country.
If necessary, Bobi Wine’s previous career as a musician should be reactivated into tactics like recording songs in Lusoga, Luo, Lugbara and Lugisu to cement the argument that he is not a Ganda activist but a Ugandan nationalist.
Many more women should also be brought to the fore of NUP’s public briefings, since at the moment NUP comes across as both Ganda- and male-dominated.
The new party should take a leaf from the telecom companies which, in their adverts, are acutely conscious of the need to make Ugandans all feel included in their coverage and messaging.
Basically, NUP should from September 2020 vacate Kampala and Buganda and pitch residential camp in Gulu, Mbarara, Mbale, Soroti, Arua, Kabale and Lira.
It should focus on the towns and regions with the most reason to hesitate to vote a Muganda president and party.
That is the biggest challenge and opportunity facing NUP as Uganda heads into the 2021 general election.
Where does all this leave Besigye?
The short answer: In a better position than he would have been if he had contested the presidency for a fifth time.
This decision not to contest the 2021 election might be one of the wisest Besigye has ever made in his political career.
In the wake of his surprise announcement that he would not seek to run for the fifth time, the responses were warm and respectful, his role in Uganda’s democracy struggle recognised and honoured.
Deciding not to run has won him new political respect that will be crucial in the next six months.
Timing is often important in politics.
In March 1979 during the Moshi Unity Conference of Ugandan exiles called to plan for the fall of the Amin regime, the dominant mood was that the fall of Amin should not be the occasion for the return to power of former president Milton Obote.
Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere rightly understood that the appearance of Obote at the Moshi conference would divide the Ugandan exiles and harm the political and military effort against Amin. He advised Obote to stay away from the proceedings.
This bought Obote time to return to Uganda on May 27, 1980, more than a year after Amin’s ouster and at a time when the anti-Obote UNLF forces were on the wane (Yusufu Lule, Andrew Kayiira, Arnold Bisase, Sam Ssebagereka) and the pro-Obote elements within the UNLF on the rise (Paulo Muwanga, Godfrey Binaisa, David Oyite-Ojok, Otema Allimadi)
When the NRM was formed in Nairobi in June 1981 as a merged between Museveni’s Popular Resistance Army (PRA) and Yusufu Lule’s Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF), Museveni who was the chairman of the NRM’s high command, took the wise decision to have Lule as chairman of the NRM and Museveni as vice chairman, as a way to ease worries by conservative Capitalist Baganda about allying with the Marxist Museveni wing, as well as a way to win over Buganda support.
Similarly, the political mood right now favours Bobi Wine far above Besigye.
However, the situation will change markedly in the next six months.
It is clear to most observers that the NRM government has gradually turned into the traditional post-independence African regime that is fused with the State and State resources and facilities fully at the disposal of the ruling party.
Practically every high-ranking public official in the Executive, Judiciary and civil service since 2002 has been directly appointed by the President.
Gone are the days when the Public Service Commission or Judicial Service Commission appointed civil servants and judicial officials.
The State is now under the personal patronage of Museveni.
Therefore, as has been pointed out before in a previous Sunday Monitor analysis, every indication is that the 2021 general election will conclude in the same way as the 2001-2016 elections.
Regardless of the voting pattern, Museveni will most likely be announced the winner. There will be widespread public anger and reports of rigging and violence against the Opposition.
The Opposition will reject the election results and court petitions will be initiated. There is a high chance that Bobi Wine will at some point be held under preventive detention or his movements restricted in the first few days after the election.
In that post-election unrest and impasse, Besigye is the man to whom the country or at least the Opposition and the media will turn to for guidance and comment.
No political leader is better acquainted with these post-election situations than Besigye.
He has seen it all – court cases, trumped up rape and treason charges, exile, detention at home, time in prison, police tear gas and rough handling.
Besigye will become the man of the moment, the voice of experience and national unity, the man who for years has been arguing that for as long as Uganda was under Museveni’s State capture, any general election was an exercise in futility.
His call after the 2011 election for a public show of protest by walking to work and after the 2016 election for open defiance of the NRM regime, will now become self-evident to a large number of Ugandans.
In that bitter atmosphere after the election and the People Power wave effectively brought to an end (and most likely even threatened with being declared a terrorist or illegal organisation), Besigye’s experience and tried-and-tested resolve will become more important than Bobi Wine’s popularity.
This was the thinking behind Besigye’s announcement of a dual Plan A and Plan B last week at the FDC’s Najjanankumbi offices.
To borrow from Besigye’s terms, Bobi Wine and the other Opposition presidential candidates are heading into the Plan A process while Besigye concentrates on Plan B.
However, when Plan A reaches its natural and inevitable end in February 2021, Plan B will kick into operation and will find Besigye waiting to lead the country onto the Plan B route.
So just as the 1979 Moshi Conference started out with Plan A dominated by the anti-Obote exile groups, one year later, Plan B was taking shape with the ascendency of the pro-Obote UNLF and Military Commission elements.
One just has to know how to time one’s position.