Last week former presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, pulled out of the Supreme Court case against electoral fraud. He claimed the courts of law could give him justice. He said he was taking the case to the court of public opinion. This meant organizing street protests. Like Kizza Besigye before him, Bobi Wine seems to have lost faith in the electoral and judicial process. His new call suggests he wants to change government by ultra constitutional means. It is a strategy that will lead him on Besigye’s long trodden path of failure and frustration.
Bobi Wine’s actions, like those of Besigye, reflect the dilemma Uganda’s opposition has faced since 1996 when the government of President Yoweri Museveni allowed electoral competition. Museveni came to power through a military victory. But rather than rule militarily, he chose to rule politically recognizing that overt military rule would be counterproductive. Thus he put in place a constitution-making process that ushered in electoral competition. Yet the aim of these elections was not to ensure genuine competition for power but to legitimize Museveni’s power.
Because of the role he played in the armed struggle coupled with the length of time he has spend in power, Museveni enjoys effective personal control over the core institutions of the state. This gives him the ability to manipulate the electoral process to his favor. The opposition know this even before they participate in the elections. Their dilemma has always been this: should they participate in a flawed electoral process? If they do, it would give them an opportunity to rally the masses around key grievances but at the price of legitimizing Museveni’s victory. However, if they boycott the elections entirely, they would lose a chance to reach the masses and make their voices heard. They would sink into political oblivion.
I sometimes sympathize with the opposition on this issue. They are caught in a Catch 22 situation with complicated tradeoffs themselves wrought with contradictions and risks. However, I initially thought the opposition would see this and participate knowing the benefits exceeded the costs. Museveni is transient. I felt they would see participation in elections as a way to build themselves as a viable alternative by highlighting key deficits of the Museveni administration. Slowly they could build capacity so that when Museveni is gone, they can have a real chance of gaining power.
Yet the opposition, especially the most effective one led by Besigye, seems to have lost this insight. They began to see elections purely as a means of winning power immediately not of building an alternative policy platform. Power became an end in itself, not a means to an end. When they could not gain it, and knowing the electoral process was flawed, they concluded that elections are meaningless. Besigye convinced himself that the only road to power is through protest. From then onwards, he saw elections as an opportunity to organize a mass uprising to topple the government.
When Bobi Wine came on scene, he seemed to reject this short-term view of democratization in Uganda. In one speech he said, referring to his disagreement with Besigye: “Don’t talk about democracy and stand four times and then on the fifth time you tell people democracy doesn’t work. We believe it works.” He seemed to downplay the effect of electoral unfairness and focused his energies in calling upon young people to register to vote. I felt Bobi Wine was up to something different – breaking the despair and resignation that Besigye had inculcated in the opposition which had tuned he and his supporters into permanent protestors.
It now seems Bobi Wine did not know the nature of the political waters into which he was treading. In an NBS interview, Besigye had warned that with time Bobi Wine would come full circle to the very point of resignation and despair and retreat from democracy to protest and from elections to insurrection. He has been proven right. But this only shows that Bobi Wine’s political statements were not based on a strategic analysis of the situation, instigating a calculated response. Instead it shows that he was being naïve.
The opposition in Uganda, like very many elites in Africa and their cheerleaders in the Western press, diplomacy, media and academia, seem blind to the realities of democratization. As former US president Barak Obama never tires of saying, democracy is messy. It takes time to build, requiring a long-term commitment to upholding it even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Democracy is a journey, not a destination. Perfecting it is a continuous and tedious process. There are myriad challenges. Uganda is going through that protracted process.
But the opposition in Uganda is bent on power immediately, not democracy. They only see democracy as an opportunity to gain power, not to build their own party organization, broaden the political participation of the masses, develop an alternative policy agenda and envision a future for Uganda. Therefore elections only make sense if they win. If they lose, then elections are meaningless. The judicial process only makes sense to them if it overturns the election of the president. This is a zero sum game.
Opposition leaders denounce the judiciary in spite of the fact that Uganda’s judges have continually ruled against Museveni and the state in the vast majority of cases they have taken to court. Our judges have protected the rights of opposition politicians, journalists and activists. I am a beneficiary of this, our judicial independence. And so are Besigye, Bobi Wine and so many others. The blindness of the opposition to this reality only shows that they only see judicial independence in how it can help them get power. In other words, power has become the only thing they seek.
It is sad that Bobi Wine has moved full circle to Besigye’s sad and dangerous position of permanent protester. Since he seems to admire America’s democracy, he needs to draw lessons from it. Although the Declaration of Independence stated, in 1776, that all men are born equal, and the constitution of 1789 restated this ideal, black people were counted as two thirds of a human being. Many were slaves, denying them all human rights. Native Americans, other ethnic minorities, women and poor white men did not have a right to vote. Universal white male adult suffrage was achieved in 1832 (56 years later); women got the right to vote in 1920 (144 years later) and African Americans in 1965, (189 years later).
Across its history, America has suffered from various forms of electoral fraud. Vote buying, white supremacist gangs would employ violence and chase black people from polling stations; many state legislatures would (even today) massively disenfranchise certain ethnic minorities, etc. But disadvantaged Americas never lost faith in democracy due to these myriads unfair practices. They have never sought ultra constitutional means to change government or even the laws. Uganda’s opposition leaders need to learn this long game recognizing that democratic development is slow, protracted and frustrating but ultimately fruitful.
Bobi Wine is under immense pressure from his supporters, most especially the radical ones, to do something, to find a shortcut to power, to express their deep sense of grievance and to nurse their wounds. I suspect he feels duty bound to honor their unrealistic expectations and demands upon him. But while doing so endears him to them, it does not advance his cause of gaining power, or foster democracy leave alone enable the stability of Uganda. Instead, it will lead him, like Besigye, to becoming their supplicant instead of being their leader thereby turning him into a permanent protester.
Bobi Wine is 38, Museveni 76. Therefore he can afford to wait the president out. No successor of Museveni will have the level of overwhelming personal control over the state as the president currently does. With Museveni out of the presidency, the electoral playing field will be much better, even though not perfectly, leveled. The challenge for Bobi Wine therefore is to buy his freedom to organize for 2026, 2031 and 2036. With such a long view, he needs to disavow street protest, broaden his appeal, focus on building NUP as a strong parliamentary and local council party, and develop a meaningful alternative policy agenda to the Museveni one. This demands that he leads his group, instead of letting it lead him.
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