A phone call from Bobi Wine to Mpuuga and  the perils in pursuing and managing power

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

"Having campaigned in poetry, however, NUP now finds itself having to manage its affairs in prose”

It is early morning when Mathias Mpuuga’s phone rings. Bobi Wine, his party leader, wants to see him urgently at his home in Magere. Hon. Mpuuga cancels his morning and heads over. After a short wait, Bobi Wine bounces in the room, closes the door, cutting the two men off from the rest of the world, and gets right to the point.
 ‘I’ve heard of some secret payments to some of our MPs in the House,’ he says. ‘I am told someone received Shs500m; as our man on the parliamentary commission I want you to urgently look into these reports and tell me what you find.’

Before Hon. Mpuuga says a word, Bobi adds: ‘I have spoken to our friends in Mengo and the religious leaders and they all agree that, if confirmed, whoever has received this money will have to resign; it undermines everything we stand for as a party that abhors corruption. I am sure you agree, and trust that you will do this quickly and discretely.’  If you were the Hon. Mpuuga, what would you say or do? This hypothetical conversation might interest students of political science or those who like to dabble in simulated scenario planning. Yet the ongoing fight within the National Unity Platform, which is part of a much bigger leadership problem within Parliament, offers interesting insights into Uganda’s political culture and the dilemmas facing those who seek to change it.

These dilemmas can be grouped into two large baskets: internal contradictions among those seeking change, and externalised contradictions about how to canvas for this change nationally. This week we look at the first, which requires us to go back to the heady early days of the People Power movement that morphed into NUP.

 The early narrative around which millions coalesced was that those in power – the political elite, that is – were eating everything and leaving nothing for the poor youth in the ghettos. Different groups had made this argument in different ways, including the Unemployed Youth who painted piglets yellow and dropped them off at Parliament (presciently, as it turns out!)
 The election of Bobi Wine to represent Kyaddondo East in a parliamentary by-election in 2017 was a pivotal moment; it announced that if Parliament would not go to the ghetto, the ghetto would go to Parliament. It was this same momentum that carried the red wave into the 2021 election where NUP became the largest opposition party in the House.   So powerful was the red wave that in many parts of central Uganda, getting the NUP nomination was guaranteed to win a parliamentary seat. Later reports that some candidates paid for the party whip were thus not surprising. Politicians from other political groupings who saw this wave coming allied themselves to NUP and were also elected, without necessarily having to renounce their earlier affiliations.

During the general election, the slogan changed to ‘we are removing a dictator’ but the underlying ethos for many NUP candidates was to go from the crumbs in the ghetto to a seat at the table where the main feast is served: Parliament.

As a presidential candidate appealing to a wider pool of electorates, and as a self-made man, Bobi Wine could not simply campaign on a platform of having a go at the turkey carving knife. In fact, for a hastily organised political party, NUP had a relatively readable and sensible manifesto.  Having campaigned in poetry, however, NUP now finds itself having to manage its affairs in prose. Mesmerised by the spread on the buffet table, some of its hungrier MPs are keen to sate their hunger in case they are removed from the feeding trough at the next election. Others, unmoored by ideology, are hedging their bets by hobnobbing with other emerging political groupings, just in case. The top of the party is not spared these contradictions. Some of the experienced hands that came in from other political groupings might have helped give NUP wider legitimacy and acceptance, but they also evoked envy and a sense that they rode the wave without paddling the boat. 
 The more experienced hands, on the other hand, are frustrated by vocal and influential extremist clusters in the party who lack nuance and political nous. The more these experienced hands are regarded suspiciously, the more likely they are to enter new political arrangements – confirming the suspicions.

Choosing to remain outside Parliament has allowed Bobi Wine to leverage his celebrity status internationally. But this has been at the price of amplifying the image of a personality cult, while also having to entrust party business in the House to those regarded suspiciously by some of his closest and most loyal supporters.
It might not seem so, but these are important tests of character, problem-solving skills, and leadership capacity for anyone seeking to run the country. The splitting of FDC into two factions is a result of the failure to answer this question correctly. The hypothetical conversation between Bobi Wine and Hon. Mpuuga above is probably how Mr Museveni would go about this dilemma; quietly, cunningly, and in a manner that leaves his opponent beholden to him. 

The money would be just bait. Some will say that these political manoeuvres explain the leadership crisis in Uganda today. Others will argue that you do not rule over a country for four decades without perfecting the dark arts of political brinkmanship. 
This brings us to the second dilemma: Is it possible to change a rotten political system without getting one’s hands dirty? To that we shall return next week.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki