Bobi Wine faces two related and immediate challenges. The first is how to secure the release of hundreds of his supporters and party officials who have been disappeared or remain irregularly in the hands of security agencies. The other is how to nurse the grievance of what he says was an election stolen from him.
His calls for popular protest might work for one of the two challenges, but not both. The release from detention of his supporters is a tactical matter, in which peaceful popular protests can find eager participants, including relatives, friends and associates of the disappeared. Taking power, on the other hand, is strategic, and requires a long-term view, including the willingness to take short-term losses on the chin.
Women marching in the streets demanding for the return of their children will bring sympathy from many and tears to the eyes. Protests, however peaceful, leading a march to occupy Parliament or State House will bring tear gas to many eyes, and worse.
The NUP movement was built on the notion that it could mobilise enough people, particularly the young and apolitical types, to register and turn out to vote in numbers large enough to overwhelm any deep-state efforts to rig the election.
Subsequent events – the November massacres, the Internet shutdown, the polling discrepancies and the throwing of toys out of the pram at the Supreme Court – all reflect how entrenched the deep State is. This wasn’t new and had been proven in every election since 1996. Nevertheless, for NUP, which didn’t even have a tuxedo a few weeks away from the wedding to whip the NRM in the central part of the country, win 60 parliamentary seats and close to four million votes at the first time of asking, shows that the deep State is vulnerable and eventually beatable.
Peaceful protests are constitutionally guaranteed, but they send conflicting signals: Does NUP want to grow as a party and articulate an agenda for change, hopefully in concert with other progressive groups, or is it ready to die on this hill proving, with the scantiest of evidence, that it won the election?
Here Bobi can learn a thing or two from the very man he seeks to replace. By the time the UPM ran in the 1980 election, Mr Museveni and a few close associates had already decided that they were going to start an armed rebellion. The war that followed came in spite of the election, not because of it. The destruction of forest cover and the advent of technology where any amateur can spot a rebel camp off Google Earth, and where peasants can call in rebel locations on $10 mobile phones, makes such an insurgency almost hard to countenance.
In some countries, urban protests have provided a hybrid model for regime change, but these are less spontaneous than they appear; the Muslim Brotherhood built its grassroots structures over decades in Egypt before deposing Hosni Mubarak. And, as seen there and in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere, counter-revolutions are easy to organise if the State does not undergo root canal surgery to hollow through its entrenched molars.
After an economically painful year, it will be hard for many people to follow Bobi to the streets to protest peacefully. In fact, if he wants to be drawn, quartered and hanged, his own MP-elects will do it if he asks them not to take up their plum parliamentary seats. Peaceful protests will keep the flames of grievance burning for a bit longer, but they are unlikely to light the candle of hope for a better country that many young people want. So here is a radical idea. One of NUP’s MPs should step down and force a by-election to allow the party leader back into Parliament, where he can lead his new movement’s legislative and political agenda.
Like Mr Museveni in 1980, the just-concluded election has given Bobi a basis to be a national leader and factor in the politics of the country.
He can choose to pursue power through protest (peacefully or otherwise – the Constitution allows for that, too) or through elections, but he cannot choose both. Bobi and NUP have come to a fork in the road and have to decide whether they turn left or right. They can’t take both routes.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.