There should be no denying that there is a smouldering conflict between Col Kizza Besigye and Kyadondo East MP, Hon Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine.
This conflict has found battleground in the numbers game – the crowds that either man can attract to his projects. Certainly, there is power in numbers.
Crowds legitimate a campaign or signal to its uselessness. The ultimate strength of a politician is not judged by the ingenuity of his ideas, but the crowds they can pull. The numbers-game actually explains the persistence of rather awful practices such as bussing crowds or renting them.
For years, Col Dr Kizza Besigye’s ability to attract crowds – real or counterfeit, as has come to be alleged more recently – towards his activism has sustained his hue as a politician and activist.
For his charisma and bravery, Besigye has been a darling for many anti-Museveni Ugandans. He embodied that single most-sought-after aspiration of ending the regime of President Museveni.
But after the 2016 election, this lustre started waning. An ugly patch started becoming more visible as more people started seeing him as a selfish careerist of sorts.
At a theoretical level, activism involves mobilising political communities, which are often wound around particular projects. Political communities dissolve at the conclusion of their projects.
Unfortunate for Dr Besigye, the project of ending the reign of President Museveni seems to have been afflicted by a disease that causes stunting.
Close to 20 years is a long time. The evolution of Bobi Wine from singer to politician has certainly dented Besigye’s monopoly further. Crowds seem more animated by the young lyrical activist than the old gruff-voiced haggler. Perhaps the most graphic showing of this conflict happened in Bugiri.
Bugiri municipality is geographically a small constituency. On the highway, it is about four miles from one end to the other – the distance from my Makerere University office to Parliament avenue.
During the just-concluded parliamentary election, candidates often traversed it in one drive with marches reverberating throughout the entire constituency.
As a chronicler, who is also friends with Asuman Basalirwa, I was there for a selfish project of mine when a JEEMA-Bobi Wine drive crossed paths with an FDC drive. You should have been there.
In his trademark Land Cruiser, Besigye was driving towards the venue—alongside the highway—where his party rally had been organised.
Advancing from the opposite direction was a JEEMA march. Like a powerful wind sweeping through the desert, they raised a thick smoke of dust in their wake, gaily dancing to Gisu traditional drums as they advanced. Huge, raucous and joyous, the crowd only attracted more followers. It was such a festive sight.
On his part, Besigye must have been overwhelmed by the numbers advancing. With about a hundred people following his vehicle, the ‘people’s president’ had to clear the way for what seemed like a hurricane. His driver – I suppose on his instructions – had to drive off the highway to avoid being embarrassingly stampeded.
Candidate Asuman Basalirwa and Bobi Wine had been seated inside their vehicle when they learned that advancing in the opposite direction was their nemesis, Dr Besigye.
Animated, they shot through the open-roof and started waving to their crowds. Upon reaching the venue where Besigye was scheduled to speak, like a bushfire in the Harmattan, the duo figuratively burned down the venue.
Supposedly FDC/Besigye supporters in the park could not stand the temptation that JEEMA-Bobi Wine was. It took a while for the FDC activists to remobilise a sizeable crowd for their rally to proceed.
They went bonkers that night. I can only imagine the pain that went through Besigye’s mind as his crowds were being swayed away by a political newbie.
My argument is this: without realising it, we seem to be bidding farewell to Col Besigye as the leading opposition figure. For choosing to be a carbon foil for Mr Museveni, Besigye is being reminded that carbons are phasing out.
The project that animated Besigye’s politics for years seems to have been too big for him to deliver on. Thus, there has appeared a power vacuum in Uganda’s opposition politics, and the gods seem to favour Bobi Wine – the unlikely pugilist by most estimates.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.