By Andrew M. Mwenda
Uganda has a new hero: Bobi Wine. He is being presented to us domestically and internationally as the symbol of our struggle for democracy, freedom, liberty and social transformation. Even some of our “intellectuals” are treating him as an alternative to President Yoweri Museveni. This is the pathway to disaster.
I sympathize with Bobi Wine having been brutally tortured by a cruel state security apparatus. However, this cannot blind me to the strategic risk he and his radical extremist supporters pose to the values of liberty and freedom that I treasure. And neither is it lost to me that he lacks even the most rudimentary understanding of our politics and economics.
Bobi Wine’s only qualification as an alternative to Museveni is that he is critical of the status quo. Our “intellectuals” don’t care what he stands for, the values he represents, the policy alternatives he proposes, the leadership abilities he has exhibited, the alliances he is cultivating and the organizational ability he has demonstrated.
The Museveni government has dictatorial tendencies, exercises brutality against its opponents and sold off our economy to multinational capital. So there is a need for change. But we don’t need any change. We need meaningful and qualitative change. Such change needs a broad coalition of Ugandans who believe in liberal democratic ideals and who feel that we need to give our citizens a bigger role and voice in our economy. Bobi Wine and his radical extremists are not what we need.
Yet this is not the concern of Ugandan “intellectuals.” They want Museveni to go and hope political freedom and economic prosperity will work themselves out with “iron necessity” (to use Karl Marx’s expression). They do not think about the nature of the alternative. This is the tragedy Uganda faced in 1971. Milton Obote had abrogated the constitution, abolished kingdoms and jailed opponents. So our elites embraced Idi Amin with tragic consequences. We are on the same road again.
African elites always argue that our continent has been cursed by bad leaders. Yet these same elites exhibit the worst irresponsible behaviour when selecting leaders. They embrace demagogues shouting empty slogans against incumbent governments without making any effort to assess the leadership qualities of such characters. When these new leaders come to power and repeat the blunders of their predecessors, the same African elites take to media and elsewhere to complain that the problem is leaders. But these elites are the ones who select wrong people in the first place.
Every government promotes policies that reflect the interest of its social base. So what is Bobi Wine’s support base? It is not manufacturers with a vested interest in industrial transformation. Neither is it large scale commercial farmers with the vested interest in the modernization of agriculture. They are not traders who seek policies that promote free trade. Instead they are largely (not entirely) less educated or inexperience and unemployed or underemployed angry youths looking for opportunities for salaried employment. At best therefore, a Bobi Wine government can only produce Museveni’s patronage politics without the president’s finesse.
If Bobi Wine became president, he has to reward his supporters with jobs. But they lack marketable skills or experience for professional jobs. He cannot force the private sector to hire them. Neither can he recruit them into the state’s professional jobs. The only place he can hire them is in security services – army, police and intelligence organisations – which are always the dumping grounds of the lumpen supporters in poor countries. This brings us to their values, which will be reflected in their work.
The Bobi Wine supporters I encounter online are radical extremists – uncouth, antidemocratic, intolerant of dissent and heavily reliant on their prejudices and rumours for “facts” to guide their political decisions and actions. They dominate social media where they indulge in unrestrained cyber bullying – forgery, slander, blackmail and lies. If they can terrorize their opponents with the little power they have on social media, what would happen if they gained control of the state’s powerful instruments of repression like the police, the army and the prisons?
Now under HE Bobi Wine, these lumpens will be the men and women in charge of Internal Security Organisation, police and army. They will be the ones collecting and analysing intelligence. President Bobi Wine himself will be intellectually handicapped to distinguish fiction from fact, slogans from policy. This is the raw material from which destructive tyrannies have historically been nurtured.
Bobi Wine is rich in rhetoric and demagoguery but extremely poor on values and policies and vision. I know what he is against – Museveni’s government and its corruption and incompetence. I do not know what he stands for because he has not articulated it anywhere. Mobilizing popular anger is easy. Organizing people around a set of policies backed by values is difficult. I share the frustration many Ugandans have towards Museveni’s government. I also find it extremely incompetent and corrupt. But for Christ’s sake, Museveni is a much more enlightened and informed person than Bobi Wine can ever be in the next 100 years.
In 1981, Museveni was seen and presented himself as a left wing radical. But he allied himself to conservative forces in Buganda and the rest of Uganda. For example he got Yusuf Lule, the archconservative, to lead the NRM. He also secured many businesspersons to his coalition such as Moses Kigongo, Mathew Rukikaire, Sam Male, Katenta Apuuli etc. Furthermore got the Catholic Church especially through Cardinal Nsubuga and Catholic bishops across the country to his side. And then he brought on board the royals of Buganda, Toro and Ankole.
Therefore, even though many of his fighters in NRA were radical leftists, his core political support was conservative, providing the necessary brakes and restraints on his radical politics. This way we need to see the young Museveni as militarily astute and politically brilliant. From the word go he demonstrated responsible politics.
So I find it difficult to embrace any and every opposition politician simply because they oppose Museveni. Africa has seen so many critics of government coming to power through a wave of populism. Except for a few exceptions, they have turned out to be worse than the ones they removed. Our nations have seen very many changes of government without much change in the quality of governance.
So change is not the missing ingredient in Africa. What is missing is qualitative change in governance, or what the young Museveni called “fundamental change.” Of course upon taking power, Museveni proceeded to reproduce the old politics of corruption and patronage that characterized Africa, best exhibited by Mobutu sese Seko of former Zaire, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya etc. As I have grown older, read and reflected more on our politics, I have realized that Museveni could not have done better.
So Ugandans are at it again – like all other Africans elsewhere – turning a demagogue who is backed by intolerant radicals, into a hero. How can we repeat these mistakes over and over again and then continue to blame leaders instead of ourselves who propel them to power?
Museveni has refused to condemn those of his troops who tortured Bobi Wine and other Ugandans. Bobi Wine’s enlightened supporters (if they exist at all) never condemn the cyber bullying perpetrated by his radical extremist supporters. Bobi Wine is out of jail. I can predict that he will never condemn those of his supporters who indulge in cyber bullying, intimidate and physically assault his opponents. His radical extremists have been doing all this evil without reproach from him. Therefore, like Museveni, Bobi Wine wants power and nothing more.
It is therefore saddening that Ugandan elites clamouring for Bobi Wine are silent on the lack of values among the forces propelling this upstart in politics. Even worse is the lack of any policy alternative for Uganda. Surely, if opposition to Museveni blinds anyone to the thuggish character of Bobi Wine’s supporters, then this country is headed for disaster. I know where Uganda stands now: on Museveni’s frying pan. But I don’t agree that we should push ourselves into Bobi Wine’s fire.
Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan journalist and political commentator.