Former presidential candidate and opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party president Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine walks in the compound of his home in Magere, Wakiso district, during electoral campaign-period prior to the January 14 presidential elections. PHOTO/FILE/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

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The limits of new celebrity politics

What you need to know:

  • It has become fashionable in Uganda for celebrities to seek political office by tapping into fame they cultivated from various art forms.
  • But, as Derrick Kiyonga writes, the limits of the new celebrity politics are increasingly being exposed. 

As the sun was setting on a mid-January evening in the peri-urban constituency of Nakifuma County, Musa Buyondo—a boda boda rider—arrived at a gathering organised by his area Member of Parliament (MP), Fred Ssimbwa. 

It was nearly a year since Ssimbwa—on the back of National Unity Platform’s (NUP) so-called red wave—became a first-time legislator.

In the gathering dusk, Mr Buyondo had nothing but praise for his MP. He said: “[Mr Ssimbwa] is doing well! Just listen to how he is speaking…we shall return him to Parliament after this term is done.”

A quick check through the Hansard—an official record of debates in the Ugandan Parliament—doesn’t, however, cover Ssimbwa in glory. He is yet to say something noteworthy in Parliament. 

To get to the House, Mr Ssimbwa put in strong vocal performances en route to seeing off the challenge mounted by Patrick Mujjuka during the NUP primaries. 

Mr Mujjuka, a comedian who needs little introduction to people in the arts and culture, appeared to be a frontrunner to win the party’s flag.

“We didn’t know Mujjuka,” Mr Buyondo offered, explaining why the comedian’s campaign fell flat on its face.

“It’s you people in Kampala who knew him.”
Mr Mujjuka’s defeat, in the grand scheme of things, could be seen as a one-off since the 2021 General Elections saw artistes take Uganda’s politics by storm at both parliamentary and Local Government levels.

In Mawokota North, Hillary Kiyaga alias Dr Hilderman, took out a political heavyweight in the shape of former Trade minister, Ms Amelia Kyambadde.

Elsewhere, Mr Geoffrey Lutaaya—who made his name as a singer with the now defunct Eagles Production—ripped Kakuuto from the clutches of the NRM’s Christopher Kalemba. 

Kakuuto MP Geoffrey Lutaaya (right) and wife Irene Namatovu arrive at Parliament for the swearing-in ceremony. PHOTO | DAVID LUBOWA. 

Patrons of Afrigo Band emerged from a lockdown on the night economy happy to know that Rachael Magoola is still active musically after the songstress became the first Woman MP for Bugweri District.

Political earthquake
The Richter scale also picked up the political earthquake at Local Government level where Peter Okocha Kasolo—a comedian—beat veteran politician Dr Frank Nabwiso of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). 
Singer Mathias Walukagga—whose Bakoowu song is an anthem for Opposition politics in Uganda—won the mayorship of Kyengera Town Council in 2021.

Mosh Ssendi, a former TV presenter-cum-musician and Innocent Tegusulwa—another former media practitioner—are councillors, representing Makindye East and Nakawa West respectively. 
Before them, Allan Ssewanyana had used his presence on NBS TV and ‘Omusajja wa Bwino’ (the knowledgeable one) moniker to become, first, a councillor, and, later, legislator for constituents in Makindye West.

With a year gone, the honeymoon now appears to be over. The celebrity politicians are bound to come under scrutiny on how they perform in their respective positions. 

In August last year, just a couple of months after being sworn in, Mr Kiyaga made his inaugural submission in Parliament. He weighed in on the debate about environmental protection.

“My concern is when I was still in the village we were shocked to see natural forests that belong to the government being put down. We don’t have terms and conditions that are given to private individuals who now own natural forests,” he said.

Mr Kiyaga added: “It doesn’t only affect the environment, but also the locals living around that area. Our people can’t get firewood from these forests. When people penetrate into forests it’s taken as private property. We need to go back and visit terms and conditions to individuals who have leases on the forests.”

That same month, Mr Lutaaya also made his maiden speech on the floor of the House. 
He highlighted the deplorable condition of the Mutukula-Kampala highway, which he said has never received any maintenance for three decades.

He said: “There is a place called Toome. Whenever it rains heavily, Toome submerges making the road impassable.  Whenever some insist on using it, they must use a boat. Can you imagine using a boat on a road?”

He added: “It has caused poverty among the communities since they can’t use it to sell their agricultural products because the road is bad. The road has also caused accidents.”

Mr Lutaaya and Mr Kiyaga have not dominated parliamentary debates since. But at least they broke the silence. Conversely, Ms Magoola has put a sock in it, probably showing the limits of the new celebrity politics.

“They can’t do much because they are not the very best of our society,” Yusuf Sserunkuuma, a socio-political commentator, notes, adding, “The best of our society were locked up in 2005 when they made laws that civil servants should resign from their offices three months before campaigns. They can’t resign because they don’t have money to sustain a campaign.”

Anti-establishment politics
In 2016, Donald Trump—a celebrity with no political experience—stunned the world when he won the US presidential election after crafting messages that resonated with a huge number of American voters in key states. 

In so doing, he exposed deep anti-establishment anger and discontent. But Mr Trump didn’t last long as he became a one-term president. Americans voted him out following his mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The merits of celebrities playing an integral part in politics have recently been emboldened by Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. 

Mr Zelensky, who was a comedian until 2019 when he was voted as Ukrainian President, has catapulted himself to global fame following Russia’s incursions into his native country.

Photo combo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) were both born in the Soviet Union and share the same first names. PHOTOS/AFP

Using a mobile phone, he has inspired Ukrainian resilience and projected himself as a wartime president.
But for Uganda, the adventure of celebrity politics has been a case of myth meeting reality.

History has also shown that it does not take voters long to lose patience with celebrity politicians who do not deliver the goods. 

One classic example is Judith Babirye who on account of being a popular gospel musician was in 2016 voted as Buikwe Woman MP.

She [in]famously never said a word in Parliament, something that did not endear her to voters. After going to the USA for specialised treatment, Ms Babirye opted not to seek re-election in 2021. She reportedly read between the lines, paving the way for Diana Mutasingwa (NRM) to replace her.
Lubwama ‘disasterclass’

Unlike Ms Babirye, Kato Lubwama—another celebrity politician—sought re-election after an uninspiring spell in the 10th Parliament. He suffered a chastening defeat at the hands of NUP’s Aloysius Mukasa. 

Article 79 of the Ugandan Constitution provides for the main function of a MP as being: making laws for the peace, order, development and good governance of Uganda. It also outlines oversight and representation roles. 

Yet Mr Lubwama—a comedian—sought to pave a different path.
“This is my time to enjoy myself. My voters sent me to enjoy life,” he said of his role in Parliament, adding, “I am not going to answer every question put to me if it is from an area I am not well conversant with. That is the problem with the people on Facebook; they want to comment about everything even when they lack information about it.”

He also said thus: “I will not leave President Museveni to eat the money alone…this country belongs to all of us. Why should we leave Museveni to monopolise everything? From [state] power to banks and everything…Why? And when we get some money from the government [some] people begin to shout… but this is our money. There is no problem if I get Shs300m and give it to my constituents. You shouldn’t take me to the defiance [campaign] when I don’t want; I don’t want defiance and my people also don’t want it.”

On the campaign trail, Mr Lubwama’s brand of politics—a concoction of drama, cynicism, and bluntness—appealed to voters. While conventional politicians normally promise to lobby the central government to improve the welfare of constituents (as indeed Mr John Ken Lukyamuzi did), Mr Lubwama did the exact opposite. He asked to be sent to the House to enjoy the privileges of being a legislator (munnonde nange agenda ndyeko was his catchphrase).

He said, with a tinge of comedy: “Once in Parliament, I’ll get the salary and we shall share it. Even the money I get from lobbying, we shall share it.”

Once in Parliament, Mr Lubwama showed the insatiable appetite for money he had talked about while on the campaign trail. He for instance insisted that taxpayers pick the bill for the legislators’ cars valued at Shs200m apiece.

He said: “I didn’t come here to suffer…You cannot have a Member of Parliament driving a car of Shs20m…The problem with Ugandans [is] they don’t want to hear the truth, but the [cars for MPs] are provided for in the [government’s standing policy]. Don’t blame me, you blame the framers of the Constitution who allocated emoluments to MPs.”

Observers say his actions expose the limits of the new celebrity politics.
 Recently, Marcella Karekye—the director of the Government Citizen Interaction Centre—was at pains to point out perceived similar limits.

Ms Karekye, a Museveni appointee, called out Mr Kyagulanyi after the NUP leader said in no uncertain terms that the top jobs in the Ugandan health sector are monopolised by one tribe.

She said it was “a relief” that Bobi Wine lost the poll. To which Mr Kyagulanyi replied: “What would one expect from someone recommended by the despot’s daughter to head the regime’s propaganda machine?”

The absence of civility and political correctness in mainstream narratives is one of byproducts of celebrity politics. From the looks of things, this is something Ugandans will have to get used to.

Calling the tune

History shows that art forms such as music and dance have been used to deliver political messages in Uganda. 

When Idi Amin ousted Apollo Milton Obote in a 1971 coup, Baganda musicians took a swipe at the latter. 
They never forgot Obote’s decision to abolish kingdoms after a standoff with Buganda forced Kabaka Edward Muteesa into exile where he later died.

In 1978, Christopher Ssebadduka alias Toofa released “Serukama Mayute” in which he blamed Obote for the 1966 crisis saying that the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) leader duped Mengo into an alliance thereby sidestepping Benedicto Kiwanuka of the Democratic Party (DP). 

In his song , “Serukama Mayute”,  Ssebadduka accused Obote of being a hypocrite while praising Amin for doing “a heroic” act of ousting Obote.

Ssebadukka also fired a broadside at Obote’s spy chief, Naphtali Akena Adoko, in the song. 
Mr Adoko headed the General Service Unit at the time. It was responsible for the disappearances of many people.

When Obote returned to power in 1980, Ssebadduka went into hiding. He re-emerged in 1986 when President Museveni’s NRA came to power.

President Museveni.
 

In 1973, Dan Mugula composed “Muteesa Balaba Taliwo”, narrating the suffering Baganda underwent following the exiling of Muteesa. Elsewhere, Afrigo Band’s Moses Matovu sang “Twawona Kiviri”—another not so subtle reference to Obote’s regime.

If Obote had a difficult relationship with musicians, Amin—who so loved the accordion—initially cosied up with performers from the arts and culture. Africa Go Forward (Afrigo) Band regularly performed for him At Cape Town Villas (present Speke Resort Munyonyo). Suicide Revolution Jazz Band—whose songs encouraged the benevolent dictator to rule as long as he wished—also often times joined Afrigo.

Whereas some musicians warmed up to Amin, writers such as Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda and Okot p’Bitek fled to exile in neighbouring Kenya. Byron Kawadwa, a playwright and artistic director of the Uganda National Theatre, paid the ultimate price of death. 

He was murdered by Amin’s henchmen in 1977 soon after following his tour of Nigeria where he led his team to the second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture.

The reasons behind Kawadwa’s murder vary. Some claim that while in Lagos, Kawadwa met up with Erisa Kironde—a Ugandan politician who loathed Amin’s regime.

Once the dictator’s spies got wind of the visit and suspected Kawadwa to have been recruited by the opponents of the regime as a spy, there was always going to be one outcome. Another account holds that Kawadwa’s play (Oluyimba lwa Wankoko) rubbed Amin’s henchmen the wrong way since they interpreted it as a satirical repudiation of his regime.

In 2011, President Museveni tried to win the youth vote by coming up with an artistic composition—Another Rap—which resonated with them. During the 2016 presidential poll, Mr Museveni reportedly shelled out about Shs400m to local music artistes to compose songs supporting him. 

By the 2021 General Elections, the political dynamics had changed following the emergence of Mr Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine. 

Still, artistes like Ronald Mayinja, Catherine Kusasira and Bebe Cool were brought on board to drum up support for the NRM. 

Last year, Mr Mayinja told The Observer that he did this primarily because he had been paid.

Issue 

Issue
In 2016, Donald Trump—a celebrity with no political experience—stunned the world when he won the US presidential election after crafting messages that resonated with a huge number of American voters in key states. 

Former U.S President Donald Trump. PHOTO/AFP

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