Bebe Cool, Kusasira, Full Figure and why NRM failed in central

Sunday January 24 2021

Musician Moses Ssali, aka Bebe Cool (centre), gives out NRM t-shirts in November 2020. The ruling party used celebrities to campaign for candidate Yoweri Museveni. PHOTO | KELVIN ATUHAIRE

By Abiaz Rwamwiri

The National Resistance Movement (NRM) party under President Museveni has been given yet another five-year mandate to govern Uganda after winning the presidential elections. I will not get involved in accessing the fairness of the exercise in this article, but I would like to dive into how the elections have drawn a new political map across our traditional voting trends.

We saw Opposition kingmakers such as Odonga Otto and Reagan Okumu, who have been in Parliament for at least three terms, lose to NRM candidates.
NRM regained Rukungiri from the jaws of FDC, and Kasese was divided between NRM and FDC with Museveni coming out with his highest score ever.

While NRM was reaping in Acholi and West Nile, the newcomers on the political scene – National Unity Platform (NUP) party that was formed just three months to nomination in July 2020 – took a commanding charge of central Uganda (I purposely refuse to call this Buganda).

This is Uganda’s important region, a home to country’s oldest and biggest city, by far the major economic hub. NUP and its leader Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) staged an election sweep in the central, dislodging some of the oldest serving MPs, including Vice President Edward Ssekandi, who had been in Parliament for more than 25 years!

The NUP wave went with at least 10 ministers in the central region alone. A new entrant in the presidential race scoring more than 34 per cent was incredible for Mr Kyagulanyi, but also for his NUP to get majority Opposition representation in Parliament with more than 60 MPs was a great surprise.

The question remains how they will work together to consolidate their gain and spread their wings early enough for the next general election. I will discuss this in my next article.


Political suicide
As NRM was celebrating the win, I heard some of its leaders regarding the central Uganda loss as a tribal-based vote. Branding the way central Uganda voted as tribal would be committing political suicide! Not everyone who voted in Kampala, Entebbe, Wakiso, Mukono, Mityana and Masaka was/ is a Muganda!

These are cosmopolitan areas hosting diverse tribes who can’t be voting on a tribal ticket. They are an electorate whose issues must be looked at carefully.
I leave that to the able leadership of the NRM that has a choice to look at a region to listen to or wait for it to spread their influence even wider.

The good news is that while addressing journalists at the side lines of the Electoral Commission tally centre in Kyambogo on January 15, NRM secretary general Kasule Lumumba acknowledged the urgent need to reflect,on why they suffered such great loss in “Buganda”.

Politics evolve and the electorate is increasingly more active in processes beyond just casting votes and this calls for politicians to be more curious and less arrogant.

Any politician or political party that dismisses the voting behaviour of a big electorate is destined for embarrassment. When the north and West Nile voted the way they voted, NRM never took this as a tribal vote. They strategised and took over the regions that heavily voted against NRM.

One of the big issues that could have cost NRM the central region was the campaign strategy that was deployed. When Mr Kyagulanyi came on the campaign stage, somehow NRM was convinced they needed to counter him with a brand smiler to his, using musicians and self-made celebrities to reach to his supporters.

Resources were put to this campaign and indeed several celebrities such as Bebe Cool, Big Eye, Catherine Kusasira, Ronard Mayinja and Full Figure, among others, became the face of NRM campaigning in the central.

The traditional politicians were either asked to give way or they relegated themselves to the spectators’ corner as the new blood came in to do what had failed them over the years – winning Kampala for NRM.

I am not an economist, but I know any investment has to be assessed and after the life of the campaign, the sponsor needs to ask; what is the return on investment? If the resources put to these “new blood” facilitated the real committed cardres to push the NRM brand, would they have done better? NRM didn’t use celebrities to win Teso, Acholi or Rukungiri, they used dedicated cadres and party structures to mobilise supporters and discuss issues.  It is great to have celebrities endorsing your campaign, but they should never override established structures.

Several friends of mine have asked me to evaluate the effectiveness of celebrities in political campaigns, and specifically asking me if I would be influenced to change my political affiliation by some of these “celebrities.” I find myself in a difficult position to answer. As a communications practitioner, I know the power opinion leaders have in shaping public agenda, I also know how brands benefit from endorsements.

Opinion leaders
However, not everyone is an opinion leader. You can’t gain this status based on the number of followers you have on Twitter or Facebook, you have to be a brand driver and as brand owner, I have to assess and see if your audience is what I am targeting and if your price is a good bet. So I would avoid to answer the question why NRM would heavily invest in “influencers” they chose to push for NRM manifesto in Kampala specifically.

The central electorate have key similarity component – they have more access to information than any other voter in the rest of the regions. This region has more smart phone ownership with faster internet and most of them own or access television sets. They are also better educated and have a better understanding to form guided opinions.

They might not be the smartest, but they are more exposed to diverse communication channels. They need to be involved in a conversation and because of their exposure, they are proud enough that they want to be listened to, not just talked to!
What NUP mastered from the start was having a social media presence. Their youth took over social media, with no clear message but to promote their candidate but also abuse anyone who didn’t agree with their candidate.

On several occasions, my NRM friends found themselves falling victims of the NUP’s rough social media strategy, NRM got sympathisers who thought would abuse back, what a mistake it was. You can’t beat a rough guy at his rough game.
It was an open secret that NRM lacked a clear-cut communication plan, especially the social media strategy that was and is unacceptable for the biggest and well facilitated political party.

I shared with my communications peers that as party in power, NRM ought to focus on issues, the achievements made in 35 years than engaging in online diversionary exchanges.  But I also know that proper communication doesn’t just happen, it’s planned. In this new era, it would be surprising that any political party has no strategy that addresses how they are going to use social media to leverage votes in new media environments.

Voting behaviour has changed; politicians must continually seek new ways to communicate with their constituents. Does NRM know how many of the registered voters, especially in the central region are on Facebook and Twitter?

Building the political brand of the party has to be dynamic. Communication is no longer fully controlled by the marketers in the mainstream media, it’s under direct control of the voters who are online.

To know this, you need to undertake communication research. In this new era, any campaign must recognise the power of social media and use this to form ongoing, deeper relationships with voters. Even all traditional media channels know this and are on these platforms. My next article will focus on how the media was engaged by different campaigns and who scored better.

Those who want to keep control of the political fields must measure and evaluate where, when, what, why and how their campaign succeeded and failed. Political campaigns in the 21st Century are evolving and conventional media metrics are no longer effective as the rules of communication have changed.

To realise this, you need a communications strategy that will enable you plan and execute and coordinate a successful voter outreach campaign based on research and 2026 is not a far as you might want to think, you better starting on your brand now!

Mr Rwamwiri is a communications specialist based in Kampala.