The Bobi Wine protests are growing into demonstrations against autocracy and impunity as the veteran President's grip falters
Ever since President Yoweri Museveni's personal guards beat up and almost killed the popular musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, on 14 August, the normally effective mixture of security force brutality and mass detentions has failed to quell growing protest. What began as popular outrage at the treatment of Bobi Wine in detention, including savage beatings and torture, has become a general protest against the impunity of Museveni, his family, the security forces, and their arbitrary exercise of power.
For two years now, discontent with Museveni has been coalescing around the removal of the 75-year age limit on candidates for presidential office, even though the limit was only introduced in 2005 (AC Vol 57 No 19, Age cannot weary him and Vol 58 No 21, The seven ages of Museveni). Museveni is 74. A private member's bill to raise the limit caused a furore two years ago, and when legislation came to parliament in September last year, passing eventually, troops were sent into the parliamentary chamber after fisticuffs broke out among the MPs, among them Bobi Wine. The presidential guard moved in, dragging MPs off to vans where they were beaten.
Bobi Wine's diffuse 'People Power' movement might have eventually faded away had it not been for Museveni's personal order – so Kampala sources report – to have him 'disciplined' after he went to the north-western border town of Arua to hold an election meeting on 13 August. Members of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) were challenging the ruling National Resistence Movement (NRM) for the seat but it was Kasiano Wadri, an ex-MP backed as an independent by Bobi Wine who was victorious in the poll.
Soldiers with the elite Special Forces Command (SFC – the new name for the Presidential Guard), of which Museveni's son Major General Muhoozi Kainerugaba has been commander, descended on the hotel where Bobi Wine and other opposition politicians were staying, breaking down doors, firing their weapons and beating Bobi Wine and others with metal bars. Witnesses say Bobi Wine's driver, Yasin Kawuma, was shot dead.
FDC activist Night Asara was beaten and kicked by the soldiers, detained and denied treatment. She appeared in court the next day in Gulu, 150 kilometres from Arua. Activist Atiku Shaban was so badly beaten, media reports said, that he may never walk again. Bobi Wine's whereabouts were unknown for 72 hours.
A source in the domestic intelligence service, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), told Africa Confidential that at least six people died as soldiers were spurred on by an angry Museveni, who was following the unfolding events on the SFC's tactical communications network. He may have been provoked, sources say, by stones hitting one of the cars in his convoy, or possibly by the sheer size of the crowds that have been greeting Bobi Wine at his rallies and concerts. When it appeared that Bobi Wine and another critically battered MP, Francis Zaake, might die in custody, they were hurriedly treated – Bobi Wine by army doctors – before being released. Bobi Wine is among 33 who have been charged with treason.
Protests in Kampala spread to other towns and attempts by the government to roll back public anger collapsed. The treason charges and a hastily released picture of guns supposedly recovered from Bobi Wine's hotel did not do the trick. Several messages by Museveni on social media were widely ridiculed but the sign that things might be going seriously wrong for the President was the conspicuous silence of his followers in the NRM. Public pressure –especially from international coverage of the affair – forced the army on Museveni's orders to suspend the court martial of Bobi Wine and allow him to leave the country. He is now receiving medical treatment in the United States.
Museveni compounded his inept handling of the unrest in a rambling three-and-a-half-hour speech on the evening of 10 September. The address was meant to reassure the public about security after the assassination of a popular police officer, Muhammad Kirumira, by gunmen on a motorbike. Rejecting the advice of his minders, we hear, the President delivered a homily about the economic prosperity of Uganda, surprising many who had expected to hear a plan for dealing with the killings. He repeated his familiar tune that the young should be grateful for the economic gains of the NRM after over three decades. He angered many listeners by saying his own children were 'busy with their wealth' and 'not looking for jobs' because as a parent he had provided for them. The reactions on social media were universally hostile.
Museveni's political position has also been eroded recently by a failed campaign to reform the system of land tenure. He embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the radical change but failed to find popular support. His ignominious retreat from this policy has also weakened his standing. And his attempt to clamp down on social media by licensing WhatsApp also smacks of desperation.
Kirumira is the latest in a number of government and security figures to have been assassinated by gunmen on motorbikes. Victims include: Andrew Felix Kaweesi, a former deputy head of the Uganda Police killed in 2017 and described as a 'mentor' to Kirumira; Joan Namezzi Kagezi, a prosecutor shot in 2015; and Abiriga Ibrahim, an ultra-loyal NRM MP who supported the recent removal of age limits on presidential candidates (AC Vol 59 No 4, An inspector calls, no longer & Vol 56 No 8, Kampala murder mystery). Ibrahim's death in June triggered the by-election in Arua.
There is a widespread belief that the killings are carried out by rogue elements in the security services loyal to former police chief Gen. Kale Kayihura. The general was Uganda's longest-serving police chief and Museveni's chief enforcer during 12 years of repression which critics say included murder and extortion. However, when controversy over the illegal rendition of Rwandan political refugees blew up, Museveni sacked him, and he was arrested for alleged high crimes on 18 July. Kayihura had also been blamed for failure to respond to a string of rapes and murders of 24 women in the Entebbe township near the official residence of the President (AC Vol 59 No 16, Backers and attackers).
The head of military intelligence, Brig. Abel Kandiho, is one of those who blames the killings on a network linked to Kayihura. He has privately accused the former police chief of waging a campaign aimed at depicting the inner cities as ungovernable. Others have said it was Gen Kayihura's closeness to the President's wife, a formidable political figure in her own right, that caused his downfall. Janet Museveni is the education minister and often spoken of as a potential successor to her husband.
The current damage to the President's personal standing matters because so much power is concentrated in his hands and has been for so long. In the past 15 years he has concentrated power in the executive, creating a government within a government at State House, bringing the wider security establishment, the army and police under the indirect supervision of Special Forces Command and removing all constitutional barriers to his continued stay in power. In the run-up to the 2016 general election he shored up his position as the only candidate of his party. In a meeting with NRM MPs after the Bobi Wine controversy started – after which Speaker of the House Rebecca Kadaga wrote to him asking him to explain the torture allegations – he reportedly said he could even abolish Parliament if he wanted to.
Some of his close advisors say that the violence by the security forces is the only option the President feels he has left to bring dissatisfied and unemployed youth angry at 32 years of his rule and routine corruption back under control.
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