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Can These Youths in Red Berets Take Down Uganda's Dictator?

Ozy logo Ozy 2018-09-12 Godfrey Olukya

a man wearing a red hat © ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was addressing nearly 10,000 supporters of his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party in Arua, a town 300 miles northwest of Kampala, but the energy that day lay with another speaker less than a mile away. There, Afrobeat musician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, was addressing an audience of about 30,000 youths. The MP from Kampala’s Kyadondo East constituency reminded his audience that Uganda’s presidential elections are just two years away, and then launched a pointed attack. “We should make sure that we take over power from Museveni and his other corrupt leaders,” he said, to loud chants of “People Power, Our Power” – also the name of Wine’s political organization.

The contrast in crowd sizes during the Arua rallies on August 13 pointed to a larger shift taking root in Uganda. For 32 years, Museveni has ruled the East African nation with an iron fist, crushing political opposition even while maintaining warm relations with the West and with institutions like the International Monetary Fund, which once held him up as a model leader for Africa. Now, a growing youth movement, which has emerged almost out of nowhere over the past year, is threatening to do what the country’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), has failed to do: unseat Museveni.

That hadn’t appeared likely just four months ago. Multiple African nations have seen political outsiders, soccer stars and musicians vie for power, and against strongmen like Museveni, they’ve almost never succeeded. But People Power, Our Power’s use of music, imagery — the party uniform is a red shirt, black trousers and a red beret — and sharp rhetoric blaming older politicians is now helping it draw thousands of youths in a bid to alter the country’s political configuration. In July, opposition youth candidates won 24,500 of 60,000 village-level posts that were up for elections that Uganda held for the first time in 17 years. A giant majority of those youth wins — 19,000 — supported candidates belonging to Wine’s organization.

The youth are a power to reckon with in the country. - Thomas Masaba, People Power, Our Power

Independent candidates backed by Wine’s group have won two key parliamentary by-elections since March. At least 10 MPs belonging to the traditional opposition have joined Wine over the past year. And Museveni’s regime is showing signs that it is worried. After clashes between supporters of People Power, Our Power and the NRM following the August 13 rally, the police arrested Wine, four of his MPs and Kassiano Wadri, the Arua candidate he was campaigning for. But Wadri won the elections on August 14 — while in jail — anyway. 

“We are likely to win overwhelmingly in the next elections,” says a confident Thomas Masaba, a senior mobilizer with People Power, Our Power. “The youth are a power to reckon with in the country.”

So is Museveni, and removing him from power won’t be easy. Three decades in power have left him with entrenched loyalties at every level of the country’s establishment. And even in the July village elections, where People Power, Our Power secured massive wins, the majority of seats went to the NRM.

Still, what is clear, say experts and political leaders, is that the biggest challenge to Museveni will no longer come from the traditional opposition, the FDC. Instead, it’s Wine and his group who are shaking the president’s regime in a way unseen in three decades.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Gettyimages 996233416 © Provided by Ozy Gettyimages 996233416 Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi is joined by other activists in Kampala on July 11, 2018, in Kampala during a demonstration to protest a controversial tax on the use of social media. Source SUMY SADURNI/Getty

Until May 2017, Wine was just a popular musician with several hit records and name recognition across Uganda. Then, after courts nullified the election of the incumbent MP from Kyadondo East, citing irregularities, Wine contested the seat as an independent candidate. His slogan — “People Power, Our Power” — resonated with the electorate, and he won with 25,659 votes, compared to the ruling party candidate’s 4,566 votes. Wine announced he would stand for the presidency in 2021, and People Power, Our Power changed from a slogan into an organization.

Wine’s group has focused on blaming the suffering of Uganda’s youth — 58 percent of the country’s working-age population is unemployed, according to the nation’s 2014 census — on corrupt elderly politicians. Museveni and the opposition FDC haven’t helped themselves. Last December, Museveni’s government introduced, and the parliament passed, amendments eliminating the earlier age limit of 75 for presidents, underscoring the intentions of Museveni, 74, to hold on to power still longer. The FDC is led by 62-year-old Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s former physician, who has repeatedly lost to Museveni in presidential elections since 2001.

Wine, by contrast, is 36. And in the world’s youngest country — with 78 percent of its population below the age of 30 — his message seems to be resonating. At least 4 million Ugandan youth have joined People Power, Our Power, says Masaba. Whereas Museveni’s August 13 rally was attended mostly by an older generation, Wine’s political campaigns are marked by youthful music and supporters marching in the organization’s visually distinctive uniform.

“Bobi Wine … seems to have ignited a sense of confidence among young people to be the change they would like to see,” says Crispus Kaheru, the coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, a nonprofit group seeking electoral reforms. “There is no doubt he has also tapped into a growing vein of anti-government sentiment.”

a man standing in front of a truck: Gettyimages 1024527830 © Provided by Ozy Gettyimages 1024527830 Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, appears at the High Court in Gulu, northern Uganda, on August 27, 2018. Source Getty

Today, Wine is more popular than Besigye, the FDC leader, says George Mbazira, a former opposition MP. “It is not surprising that many members in the opposition are pressing Besigye to step down [from presidential aspirations] in favor of Bobi Wine.’’

Though the FDC remains reticent about collaborating with People Power, Our Power, many other opposition parties have warmed to calls from Wine’s group for a more united front to dethrone Museveni in 2021. “The opposition has united with Bobi Wine … in solidarity to take over leadership,” says Asuman Basalirwa, leader of the JEEMA opposition party. Ken Lukyamuzi, leader of the Conservative Party and a former MP, says Wine — whom he calls a “good mobilizer” — has inspired optimism. “We in opposition are optimistic that we can unite with him to put in place a strong challenge against Museveni,” says Lukyamuzi.

After two weeks in jail on charges of treason, Wine was released on August 27. He was briefly detained on August 31 as he tried to leave the country for the U.S. to receive medical treatment, but he was eventually allowed to travel after government doctors confirmed he had torture marks on his body. He still faces charges, so a future stint in jail is a possibility. But his group has shown they can win even from prison. It may take more than removing age limits for Museveni to cling to power.

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