The biggest political development in Uganda over the past 20 years was the appearance on the scene, first of a pressure group called People Power and later, a formal political party founded on People Power called the National Unity Platform (NUP).
NUP, led by the musician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, and led by mostly politically inexperienced people, came second in Uganda’s January 2021 general election to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party that has been in power since 1986.
NUP, or at least its core supporters, still believe and insist that victory was stolen from them by the NRM State.
Kyagulanyi withdrew his post-election court petition weeks after he had filed it, stating that he did not believe the Judiciary system could give the petition a fair and neutral hearing.
Whatever the arguments by NRM and NUP, Uganda is now in the post-election and pre-swearing-in period and so this article examines NUP’s future over the next five years.
NUP’s surprising election showing sent shockwaves through the country, particularly within the NRM party and State.
Going by the official results declared by the Electoral Commission, President Museveni won just over 58 per cent of the total national vote, with Kyagulanyi somewhere around 35 per cent.
In democracy or contests, a win is a win, even if it is 50.9 per cent to 49.1 per cent.
But there’s a whole story to this that goes beyond the numbers. There is the question of political weight.
The political heart of Uganda is Buganda and it is Buganda because Buganda is the economic heart of Uganda.
The seat of the national government, the head offices of most businesses and most of the country’s economic activity take place in Kampala.
At functions and ceremonies in rural Uganda whenever the time to serve food comes, there is always an announcement saying “The people from Kampala, come first,” as though living in Kampala makes one a special kind of person.
This, alone, shows the pride of place Kampala enjoys in Ugandan national life.
So even if a political party or presidential candidate wins the eastern, northern and western regions, when they lose Buganda, especially in the landslide way the NRM lost it in 2021, it is a real political blow.
That is why in the days immediately following the January 14 election, most of the national discussion was not about how the NRM won the election but why Buganda voted against the NRM.
If NUP had performed poorly in Buganda, the NRM would obviously have gloated about how Kyagulanyi’s fellow Baganda had rejected him and Museveni’s overall national victory would have tasted all the sweeter.
In that sense, the NUP’s greatest achievement was in having won convincingly in the political region of the country that matters most.
In fact, the irony is that the NRM took NUP’s performance more seriously than NUP did. The NRM party rightly saw the rise of People Power/NUP as a significant political development, while NUP supporters feel crushed by what they think was a loss or setback.
The immediate action will be around Museveni’s May 12 swearing-in ceremony.
Museveni was mocked by crowds on the Kampala-Entebbe highway on the day he was sworn-in in May 2011 as the crowds awaited the return from Nairobi, Kenya, of Dr Kizza Besigye.
This humiliation is one the NRM will wish to avoid, so there is likely to be heavy crowd control deployment in Kampala on the day and all talk of an alternative swearing-in ceremony (as the FDC/People’s Government did in 2016), sternly quashed.
The last thing Museveni wants to have is the day of his swearing-in ceremony ruined by NUP rallies, heckling or other action that make Bobi Wine the newsmaker of the day and take the limelight away from Museveni.
Kampala is, after all, an NUP stronghold, so Museveni is to be sworn in and serve a new presidential term on enemy territory. That’s why a loss of support in Buganda is always problematic for any government.
The NRM government will continue to maintain a degree of security alert, and keep police trucks deployed at key roundabouts in Kampala.
Among the key questions over the next year will be how NUP supporters still being held in jails and military installations come out.
Over the last month or so, Bobi Wine has not featured much in the news.
The NUP’s advantage is that it preaches to the converted in the central region. It will not be criticised for inaction.
Although the population in the central region has not forgotten, most have reluctantly returned to the daily, frustrating grind which in the first place attracted them to the NUP.
Even if the NUP does nothing politically over the next five years, the continued detention of its supporters will remain a wound in Buganda.
One of the effects of NUP’s landslide showing in Buganda has been to move the NRM party and government away from its 1990s image of moderation and toward a more hardline position.
It has left the NRM and its leader feeling insecure and with this has come the inevitable rise of the personality cult.
Ideas that were once dismissed by the 1980s and early 1990s NRA/NRM as primitive are now being openly entertained. Last week, senior NRM official Sam Engola proposed that President Museveni be promoted to the rank of Field Marshal.
Engola’s statement was published as a front-page lead story by the State-owned New Vision newspaper.
Thirty years ago, most NRM and NRA leaders would have laughed at such a proposal and the New Vision would have been quietly rebuked for publishing such nonsense.
Today, that kind of statement is duly published on the front page and nobody has questioned Engola on that.
A few weeks ago, the President stated that over the next five years he will take decisions on key national matters without first consulting Parliament or acting on parliamentary resolutions on them. The statement that went almost unnoticed on social media and barely discussed by main-stream media, was the clearest signal of what awaits Uganda over the next five years. It is to be one-man rule, more than it has been since 1986.
We are starting to see more and more of this move toward a Museveni personality cult.
The Special Forces Command (SFC), the army’s presidential guard, recently formally opened its new headquarters and, predictably, named the main administrative building after Museveni.
All over Uganda, Museveni’s 2021 campaign posters remain up on electricity poles and billboards. Under normal circumstances, these now-outdated posters urging Ugandans to vote Museveni should have been taken down.
But the NRM political establishment is no longer confident about where it stands with Museveni. District officials are not sure if they will be arrested or sacked for removing the posters, even if it’s done in good faith.
In other words, where in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, the NRM prided itself in its collective decision-making, the party and by extension the country is now run on the basis of Museveni’s personal mood or thinking.
Uganda in 2021 is becoming a lot like Kenya in the last 10 years of President Daniel arap Moi, where national policy and moves within the ruling KANU party depended day by day on the mood that president Moi happened to be in.
No longer was Kenya run by the constitution or KANU party rules.
Who sat to the right of President Moi or whispered in his ear at a Harambee rally determined or reflected that person’s current or future political standing.
In this new political environment in which everyone feels insecure about their job, where interpreting Museveni’s mood and statements is more important than the written Constitution, where being in the Opposition, especially in NUP, is being treated as bordering on treason, where NRM supporters must show support for Museveni more openly and fanatically, where the civil service increasingly requires officers to be seen to be pro-NRM -- the next five years will be the most complicated since 1986.
It will make the NUP’s work much easier for it than would normally have been the case.
It will only need to present itself as a moral force in these increasingly dark times, the way South Africa’s ANC only had to exist during the apartheid years for it to be the default party of the Black majority.
All that the NUP needs to do is tap into the uncertain times that the next five years are sure to be and, most important of all, shed its image as a Buganda party.
It must find a way of convincing the other three regions of the country that what is at stake is no longer just Buganda interests but the very future of Uganda.