This week Kenyans took to social media with the hashtag #FreeBobiWine to express support for Robert Kyagulanyi, the Uganda Member of Parliament popularly known as Bobi Wine. Kyagulanyi was arrested and allegedly tortured by Ugandan security forces on suspicion of illegal possession of firearms. However, most observers within and outside Uganda believe that he is being unfairly targeted by General Yoweri Museveni because of the threat he poses to his increasingly ineffective regime.
Museveni has been in power since 1986. And while he can claim credit for having stabilised Uganda in the wake of Idi Amin’s terror, over the last two decades he has become little more than a millstone around Uganda’s neck. To entrench his dictatorial rule, Museveni abolished term limits in 2005. In 2017 he abolished presidential age limits, essentially crowning himself president for life.
The plight of Ugandans under Museveni’s autocratic rule contrasts sharply with that of Ethiopians. There, a young charismatic leader surprisingly emerged out of over three years of youth-led (and deadly) protests that forced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) into a corner. In the end the EPRDF chose Ahmed Abiy as Prime Minister, a leader that has proved to be as visionary as he is popular among Ethiopia’s youth. He has mended fences with Eritrea, is forging closer ties with Djibouti and Somalia, and has so far proven equal to the task of dealing with Ethiopia’s fiscal problems.
Now this is not to say that Ethiopia is out of the woods. Despite its remaining challenges, Ethiopia’s progress contrasts sharply with the goings on within the East African Community. Uganda’s Museveni has dropped all pretenses of being a civilian ruler, and taken to arresting and allegedly torturing sitting members of parliament. South Sudanese political elites keep signing non-enforceable ceasefires, while their militias kill and maim citizens.
Burundi is on a permanent decline to an incompetent autocracy. Rwanda is firmly autocratic, albeit tempered by state competence. Tanzania is struggling with what it means to be an open democracy and to institute the rule of law under a hegemonic party like the Revolution Party (Chama Cha Mapinduzi). And in Kenya we are still groping in the dark in search of the magic institutional configuration that will inoculate us against toxic and deadly ethnic politics. In short, the state of East Africa is not great.
In the midst of this gloomy state of affairs, East Africa’s youth appear to be fast running out of patience. Many young East Africans were quick to externalize the confrontation between the youthful Bobi Wine and the aging Museveni – who, in appearance, aesthetics, thought, and action, reminds one more of Sani Abacha than a dynamic 21st century leader. This vivid dramatization of the region’s generational battle is only going to get more heated over the years. The same youth anger and determined mobilization that forced the EPRDF to open political space in Ethiopia may visit the EAC. I hope our leaders are ready to listen and step aside when their time comes.
- The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University