The last few days have seen a remarkable amount of what in the old days the ruling NRM cadres liked to call “primitive violence”. They no longer describe it that way, because today it is mostly their security agencies meting the violence out.
Following alleged stoning of a car in a presidential convoy in the recent Arua Municipality by-election fracas, soldiers of the Special Forces Command (SFC), Uganda’s praetorian guard, descended upon Opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, more commonly known as Bobi Wine, and Fred Zaake, who were in the town and beat them to near-pulp.
For good measure, they allegedly planted guns in Bobi Wine’s hotel room, and charged him with being in possession of illegal fire arms and ammunitions before a court-martial.
President Museveni claims army doctors have told him that Bobi Wine has no chest or back injuries, or broken bones. His [Bobi’s]wife Barbie Kyagulanyi, who saw her husband, says he has been badly tortured. “Bobi cannot stand on his own. He has a swollen face - very deformed. At first sight, it is very unlikely that you would recognise him…”, she said.
It is now known that Bobi was nowhere at the scene of the fracas in which the presidential car was caught up, nor was his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, who was shot while he sat in the MP’s car. Bobi Wine says it was an attempt to finish him off.
Perhaps as proof that the President has credibility on this issue, there were protests in Zaake’s Mityana constituency, and chaos broke out in Kampala and other parts of the country on Monday as the masses demanded that Bobi Wine be freed. On the face of it, there are many things that do not up.
In a 426-member House, the NRM core, including the 10 Army MPs, is 300-strong. With a little “persuasion” and little brown envelopes, it can rely on many of the 66 independents; and a couple of calculating FDC’s from the party’s 36 MPs, and a few from the Democratic Party’s (DP) and Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) collective 21.
The NRM can afford to lose all the by-elections, and donate a dozen seats to the Opposition, and it will still win handily in Parliament. So why does Museveni throw it all on the line for what, in effect, is fish and chips? Primarily it’s because losing a by-election feeds the idea that he is losing grip and, ultimately, it threatens his aspirations to remain in the seat as president for life.
But even with that, why can’t the NRM machine fight these by-elections, so that the president doesn’t have to get in stone fights with restless youth? That leads to the deeper problem. To remain in control, not to be challenged, and to stamp his own wish on his succession, Museveni has largely hollowed out the NRM, a once promising liberation party. The growing flood of discontent now easily overwhelms the NRM’s increasingly emaciated structures and vote-fiddling machine, when the stakes are high. If the stakes are low, and there is no Opposition onslaught like with the recent Local Council elections, it is able to perform better.
The difficulty for the Opposition is that it is not able to create this surge everywhere, especially in rural constituencies. And the wave is still unstructured. Bobi Wine has been able to upset even the FDC where he has backed candidates in by-elections, suggesting that the so-called “generational split” several commentators said they had discerned when he was sensationally swept to victory in a by-election last year, is gathering steam and threatening the established Opposition too.
But still, you would think that Museveni, in his last years in power, whether he acknowledges it or not, would want to avoid the mistakes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote II, whose rule ended when there were parts of the country that hated them and their supporters with a blinding rage.
Instead of the increased violence, one would expect he would have learnt from people like former Kenya president Daniel arap Moi, who in his last years, brought rivals into the tent and eased off on the kiboko.
No, it seems he’s chosen the path that hardliners in Rwanda took, faced by the Rwanda Patriotic Front rebellion. They upped the violence, eventually descending into the genocide, partly to make their base rally behind them, because the cost of perceived “weakness”, and the price of loss of power in the face of the outrages they had committed, would be too high.
So, yes, there’s method to the madness. But, typical of the trend that has, even at the worst of times, ensured there is a centrist element alive in Uganda’s political fights, the general silence by many once vocal supporters in recent times, suggests their conscience is troubled. It will get worse before it gets better, for sure, but maybe Uganda itself is still not all lost. At least not yet.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa.
datavisualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]