The MP for Kyadondo East and popular Opposition activist and musician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, has declared his intention to contest for the presidency in the 2021 general election, according to a story broken by Daily Monitor on Thursday, March 7.
The news is not entirely a surprise.
There was inevitability about it when Bobi Wine became the focus of national and international news in August and September 2018.
Circumstances have been driving and leading him in this direction since 2016.
He was already one of the five leading male singers in Uganda before he joined politics in 2017.
Winning the Kyadondo East by-election in June 2017 added to his appeal and made him an Opposition activist of note.
His arrest in Arua last August and mistreatment at the hands of the State security apparatus transformed him into a national figure and made of him, albeit for a month or two, an international personality.
His many youthful supporters began to view him as not just a “Ghetto President” but Uganda’s president.
He has had to respond to this expectation of him.
To contest the Kyadondo parliamentary election again in 2021 would seem like an anti-climax to his rise in 2018.
Now that he has declared his presidential ambition, Bobi Wine will come up against the full realities of Ugandan politics and that is the subject of this analysis.
Bobi Wine’s first hurdle will be against fellow Opposition leaders and activists.
Many, if not most, will view him in the same way Amama Mbabazi responded to the declaration in 2000 by Dr Kizza Besigye of his intention to seek the presidency.
They will send out subtle signals that there is a “queue” in the Opposition pecking order that Kyagulanyi should respect.
When Bobi Wine resoundingly won the Kyadondo East by-election in 2017, it was greeted across the country as a collective Opposition victory.
He sided with Opposition leaders and candidates for parliamentary seats, portraying himself as an independent who shared the Opposition goal of replacing Museveni with better national leadership.
During by-elections in various parts of the country, he campaigned for FDC or Jeema candidates.
This is what further endeared Bobi Wine to the Opposition establishment and their millions of followers.
Now that he has declared his own presidential ambition, the situation changes.
From a united Opposition speaking with one voice during by-election campaigns, it reverts to factions of a competitive Opposition jealously guarding their own territory.
There is a hard-core wing of the FDC that still supports Besigye and is currently in control of the party.
Bobi Wine broke ranks with many fellow musicians when he openly stated his support for Besigye during Besigye’s 2016 presidential election bid.
Of all the Opposition’s leading figures, Besigye is put in the most awkward position by Kyagulanyi’s presidential ambitions.
Although a certain amount of fatigue with Besigye has set in within the Opposition, realists who watched Besigye’s crowd-pulling charisma in 2016 noted that he was still, for better or worse, the most popular Opposition figure in the country despite his four previous presidential efforts coming to nothing.
There is another wing that supported former FDC president Mugisha Muntu, whom they viewed as moderate.
Muntu has since left the FDC to found his own political party, leaving many of his FDC supporters in an awkward position.
There are Jeema supporters who morally supported Bobi Wine during the Kyadondo by-election and even more so when he campaigned for Jeema president Asuman Basalirwa for the Bugiri parliamentary seat.
If Basalirwa decides to contest the 2021 presidential election, whom do these Jeema supporters back?
As stated earlier, Bobi Wine was a national hero for as long as he acted in concert with the Opposition in their common goal of defeating the NRM government.
Now that he has declared his presidential bid, we can expect much of that collective Opposition support to reduce, for Opposition voters and supporters have their respective parties to belong to and back.
However, Bobi Wine’s biggest challenge comes from elsewhere.
There are indications that the NRM is seeking to propose amendments to the Constitution that return Uganda to 1962 and 1980 and the British parliamentary system, in which the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in Parliament automatically becomes head of State.
The NRM, aware of Museveni’s dwindling support, hopes to keep Museveni as head of State by this parliamentary system.
The NRM’s share of seats in Parliament is substantial. The ruling party hopes to use this majority to cushion itself from any Opposition challenge.
If the parliamentary system of 1962 and 1980 is re-introduced, it poses the biggest hurdle before Bobi Wine – and makes much easier a fifth Besigye presidential bid.
Besigye, in a sense, has an interest in Uganda reverting to a parliamentary system for two reasons.
First, it relieves him of his awkward relationship with Bobi Wine.
If Besigye refused to support Bobi Wine, many commentators would view Besigye as ungrateful and self-seeking, a man who welcomes others’ support for him but is reluctant to reciprocate that support.
Secondly, it also helps Besigye deal with the growing number of questions about his presidential ambitions.
Besigye only has to announce his intention to contest once again for the FDC party presidency. If he wins, something quite likely, he becomes, once again, the FDC’s presidential flag bearer.
A parliamentary system, incidentally, would resolve the nagging problem in Uganda of independent candidates, both for the presidency and parliamentary seats.
Besigye, if he were to become FDC president again, would simply point to the parliamentary system and the fact that the FDC has the second-largest number of seats in Parliament after the NRM.
Therefore, from Besigye’s point of view, on purely technical terms, he has the best chance of defeating Museveni.
The 2021 race would now be between the NRM and the FDC, rather than between Museveni and Besigye as it has been both portrayed and in truth was, since 2001.
The parliamentary system favours incumbents, favours the established order and even gives some fresh hope to historic parties like the DP and UPC.
These two latter parties have, since 2001, had the problem of a well-known national brand names dating back to the 1960s but lacking presidential candidates to match Museveni and Besigye.
Bobi Wine is the symbolic leader of People Power, a general-purpose pressure group and grassroots movement mostly based in Kampala and other parts of Buganda.
Under a presidential system and given his present level of support, Bobi Wine could realistically finish among the top three candidates.
But under a parliamentary system, he is weaker than even minor parties like Jeema.
For all his general appeal and name recognition, Bobi Wine stands little chance under a parliamentary system. People Power is not registered as a political party.
There are reports that a crafty individual quietly had the name “People Power” registered in his own names.
Somebody must have done this on purpose to up-end Bobi Wine.
He will go to register People Power as a party and find the name already taken.
That will force him to abandon this catchy name and start all over again with a new one.
He would then have to do what he so far has not done: Creating the structures and offices of an actual political party, with a secretary general, treasurer, secretariat and national branch offices.
A parliamentary system forces Bobi Wine to move from being a popular public figure and resistance leader to a party president.
Bobi Wine becomes like the Yoweri Museveni of 1980 who, even with his Fronasa, UNLF and Defence minister credentials, was a minor candidate in the face of the well-established UPC and DP.
Viewed from a neutral vantage point as an analyst, the parliamentary system of 1962 and 1980 should have been maintained all these past elections since 1996.
Since it emphasises the party rather than the party’s leader, a parliamentary system forces the political culture into building systems, structures and a national appeal.
It also gives Members of Parliament a certain confidence in their worth. This is part of the reason MPs in the 1960s and 1980-85 Parliament often acted confidently and some a little arrogantly.
They felt that while Milton Obote, their charismatic leader, had been crucial in their success, he too owned his presidency to their majority numbers in Parliament.
Since 1996, NRM MPs have tended to behave like minor politicians beholden to President Museveni.
If the NRM pushes through the amendment to return Uganda to a parliamentary system, then that alone will be the greatest headache for Bobi Wine.
Many in the FDC, DP and UPC will quietly welcome that system, if only because it trims Bobi Wine’s wings.
If the parliamentary system is not re-introduced, it is Bobi Wine’s best hope, since a presidential system favours the charisma of individual figures.
In that case, Bobi Wine would come up against the obvious hurdles that have dogged Besigye since 2001 – a Museveni using State resources and the State security system to hound his serious challengers.
In summary, Bobi Wine’s best chances in 2021 are in a presidential system and his worst nightmare would be a parliamentary system.