How Museveni keeps Bobi Wine in check

Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine (L) and President Museveni. PHOTO/COMBO 

What you need to know:

  • The 41-year-old musician-turned-politician popularly known as Bobi Wine, leads the National Unity Platform.
  • Bobi Wine’s run at the presidency in the 2021 election highlights the reality that capturing the youth vote in Uganda is complex.

Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with an average age of 15.9 years. Young people aged below 30 make up about 77 per cent of the country’s population of 47 million people.

Young people have legitimate and wide-ranging grievances, from unemployment to disenfranchisement. Opportunities remain limited, with two-thirds of Ugandans working for themselves or doing family-based agricultural work.

Yet, young people in Uganda haven’t coalesced as an electoral bloc. This is despite the emergence of a presidential candidate who champions youth issues. In the last presidential election in 2021, those aged between 18 and 30 made up 41 per cent of the total voter roll of 18 million.

Robert Kyagulanyi, the 41-year-old musician-turned-politician popularly known as Bobi Wine, leads the National Unity Platform. It is Uganda’s largest opposition party, known for its youth appeal.

Bobi Wine’s run at the presidency in the 2021 election highlights the reality that capturing the youth vote in Uganda is complex. And that this broad category and the role it plays in Ugandan politics is poorly understood.

As it is, the term “youth” lacks a clear definition. Uganda’s government defines the youth as those aged between 18 and 30.

However, in practice the “youth” category is much more amorphous. It tends to encompass those who are no longer considered children, but haven’t yet realised the “social markers” that signify adulthood. These include financial independence, marriage and children.

The outcome of the 2021 elections defied expectations, given Uganda’s large and underemployed youth population and the emergence of Bobi Wine. In a recent paper, we examined youth political mobilisation in this election.

Despite widespread “youth wave” optimism, we identified diverse, embedded strategies and tactics from the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, that obstructed Bobi Wine’s efforts to build a powerful national youth constituency.

The strategies were:

  • The structural capture of youth representation in Ugandan politics.
  • Diverse economic incentives for political loyalty in the form of loan schemes, grants and short-term employment. 
  • Well-spun political narratives that draw on entrenched views of youth as beholden to their elders and the state.

New wine, old bottles

When Bobi Wine ran in the presidential election, he was aged 38. Commentators worldwide suggested his candidacy represented a real and unprecedented threat to Yoweri Museveni’s longstanding rule. Museveni, 79, has been Uganda’s president since 1986.

Bobi Wine got 35 per cent of the vote. This is about the same proportion of votes that has accrued to the main opposition candidates in Uganda since multi-party elections resumed in 2006.

For a new entrant on the political scene, this was an impressive achievement – particularly in the light of political repression and patronage that make the playing field far from fair in Uganda.

Bobi Wine’s violent arrest in November 2020 gained international attention, as did the government’s aggressive response to protests calling for his release.

These resulted in the death of at least 54 National Unity Platform supporters. Security forces perpetrated widespread violence and human rights abuses in the run-up to the election.

On the eve of the election, the government ordered a five-day internet shutdown. There were also reports of the ruling party dishing out money to potential voters, with instructions to vote for Museveni.

Our research reviewed Ugandan history since its independence from the British in 1962. We found that the possibility of a national youth constituency had been a concern of Uganda’s post-colonial governments.

Regimes have long sought to integrate the youth into their political project, while keeping them fragmented and regionally embedded to prevent broader political mobilisation.

Contemporary tactics used by the ruling party to co-opt the youth converge with these historically rooted methods of regime consolidation.

Splitting the youth

The National Resistance Movement has an elaborate set of measures in place –from state level to the villages – to prevent youth discontent from becoming a national political threat.

First, the youth are organised into a “special interest group” reinforced through quota systems. These are closely allied with the ruling party’s leadership. Political structures, such as youth MPs and representatives, absorb youth representation under regime authority and entrench regional divisions.

Second, the ruling party uses patronage networks and tactics to mobilise young voters. It offers economic rewards for allegiance and generous material compensation for “party-switching” – which is when supporters defect from the opposition to the National Resistance Movement, often quite publicly.

Ahead of the 2021 election, Museveni gave state appointments to popular musicians with wide youth appeal who had been working closely with Bobi Wine’s party.

The ruling party also offers young people economic incentives during campaigns. These include short-term employment, loans and cash handouts. Youth are often recruited as election workers, special police constables and crime preventers.

In these short-term positions, tens of thousands of youth survey their communities and share local intelligence with the authorities, acting as the state’s eyes and ears at a village level. Among young, economically precarious men, this is seen as an opportunity, even though they become engaged in supporting the re-election of a regime they may oppose.

Third, during the last election, campaign observers were optimistic about the power of social media to amplify Bobi Wine’s message and increase support. But social media is also a tool the National Resistance Movement uses adeptly.

Beyond internet shutdowns and disinformation campaigns, we found that Museveni and the National Resistance Movement used social media channels to promote powerful narratives that linked social order and prosperity to a culture of gerontocracy. This refers to a system of governance in which older people dominate.

What hope for Bobi Wine?

Well-developed structures, practices and narratives that fragment national youth mobilisation have been seen in recent Ugandan history. In northern Uganda, for example, young people have lived through a recent history of devastating conflict and still struggle with its legacies.

This, combined with long-standing regional and ethnic tensions throughout the country, means that his opponents often describe Bobi Wine first as a political agitator who could tear the country apart, not as the youth’s best chance for political liberation and progress.

Against this backdrop, if Bobi Wine contests in 2026, he is likely to struggle again. He may attract global media attention, but Museveni and the National Resistance Movement are familiar with his brand of “defiance-based” opposition politics.

As commentators increasingly note, the big question remains whether Bobi Wine and the National Unity Platform, without experience in government and in the absence of strong links to powerful military and state players, can realistically achieve a political transition in Uganda.

The overall picture is one in which the elite have long seen the youth as an important resource and potential threat – and as such fear and value them. While Uganda’s young people have real and legitimate grievances, they lack modes of political and social organisation – by long-standing design.

Arthur Owor, the director for research and operations at the Centre for African Research, is a co-author of this article.