Will UG's Generals salute Bobi Wine?

Please note: this article is the original version of a piece redacted and published on Al Jazeera English.

“I have come to continue exactly where I stopped”, tortured MP Bobi Wine told reporters when he arrived back in Uganda last week. He was returning from the US, where he had sought medical treatment for injuries he says were sustained under detention by the Ugandan security forces.

“We must get freedom or die trying”, he roused supporters, who had defied police orders to stay away. Ugandans have seen the rise and fall of challengers to President Yoweri Museveni over the past three decades but many sense that something may be different this time.

Bobi WIne - 36 year-old political novice, an outsider with zero military credentials has managed to get under Mr Museveni’s skin; rattled and unsettled him in a way that no politician has thus far.

In a move quite out of character, Museveni has even flip-flopped on his social media stance: just a few months ago, he was trying to tax young people for using it to spread “gossip”. Wine has now lured him onto the same platforms in an effort to win over some of the young MP’s fan base.

The President took to social platforms to push the narrative that the rising political star is just another irritant, a troublemaker and a threat that should be neutralised- quickly.

Museveni has also given two lengthy speeches to defend his legacy, promising to fix the country’s intractable problems like unemployment but disillusioned Ugandans and especially the young, see him as an out-of-touch old man, obsessed with past glories and clueless about modern challenges (they have a nickname for him- Bosco).

Yet despite all this, Wine has refused to go away. Despite a treason charge hanging over him for allegedly stoning a vehicle in Museveni’s presidential convoy, his appeal has only increased and his profile grown in Uganda and beyond.

At home, he has helped unseat three incumbent National Resistance Movement (NRM) MPs, including helping another independent candidate to win the Arua by-election (the act that landed him in trouble). On the international level, #FreeBobiWine protests from Amsterdam, London, Boston and Nairobi show that he is now a force that even Museveni is worried about.

His US visit saw him meet American politicians who gave him tacit backing, his tribulations were also raised in the UK parliament and he was interviewed by the western media.

He now has friends and allies who will be watching his every move and will be at the ready to blow the bullhorn should he arrested or detained, a situation that will no doubt make Museveni uneasy.

It would however be foolhardy to start writing Museveni’s political obituary. Despite his many faults he has managed to militarise the state in a way that gives him absolute control and unquestionable loyalty. He has also shown dexterity in dealing with those who have shown leadership ambition.

However, the lack of separation between the military- the men with guns- and the government in Uganda requires that a political outsider should have some kind of military background when they step into power.

To achieve proper civilian rule, there will need to be reforms in the military; and these would probably be more successful if they come from person with military connections and/or experience.

The larger-than-life egos and dubious ambitions that fill the senior ranks of the military pose a management problem for whoever sits it state house.

Museveni has thus far handled the dilemma by constantly reshuffling the leaders: take the example of Gen. David Tinyefuza, commonly known as David Sejusa. Sejusa is the former Coordinator of Intelligence Services and a senior presidential adviser. He cut loose from the status quo and vowed to bring down the NRM government, then fled abroad.

Since he returned, not a word has been heard from the big man even in the midst of Bobi mania. Museveni somehow manages to silence those he considers a threat. If Bobi Wine were to step up to take the top job, would he really be able to pull off such a strategy and get by on military meddling?

During his decades in power, Museveni has militarized the state, meaning the army is not short of representatives in parliament; former generals such as Kahinda Otafire (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and Gen. Elly Tumwine Security Minister) occupy key government positions.

In this way, the army has effectively captured the state. The president’s brother, retired General Salim Saleh, controls ‘Operation Wealth Creation' and its enormous government budget. Likewise, the president’s son once headed Museveni’s protection unit and is now a top-ranking general in the army.

All the former generals and old challengers (such as the now noticeably silent, once-vocal Amama Mbabazi) get pensions from the government: all at the behest of President Yoweri Museveni.

Gen. David Ssejusa and many others are mute at the time when the government is facing challenges: we can only speculate as to why they are now silent about torturous situations they once claimed to care about.

Museveni has even been able to maintain international support by ensuring that the UPDF stays involved in international missions important to likes of the US, despite having its own problems at home in Uganda. This has boosted his staying power at the international level despite allegations of human rights abuse.

Museveni has always managed to buy his challengers, and manage those who won’t be bought such as Kizza Besigye. So, what waits for Bobi wine? Will his conscience allow him to be an opportunist? Or, will these generals in the army give him an opportunity to turn things around and rebuild the broken institutions?

Wine would make a good president only if the conditions in the country are right. Right now, he is faced with weak institutions (i.e. security agencies plagued by corruption and over-dependant on personal networks). These same institutions, which allegedly meted out his torture only weeks ago, would unfortunately help to fail him as the president and even lose his “ghetto president” position.

Bobi Wine would be better off doing an 'internship' as a minister in the post-Museveni government. This would position him to become an effective president, not a ghetto counterpart.

Besides, the first post-Museveni president is likely to fail thanks to the existing army setup. Unless this changes, for the top-dog to succeed they must have extensive control and connections in the military.

Biding his time would allow Wine a better opportunity to become commander in chief of UPDF rather than just a firebrand riding on hashtag revolutions. That's not to say that one necessarily needs much experience in government to become a president. Donald Trump can (just about) run a country on Twitter, thanks to his aides and strong institutions. However, it becomes much less feasible in a country without functioning institutions.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflikathe of Algeria is 81 and wheelchair-bound, but still reigns over the country- because the right institutions are in place. If this werethe case in Uganda, then Bobi Wine would become president if he were democratically elected. Age is not an issue. Paul Kagame was a young man when he became a president (although he tactfully went in as a vice president first and assumed presidency 6 years later) and he is now a regional player.

The new Ethiopian president points to a new era of politics emerging but still, Bobi Wine, would be wise to show restraint and not be swept up in his current popularity. His sudden rise and the response by the security forces shows that there is a very real possibility of revolution, and the state is panicking. If anything happens and the position of Commander in Chief becomes vacant, Bobi Wine should wait for the right time to step up.

No one wants to see a revolution such as the one in Egypt, where the military simply did not allow Mosi- who was democratically elected- to sit in power. He was promptly deposed by the military and now Egypt is back with a former military general as a president. The economy was controlled by the army who felt they could not trust Mosi.

The alternative, to clean up the army, can also have disastrous consequences. Illegal activities discreetly managed by the military may leave vacuums for more direct threats. Take the case of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso, for example.

Burkina Faso was a stable country with a flourishing drug trafficking trade being managed, out of sight, by some military generals. The army was able to control the flow of contraband heading to Europe and thus manage the 1,400-kilometre northern border it shares with fragile Mali.

The fall of Compaore and the purge of these army generals that were close to him did not just weaken the capacity of the army, but also had an impact on the security of Burkina Faso. It is now easy for insurgents to cross from Mali and wreak havoc, since the army's drug route was interrupted.

Examples like this show why Bobi Wine should hold back and wait for somebody who knows how the army works, and work with them to rebuild the army into a proper security institution that will serve Ugandan people.

The expectations for any post- Museveni leadership will be astronomically high, and that on its own is a reason the new president will fail.

If Bobi Wine steps up prematurely, we could see a situation like that in America, where ‘Obama optimism’ disintegrated into Trump ‘populism’; or that of the Arab spring in Egypt where expectations were high, but were quickly shattered and people are left with yet another former military general in charge.

Managing the military and citizens' expectations will be an enormous challenge for whoever succeeds Museveni. And if they fail, it could lead to a similar situation to Egypt or, even worse, like that we have seen in Burkina Faso.


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