Dr Kizza Besigye and Robert Kyagulanyi (better known as Bobi Wine) on May 21 held private talks at Besigye’s Kasangati home, Wakiso District.
Details of what they discussed were not made public.
But on June 15, the two men announced the formation of an alliance that they named United Forces of Change (UFC).
Its goal, they said, was to help free Uganda from President Museveni’s misrule and the suffering of the ordinary Ugandan.
Unfortunately, just before the UFC alliance had the chance to become a national news and political topic, the Electoral Commission the following day, June 16, announced measures for what is now commonly called the “scientific” campaign for 2021.
Discussions across the country of the “scientific” campaign dominated the week and pushed the UFC into distant background.
It is not clear if UFC is a joint effort leading to a single joint candidate or it is a show of unity in principle.
Ever since the UFC was announced, nothing has been heard from Bobi Wine or Besigye on the matter.
The silence itself reflects the awkward fit that UFC will be within the current formation of political power in Uganda.
The UFC has been met with uncharacteristic indifference by the general public.
Considering that Bobi Wine and Besigye are the two best-known Opposition names in Uganda, that is significant.
It suggests the ambiguity of the alliance and, therefore, a certain lack of relevancy to the current political landscape.
To be fair, it must be stated that UFC is more than just an alliance between Besigye and Bobi Wine.
Asuman Basalirwa, president of the Justice Forum party and MP for Bugiri, while appearing on a Kampala radio station last Thursday, June 25, explained that the protocol establishing UFC also covered various topics.
These included the national response to the Covid-19 economic crisis and the mechanics of the campaign for the 2021 election.
However, the average People Power supporter feels strongly that Besigye has had his chances, has contested four times without success, and therefore should hand the baton to Bobi Wine.
Most People Power supporters feel it unnecessary for Bobi Wine to even get into an alliance with Besigye, convinced as they are that People Power support across the country is sufficient for them to win the 2021 election on their own.
FDC or Besigye supporters are less clear-cut than People Power supporters about what they make of this alliance. They don’t deny that the current momentum is leaning in Bobi Wine’s favour.
In their public debate, they are not particularly clear or vocal about a fifth Besigye bid in 2021 or a role for Besigye in the 2021 election.
This is because of several factors.
The FDC party was already sufficient for Besigye as a platform before he and others like Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago formed the “People’s Government”.
People Power as a pressure group was the force of the moment and therefore sufficient for Bobi Wine before needing to form the UFC.
An important question is of how the United Forces of Change will be operationalised on the ground.
Is Bobi Wine now in alliance with Besigye the person, FDC the party or People’s Government the defiant pressure group?
It could face the dilemma that was The Democratic Alliance (TDA) ahead of the 2016 general election.
TDA was an attempt to address the long-standing view that the Opposition cannot hope to win a general election unless it comes up with a joint candidate.
The calls for a joint presidential candidate against Museveni seem to be an inadvertent admission that Museveni or the NRM enjoy a substantial block vote.
The complication it faced was that this was an alliance between sections of established parties like DP and FDC, and the presidential candidacy of Amama Mbabazi.
Neither DP nor the FDC officially joined TDA with the Go Forward campaign and the section of party members who joined TDA sent a message of splits within the parties.
One of the difficulties in getting the Opposition to unite is the fact that politics is now the most lucrative industry in Uganda.
There is no other sector in the country where so many people earn such high monthly salaries for doing so little.
This is partly why we see a trend in which popular musicians or radio personalities are announcing bids as Members of Parliament.
Not even the highest-earning musician earns more than Shs20 million consistently every single month, year in, year out.
This is the same reason why even in the ruling NRM party after the primaries are held, many who were defeated in the primaries decide to contest as independent candidates.
For this reason, it is difficult to get political parties to merge at the parliamentary constituency level.
There is no way an incumbent DP or FDC MP is going to give up their re-election prospects for a People Power candidate in the same constituency.
Likewise, no People Power candidate knowing how popular the brand is at the moment will give up prospects for victory in 2021 to a DP or FDC candidate.
In all this, the question is: What is the calculation of Bobi Wine and the calculation of Besigye? It has to be assumed that they went into the UFC in the expectation that it would strengthen them, not undercut their influence.
Bobi Wine’s calculation would be that he might be the man of the moment but in order to develop a truly nationwide reach outside his core support base of Buganda, he would need to ally with established parties like the FDC.
Because most of the news media and political party headquarters are in Kampala, it is easy to forget that in remote western and northern Uganda, People Power is not well established on the ground.
People Power has the current momentum and national mood behind it. But it lacks the formal, elective office structures that the FDC has across most of the country.
Bobi Wine would have a hard time undercutting Yoweri Museveni’s support in most of southwestern Uganda.
If there were many Museveni supporters starting to waver in southwestern Uganda, the relatively credible and efficient manner in which Museveni has handled the coronavirus crisis has reassured his staunchest supporters that they are still in safe, mature hands.
To convert westerners to People Power would require an intermediary like Besigye who is also from the west, in the same way that for Besigye to develop grassroots support in Kampala and parts of Buganda in 2001, he needed the blessing and backing of former Kampala Mayor Nasser Sebaggala.
Besigye’s calculation in joining the UFC would be strategic.
He can sit back and let Bobi Wine get his presidential campaign underway.
Besigye knows enough from watching Bobi Wine’s effort last year and from Besigye’s own experience that the State is not going to make it easy for Bobi Wine to campaign.
If it is not yet clear to Bobi Wine now, it will be as soon as the official campaign season gets underway.
Then, as a frustrated Bobi Wine starts realising the extent to which the NRM state will try and stand in his way, he would realise that however popular an Opposition leader is in Uganda today, he cannot go it alone.
That would mean Bobi Wine turns to Besigye as a backup moral voice and a discussion on an alternative approach.
This alternative approach is what Besigye and the People’s Government have since 2016 termed “defiance”.
Bobi Wine today is where Besigye was in 2001 and 2006.
At the time, Besigye although believing the NRM to be an autocratic regime assumed that somehow the courts of law and the electoral system would play fairly and respect his victories or perceived victories.
The Besigye of 2020 is disillusioned by experience. His thinking since 2016 has been that the entire system, the entire state, have been captured by the NRM.
An election under this state system that has been hijacked by the NRM, believes Besigye, is ultimately futile.
Besigye’s hope is that Bobi Wine quickly sees that he too will hit a dead end in this political system and, hopes Besigye, Bobi Wine will join Besigye in the new, defiant approach.
In other words, Bobi Wine is currently the most popular and most talked-about Opposition figure but this only places him where Besigye was 15 to 20 years ago.
Besigye is the leader of a new phase of Opposition, one that abandons any hope of competing on Museveni’s and the NRM’s terms in a system hijacked and owned by the NRM.
In conclusion, in the short term, that’s to say, during the 2020 campaign season, the weight of argument and momentum will favour Bobi Wine.
But in the post-election period when the inevitable happens and Museveni is announced the winner and all the State institutions once again are revealed as NRM-controlled, Besigye’s argument for defiance will have the last word.
Then it will be Bobi Wine’s turn to seek advice from Besigye on a Plan B.