Generation gap: What #FreeBobiWine tells us about Ugandan politics
Uganda’s old guard fear the new and they don’t know what to do.
Today, Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi – better known as musician Bobi Wine – appeared before the General Court Martial in Gulu, where the state withdrew charges of unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition. Minutes after being set free, however, the police re-arrested him and transferred him to a civilian court, where he will be charged with treason.
This was Bobi Wine’s first appearance since his arrest on 13 August. He was visibly unable to walk. In the capital Kampala, security forces are deployed all over the city. Several opposition leaders have been detained, placed under house arrest, or are in hospital following severe beatings.
How did we come to this point? The spark came on 14 August when Yasiin Kawuma, Bobi Wine’s driver, was shot dead. This happened on the final day of campaigning for the hotly-contested by-election in Arua Municipality in which Kassiano Wadri – an independent candidate supported by Bobi Wine – was later elected.
Then came a crackdown. The government arrested four opposition MPs, two journalists filming at the scene, and at least 28 others. The arrested included Bobi Wine, Wadri, and Francis Zaake (another opposition MP). Police claimed to have found weapons in the hotel Bobi Wine had stayed in and outside which Kawuma was shot. In the arrests, police beat staff, broke doors and took unrelated guests’ property.
Those seized were transferred to Gulu, where on 16 August, Bobi Wine was charged with “unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition” in a military court. Wadri and others were charged with treason in a civilian court. When family and lawyers were permitted access after a delay, it became clear the detainees had been badly beaten. On Friday 17 August, Zaake, who had disappeared after arrest, was “dumped” outside a hospital in a severe condition.
The streets responded. On 16 August, youth in Kampala’s Kamwokya slum (home to Bobi Wine’s studio) and Kyadondo East (his constituency) erected roadblocks and set tyres ablaze, but were quickly dispersed by police. Wider protests began on Sunday 19 August in Mityana (Zaake’s constituency), leading to the death of at least one person when police fired on a minibus carrying football fans. The next day, protests erupted in Kampala, demanding Bobi Wine’s release. Soldiers, including special forces trained by Western states, and police fired teargas and live rounds. They lined up non-protesters on their knees and beat protesters and journalists with batons. At least one person was shot dead.
On Tuesday, the army issued an apology decrying “unprofessional conduct” and promising the “arrest and punishment” of those responsible. However, violence and torture are not new tactics by the Ugandan security forces, which have failed to investigate or charge a single security personnel under its Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act.
The old guard fear the new…
What does all of this mean for Ugandan democracy? Violence against opponents of President Yoweri Museveni’s government is not new. Most notably, Kizza Besigye, presidential candidate for the opposition FDC party was falsely accused of rape, kept under de facto house arrest, and has on multiple occasions been arrested, often violently.
Yet recent events are more serious, bringing echoes of state violence and oppression from Uganda of yore. Once praised as a new type of African leader, Museveni established his rule as the antidote to the preceding political violence and chaos. The manifest violence of recent days has put an end to this image for good.
Even more than this, recent events illustrate the regime’s helplessness in dealing with the increasing confidence, demands and disobedience of youth voters.
At the centre of this shakeup is Bobi Wine. First famous as a musician, often singing about politics and poverty, he still makes music and writes to bash Museveni. He has been intermittently forbidden to perform, and his 2017 song “Freedom” has been kept off air. Hailed as the “Ghetto President”, his triumphant election to parliament united a sclerotic popular opposition and caught a rising political wave of youth resistance. The government, and the established opposition, have struggled to keep up.
Uganda has the world’s second youngest population: 78% are under 30. Youth are an important constituency for the regime, but are unreliable. Protests in urban areas – such as the 2011 ‘Walk to work’ protests – drew large young crowds. Part of this is economic: 62 to 83% of young people are unemployed. It also shows how political platforms grow old. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most Ugandans do not remember the horrors of rule by Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Indeed, they have known no president but Museveni. As such, the NRM’s core political message of ‘liberation’ – delivering peace and stability – falls flat with young voters.
Instead of liberation from tyrants, the young want improved public services. But this remains fragmented and limited. Youth unemployment remains high, GDP growth has hit a rough patch, and economic transformation is less than trumpeted. Furthermore, the wars may be over, but insecurity remains, undermining the NRM’s claim to protect. Most painfully, Entebbe – the location of State House – was hit by a spate of kidnaps and murders of women, which remain unresolved.
…and they don’t know what to do
The government does not understand this dissatisfaction. Museveni is still evoked as the nation’s father, and he appears to see the new opposition as unruly children rather than legitimate critics. Museveni’s statement on recent events – which addressed the “grandchildren” of Uganda and described Bobi Wine as “our grandson” and “undisciplined” – was intended to demonstrate his authority. It was instead viewed as condescending and symptomatic of the deepening disconnect between the liberation generation and the youth wave ridden by Bobi Wine. The hashtag #wearenotyourgrandchildren trended after his speech. The president apparently took notice, dropping the term in his next missive.
Yet policy has not changed. Instead, the regime tries to manage legitimacy through – as usual – coercion and patronage. Both have reached their limits. Before the 2016 elections, the secretary general of the ruling NRM warned Ugandans that “the state will kill your children if they come to disorganise and destabilise the peace and security”. Unable to remove the incentives for youth to protest, the party resorted to threats. But the materialisation of these threats in recent days has galvanised the opposition and Bobi Wine’s vaguely defined “people power” movement in particular.
The government has also made clumsy attempts to control the new information environment in which young voters swim, instituting a tax on social media use targeted at discouraging the use of online media. This only boosted dissatisfaction and gave Bobi Wine a new campaign to fight. His trademark red – he dons a red military-style uniform at rallies, and red is the campaign colour of candidates he backs – has become the colour of resistance, including social media tax protests and togikwatako protests (meaning “don’t touch it”, referring to attempts to change the constitution).
Patronage has also reached its limits. Brian Kirumira (also known as Bryan White), an obscure socialite-turned-philanthropist who reportedly made his fortunes from drug deals, has coordinated with State House to distribute patronage. Two weeks ahead of the Arua by-elections, Kirumira turned up with his philanthropic organisation, handing out bicycles, seeds, medicine and school equipment, as well as large amounts of cash. This specifically targeted youth voters, trying to draw them away from Bobi Wine and his associates. The event didn’t run smoothly, turning violent and leading to the shooting of several civilians. Neither did the plan work: Wadri won by a wide margin.
All of these events paint a dark picture for the future of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Uganda. But for all that, the increased oppression may not be working for the government. This latest attempt to win back (or beat back) the young has made them look chaotic and clumsy, and is pushing even moderate middle class youth with regime links into open opposition. In an unrelated event, Uganda’s Deputy Prime Minister was filmed falling while attempting to kick a football. Even the generals who helped him up seemed stumped. Social media went wild. And the energy behind Bobi Wine kept surging.