Uganda’s 2021 election and the rise of Bobi Wine

Musician and politician Hon Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine (Mbowasport/Wikimedia Commons)

President Yoweri Museveni returned to power after claiming victory in Uganda’s 14 January presidential elections. The Uganda Electoral Commission awarded Museveni and his ruling-National Resistance Movement (NRM) 58.64% of the vote (5.8 million votes) and laughably rejected accusations of vote-rigging. Museveni retains the odious title of one of Africa’s top-five longest-serving rulers.

In reality, journalists and opposition candidates faced brutal repression at the hands of the police, army and intelligence services controlled by Museveni. On election day, the internet was switched off. The regime singled-out Bobi Wine, a young, popular musician, and businessman (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), contesting the presidency for the first time, as a serious threat, and emerging focal-point for opposition to the Museveni-regime. Wine was awarded second place by the Electoral Commission with 34.83% of the vote (3.5 million votes).

The election has given a snapshot of important shifts taking place within Ugandan society. In Uganda, a massive 80% of the population is under-30 years old. Amongst the youth, in particular, there is a search for an alternative to poverty, the lack of decent jobs, and Museveni’s corrupt and repressive 35-year rule. It is to the youth, or at least sections of it, that Wine’s campaign has appealed. Similar processes have been reflected across the continent in recent movements in Algeria, Sudan, and Nigeria.

Unfree and unfair elections

Analysis of the election results by Uganda’s Daily Monitor has exposed that votes from 1,257 polling stations were not even counted before Museveni was declared the winner. The uncounted ballots are from areas that, even with clear rigging, returned huge majorities for Wine, for example in the capital Kampala, and the Wakiso District which surrounds the capital. The Electoral Commission, far from denying this, has defended it! They have cited the constitution which requires a presidential winner to be declared within 48-hours of the close of polls regardless of the state of counting. With this blatantly anti-democratic rule in place, the Commission’s mandate to “organise and conduct regular, free and fair elections” should be replaced with the more accurate motto: count slowly and count selectively!

In the run-up to the election, Wine and other candidates faced brutal repression. In October, Wine’s Kampala offices were raided and the paperwork for his nomination stolen. In November 2020, the regime arrested him, allegedly for breaching Covid-19 regulations on the campaign trail. This was just the latest excuse. As Wine himself pointed-out, he and his supporters faced repression long before the pandemic. For example, in August 2018, a failed assassination attempt claimed the life of Wine’s driver. Discovered by soldiers, hiding in a hotel room, Wine was severely beaten, before being taken to court to face treason charges.

The crackdown by state-forces on the protests in response to Wine’s arrest in November caused 54 deaths. In December, Wine’s bodyguard was run-down and killed by a car and his campaign team was arrested. In the days leading up to the election, the team Wine organised to replace them was also arrested. Wine was placed under house arrest on the day of the election, where, at the time of writing, he remains. The CWI calls for the immediate release of Bobi Wine, any of his supporters still languishing in jail, and the dropping of any and all charges.

Despite this well-publicised repression, capitalist governments are showing their usual hypocrisy on questions of democracy. Museveni has been a key ally of the imperialist powers, especially Britain and the United States since he seized power in 1986. His coming to power ended a bloody civil war and bringing a degree of stability that could allow the exploitation of the region’s resources.

The Africa Minister of Britain (the former colonial power) said that he and Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party government “welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda” and simply “noted” Museveni’s re-election. The British government, among other interests, is protecting the interests of UK oil company, Tallow Oil, a UK Conservative Party donor, with major investments in Uganda. Declassified UK has reported that British Ministers have lobbied Museveni to cancel a £210 million tax bill facing Tallow. The United States State Department has just said it is “deeply troubled” and “gravely concerned”, after spending billions of dollars over decades arming and equipping Museveni’s state forces. The South African government, currently holding the chair of the African Union, which itself has maintained a deafening silence on Museveni’s violent campaign to ensure his grip on power, is taking a “wait and see approach”.

The rise of Bobi Wine

Bobi Wine’s popularity amongst the youth and the poor is linked to the perception of his “rags to riches” rise. Wine’s father was a relatively prosperous veterinarian, allied with Museveni, who went into exile in the early 1980s during Uganda’s civil war. After Museveni’s victory, Wine’s father, and other potential political rivals, were side-lined. Wine’s mother, a nurse, moved to Kamwokya, a slum in Kampala, where Wine grew-up. But his family ensured he was educated outside the slums. Wine attended university and worked odd-jobs as a brick-layer, street-hawker, and car washer before making a living from music.

Through his own experiences and observations of life in the slums and the repression of the regime, Wine’s music became increasingly political. As he rose in popularity he became known as the “ghetto president”. Wine is now a Ugandan shilling-billionaire (Shs. 40 billion) and a dollar-millionaire ($1.4 million). He owns a mansion in Kampala, a fleet of luxury cars, a kilometre-long private beach on Lake Victoria, and business interests in property development, leisure, farming, and retail.

In 2017, Wine stood in a parliamentary by-election and won by a landslide. Initially seeking the nomination of the main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change, he stood as an independent candidate when this was not granted. In parliament, Wine took the lead in opposing Museveni’s ultimately successful efforts to remove the presidential age limit from the constitution which would have prevented him from running in the 2021 elections. This was the key issue in the coalescing of Wine’s ‘People Power Movement’. This is a diffuse movement lacking any structures or clear programme, but which acted as a pole of attraction for a layer of youth. In further by-elections, Wine supported and campaigned for a number of independent candidates, several of whom won.

In July 2020, anticipating that the regime would deny the registration of the People Power Movement as a political party, an agreement was struck for Wine to take-over the moribund, but registered, National Unity Platform (NUP). Quickly, all sixteen MPs from the second-largest opposition Democratic Party, whose youth-wing had played a role in Wine’s 2017 by-election victory, defected to the NUP, as well as three independent MPs, and even two MPs from Museveni’s NRM. It remains to be seen if Wine’s personal popularity that allowed him to win second place in the presidential election will translate into support for the NUP in future parliamentary elections.

Programme

Wine’s take-over of the NUP and run for president forced him to turn the popular, but the vague, message of the People’s Power Movement into a concrete manifesto. The results were disappointing. The entire document, A New Uganda, labours under the illusion that a ‘proper’ capitalism, bound by the ‘rule of law’, is the way forward for Ugandan society.

This view is not uncommon on the African continent, marred as it is by dictatorship, conflict, corruption, and nepotism. This is especially the case amongst a layer of the middle class youth, university graduates, and self-styled ‘entrepreneurs’ (small business people). They find their aspirations to a higher standard of living, and the enhanced social status that would come with it, blocked because of the economy’s domination by a small politically-connected elite and imperialism.

Reflecting this, some of the more detailed sections of the NUP manifesto layout plans for “youth small and medium enterprises”, calling for greater access to start-up capital, assistance with business plans, cheap credit and the “protection of the borrower”, tax-breaks, etc., linked to local procurement, local content and some protection from foreign competition. Wine and the NUP sum-up their general economic policy in their manifesto. It states that “To restore trust and confidence in our economy, we shall stabilise our business environment and render it more predictable by good governance that empowers the private sector to create jobs and stimulate growth.” Unfortunately, this approach is a futile attempt to side-step the ruling class’s and imperialism’s strangle-hold on Ugandan society.

Agriculture dominants the Ugandan economy and 41% of the working-age population are subsistence farmers. The manifesto speaks quite clearly to the interests of Uganda’s small farmers, still an important part of Museveni’s social-base. Without being explicit, or even consciously attempting to do so, the manifesto goes some way to drawing the class lines in the countryside, something Marxists consider a key task in neo-colonial countries that still have a large peasantry or small farmer class. The manifesto criticises the failure of both the government and the “private sector” (in contradiction to the rest of the manifesto!) to support small farmers, condemns the emergence of “elite farmers” and promises the revival of the (now-privatised) co-operative movement, including guaranteed markets, price controls, provision of farming inputs, equipment, storage, and credit, etc.

Social contradictions

The inconsistencies and contradictions in Wine’s manifesto reflect the contradictions in his social base and the class contradictions of Ugandan society more widely. Without being conscious of these, Wine’s mobilising slogans attempt to be “all things to all people”, whilst his manifesto’s details speak overwhelmingly to the interests of the Ugandan petty bourgeoisie and aspirant middle class.

Last week’s elections, however, confirmed that Wine’s social base is in the cities amongst the urban poor and the 83% of 15-29 year-olds who are underemployed in informal and precarious jobs. Again, it is not uncommon in neo-colonial conditions for these social layers, desperate for an improvement in their dire living conditions, to propel forward any movement, or individual, capable of raising hopes for genuine change. However, atomised and unorganised, and in the absence of a conscious working class movement, this layer can become an unwitting footrest for the self-selected but more organised middle class ‘cadre’.

The low-turnout, reported at 59%, notwithstanding the uncounted ballots and repression, does suggest limits to Wine’s appeal, at this stage. Crucially, the question of the working class. There is not a single mention of workers’ wages, conditions of employment, or trade union rights in the NUP manifesto (except calling for an increase in teachers’ wages, which is raised in the context of guaranteeing the youth better education). It is as if the existence of the working class simply did not occur to Wine!

However, there is a certain level of industrial development in Uganda, including mining, oil, and steel, with industry accounting for 7% of employment, and a public sector employing 22%. Trade unions have a long history. The dominant National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU) claims an affiliated membership of nearly one million. This is a key social force, seemingly untapped by Wine, notwithstanding that in their latest statement, the NOTU leadership boasts about signing an agreement with the government accepting the necessity of job losses arising from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Which way forward?

Wine’s call to fight against corruption and for greater democracy and freedoms in Uganda is, of course, correct and should be supported. But Wine and the NUP are clear that they are not making a challenge to capitalism itself, only Uganda’s undemocratic and corrupt crony-capitalism. However, without the overthrow of capitalism, a genuinely free and democratic Uganda is a utopia.

It is significant that Wine has taken the movement he has inspired onto the political field. However, his reliance on deal-making and applying pressure for de facto re-shuffles within the official opposition, itself no less tied to the Ugandan status quo, whilst catapulting him forward initially, will quickly become a handicap. For example, how will the NUP select its parliamentary candidates? Will the 21 sitting MPs that have defected to it be allowed to stand again? How will new candidates be chosen? Unless the fresh layers in the People’s Power Movement that have propelled Wine this far move into the NUP shell, and fight for a full debate on programme and the democratic control of the leadership and its elected representatives, the pro-capitalist petty bourgeois elements will be consolidated as the leadership, with the masses left outside as voting fodder.

The developments in Uganda confirm that under capitalism there is no way forward for the oppressed masses, the middle class, and society, as a whole. Completely and utterly tied to, and dependent upon, imperialism, the political and economic elite’s intolerance of even bourgeois parliamentary democracy is rooted in their complete incapacity to develop the country economically. The starting point for any serious struggle to break through the dead-end of a capitalist Uganda, which offers neither the youth, nor peasantry, nor even small business any future, is understanding the necessity to link the struggle for social and democratic reforms to the socialist transformation of society. In this, the role of the working class, the only social force with an interest in, and capacity to bring this about, is central. Despite its relatively small numerical size, its role in production and social weight makes it the decisive force in society.

These are some of the questions that young people, from whatever social background they come, who have been inspired by Bobi Wine and want to see the fundamental transformation of Uganda, urgently need to grapple with. The building of an organised and conscious socialist youth-grouping out of the People’s Power Movement that sets itself the task of reaching organised workers and uniting with them would be an important first step in ensuring that the hopes that have been raised by Bobi Wine can be made into a reality. The CWI is willing to discuss the ideas of socialism with the Ugandan youth and help develop clarity on the programme needed to transform their country, the Great Lakes region, Africa, and, ultimately, the world.

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