After days of uncertainty and anger that culminated in several deaths and dozens being injured during running battles in Uganda’s capital Kampala, the state finally gave an inch to protestors agitating for the release of popular opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, and several other legislators.
On Thursday, the Ugandan military withdrew charges against the legislator after being detained in a military barracks in Gulu, a city in the country’s North, following a violent incident in the buildup to a municipality by-election that pitted opposition candidates against those of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
According to police records, President Yoweri Museveni’s motorcade was stoned during campaigns for the president’s party flag-bearer, Nusura Tiperu. MPs Francis Zaake, Paul Mwiru and Gerald Karuhanga were arrested.
It was also alleged that Bobi Wine was found in possession of two submachine guns. For observers, the arrests of the popular legislators could either mean a turning point in Uganda’s politics that has for decades seemed stifling to new, alternative voices or a further consolidation of power for the 74-year-old Museveni, president since 1986.
“We come from a history of intolerance in the political space. For Uganda, the lack of alternative voices in the political field has led the people to identify with revolutionaries in other spheres of life such as music,” political analyst and Makerere University lecturer Mwambutsya Ndebesa told the Sunday Standard. Ndebesa, however, acknowledges that although marginal, the Bobi Wine incident has shifted some ground in the debate for a new Uganda. A day before the charges were dropped, President Museveni had in a letter to his country gone on record to condemn the brutality that had taken place in the week leading to the charges being dropped.
Norm for agitators
“On the issue of releasing Bobi Wine and the others, the President of Uganda does not have such powers. Once somebody is arrested, charged and remanded, it is only two authorities who can release such people in any way: the courts or the DPP withdrawing charges if the evidence is not enough. Let us therefore, wait for the courts and see what they decide,” said the President in a statement.
But why have people coalesced around the arrest, yet for Uganda, opposition MPs are constantly in the cross hairs of the ruling NRM, with beatings and occasional detentions being perceived as the norm for agitators of change?
“Our politics have for a long time been coalesced around the idea of a militarised state. We do not have an ideology that the people can coalesce around. But now the people, in particular the youth, who form a majority of the population, have identified heroes away from your average politician,” Ndebesa says.
“He talks about their struggles, hopes and ambitions in his music. The people see themselves in Bobi Wine, his struggles are their struggles.”
The 36-year-old politician is on the first year of his first term as MP, going up against an establishment that seems hell bent on maintaining the status quo.
“Uganda’s Achilles Heel is the militarisation of the country’s politics,” Ndebesa says. “Until this is dealt with and the grip broken, we shall continue to exist in this space.”
For political scientist and the University of Nairobi don, Phillip Nyinguro, a lot more has to give for the country to witness the regime change some quarters crave for.
“Successful regime changes in Africa always come with the interaction of both domestic and international pressure,” Nyinguro says.
“For Uganda, the domestic forces just play the role of agitation to give external forces an excuse to intervene.”
And, the professor says, these external forces, a critical component for regime change, have been sending mixed signals about Museveni’s 32-year reign.
“There is no immediacy in pushing him aside because he has shown himself to be a blue-eyed boy of the west in a region in which having an agreeable head of state is of crucial importance to western interests,” he says.
But, the scales might tip.
“The recent renewal of ties between Nairobi and Washington might just give the west a reason to intervene as long as they have another dependable head of state in President Uhuru Kenyatta. Until they have Kenya in their grip, Museveni will sit pretty,” says Nyinguro.
But, it remains to be seen whether the protesters and the opposition politicians will eventually take much more than the inch granted by a previously unmoved and unshakeable administration which for the first time in a long time has shown flashes of a weakness that might prove to be the silver lining in the Pearl of Africa’s clamour for change.