Civil protests broke out in Uganda after the arrest of Bobi Wine, a 38-year-old singer turned politician, who is challenging the longtime leader President Yoweri Museveni in the presidential elections scheduled for January 14, 2021. Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was arrested on November 18th for breaching Covid-19 regulation and holding a rally that exceeded the 200-person limit. However, this was just an excuse to prevent the opposition party from campaigning as police did not take any action when a rally supporting President Museveni violated the same regulation.
President Museveni who has ruled the country since 1986 is once again eligible to seek another term in the upcoming election at the age of 76 after he removed the constitutional age limit on the presidency in 2017. This constitutional amendment which passed with 135-62 votes resulted in widespread non-violent resistance and even a fight in parliament. But it, unfortunately, did not lead to a massive popular uprising similar to the one in Burkina Faso that forced the President into exile or the one in Senegal where the amendment was rejected. However, President Museveni’s efforts to harass and intimidate opposition parties is met with strong civil resistance and protest that has helped Bobi Wine get released on bail two days after his arrest. In the past couple of months, successful non-violent civil resistance has been on the rise in Uganda because of Bobi Wine’s ability to gather mass popular support and the growing discontent among the youth who are demanding democratic change. However, the government’s use of disproportionate force to intimidate and silence dissent poses a challenge to the success and effectiveness of these non-violent resistance movements.
Bobi Wine used his popularity to gain mass support and carry out successful pro-democracy and anti-corruption protests to challenge the entrenched power of President Museveni. Before Bobi Wine was sworn into parliament in 2017, he made songs such as Dembe (Peace) that criticized President Museveni’s greed for power and Situka (Rise up) that encouraged the young to resist oppression. He even recently released a song about Coronavirus to increase awareness and criticize the government’s neglect of the healthcare system while heavily investing in weapons to silence people. He is also famously known as “The Ghetto President” because of his music that highlights the struggles of the lower class and urban poor in Uganda. His music helped him build national recognition that enabled him to break into politics in 2017. Unlike other opposition leaders such as Kizza Besigye, who has run against Museveni 4 times, Bobi Wine has captivated the youth and gained a loyal following in urban areas. Even Kizza Besigye has recognized that and joined forces with Bobi Wine to remove Museveni from power. Bobi Wine’s ability to unite Ugandans over the challenges they face enabled him to gain mass popular support for his People Power Movement that is putting pressure on the government.
It is likely that he will get arrested again or near the election given the history of intimidation and arrest in Uganda, but he has awakened the youth who are 70% of the population and expanded civic disruption thereby raising the costs to the incumbent party of maintaining the status quo. Museveni may have mastered the art of constitutional coup d’etat and managed to put his name on the ballot but he does not enjoy widespread popularity as Bobi Wine does. Museveni derives his power from coercion through money and intimidation whereas Bobi Wine’s source of power is from the people and the idea of a better more democratic Uganda. As long as Museveni’s name is on the ballot, this election might as well be just a formality to maintain a facade of legitimacy but this time Bobi Wine has successfully planted the idea of change within the youth that a win by Museveni in 2021 may not easily be accepted.
Speaking of the youth, Uganda’s youth have lived their entire lives under Museveni and have not seen any of the benefits the older generation experienced in the early years of Museveni’s presidency. Museveni relies on the rural vote and older people who have survived the atrocities of the past government under Idi Amin. Given the trauma the older generation endured, they are likely to be risk-averse and not inclined to protest against Museveni who has brought them some sense of safety. The youth on the other hand have only experienced increased levels of unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, and political exclusion. The People Power Movement and Bobi Wine’s music not only spoke to their struggles but it empowered them to pursue non-violent protests to voice their discontent and demand for change. Similar to Janette Yarwood’s argument the protests such as the one after Bobi Wine was arrested suggests a deepening of democracy and highlights the agency of the youth in the pursuit of democracy. As Bobi Wine put it, “resistance against tyranny is not only right, it is a duty for oppressed people to carry out!” demonstrating that citizens not only have the agency but also the civic duty to demand democratic change.
However, a powerful, unchecked security force and blatant disregard for the rule of law by the government has made non-violent protests an uphill battle for change. During the 2016 election, Secretary-General Justin Kasule Lumumba warned mothers in a village that “the state will kill your children” if they protested in Kampala. Museveni himself warned voters of violence and instability if his party NRM fails to secure a majority during his closing campaign in 2016. Since the last election, laws such as the Public Order Management Act and the Police Act that gave police power to “arbitrarily prevent public gatherings and protests organized by opposition politicians” have been nullified in May 2020. However, it has not prevented the police from abusing their power and cracking down on protests instead it has allowed them to act with impunity. Just today, Bobi Wine suspended his campaign after police shot one of his right-hand man Daniel Oyerwot and tear-gassed his supporters. So far the death toll from the previous protests has reached 50. If this excessive use of force continues, Bobi Wine’s nonviolent campaign may fail to remove Museveni from power and become unable to sustain participation and maintain resilience in the face of such repression. However, if they can sustain participation and the protests do continue as well as the government’s use of excessive force, it could potentially lead to significant instability and unrest.
In conclusion, Bobi Wine’s popularity has enabled him to garner mass popular support to carry out non-violent campaigns with broad-based participation particularly among the young, urban, and poor. He served as a catalyst to the already growing discontent among the youth who needed to be mobilized and empowered to voice their anger and frustration. However, the government’s use of extensive force is a challenge for sustaining participation in this non-violent movement. But because Bobi Wine has loyal mass support the protests are likely to continue. Similarly, the government will continue and even increase its use of force in the lead-up to the election, and if Museveni wins there is a potential for a mass popular uprising and period of instability.