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Making sense of the Bobi phenomenon

The last quarter of 2018 undoubtedly belonged to the musician-cum-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. He has assumed an unparalleled position and in quick order taken a frontline role in the struggle to end the decades-old authoritarian and decadent rule of Mr Yoweri Museveni.

In Tanzania’s tourism and diplomatic capital, Arusha, I was surprised to find that staff at a hotel patronised by tourists know quite a bit about Bobi, not so much for his music as his political exploits.

The Bobi phenomenon is deeply arresting and deserves careful study. We don’t know enough of what is going on and how to make sense of it. I was away from Uganda for most of the last quarter of last year; so, I have not been up to speed with exactly the underlying dynamics at play.

To get a handle I recently tried to glean some insights from discussions with perceptive people and those with a firm grasp of what is at stake. It turns out that the issue is both quite straightforward but also complex.

As one behind-the-scenes political actor told me, there has been a fundamental ‘demographic transition’ in Uganda in recent years. And Bobi has emerged as the de facto leader at the helm of speaking the language and providing the inspiration that sits well with this transition.

In addition, I learnt something instructive: Uganda is basically a ghetto country and Bobi is the self-styled president of the ghetto. He had warned that if parliament does not go to the ghetto, the ghetto will go to parliament.

He is now in parliament and he has taken the ghetto there. That said, for a keen observer, especially looking in from the outside, there have been two particularly curious reactions to the Bobi phenomenon that merit attention and raise intriguing questions. There is a sense in which the two are related and it is even possible that one drives the other. The first is the sheer, unprecedented international and diplomatic attention granted to Mr Robert Kyagulanyi.

No Ugandan politician, in fact no Ugandan public figure, across the board, has attracted and received so much international media attention, from the major newspapers in Europe to leading cable television networks in the United States. There remains an intriguing why question here and we may not get the full answers anytime soon.

The second reaction has to do with the intensity and zealousness with which the Museveni regime has tried to tame the Bobi threat, actual or perceived. Museveni has always been adept at over-estimating the threats to his power, perhaps partly the reason he has misruled Uganda this long; so, it’s understandable that he, his apparatchiks and the state apparatus have gone on a roll and at some point in overdrive to counter MP Kyagulanyi.

Museveni does well by playing safe through overestimating the threat levels rather than run the risk of underestimating; so, nothing catches him by surprise. This though has its own limits: overestimating may well backfire or it may trigger a cascade that becomes impossible to contain.

But the energy, the resources and the time invested in dealing with Kyagulanyi suggest there is something that Museveni and his people see as posing a decidedly regime existential threat. So, what is it about Kyagulanyi’s ‘people power’ movement that makes it risky and a threat to the regime such that his musical shows are banned in such brazen manner?

At the start of Kyagulanyi’s international media attention, the regime’s activists and handlers peddled a rather pathetic narrative that he was an agent of Western interests. He could well be, and time will tell, but between someone who has only endeared himself to the West and been in the news for just a few months and the one who has been serving Western interests for decades, and that is Mr Museveni, who of the two is the real agent of the West?

I have argued in these pages that the course of nature is utterly random and knows no bounds and limits. Uganda as a society has been and will remain on the march and there is little control that Mr Museveni and his regime can do to forestall that march.

It is Bobi but it may well have been some other person leading the front. It is ‘people power,’ it could have been some other movement with a different set of repertoires and tactics. Whether or not he is the right person to lead a national movement for change is neither here nor there.

Societies get the leaders they deserve. And leaders emerge, they step forward when there is a vacuum, when there is a hungering for something new and reassuring even if lacking in real substance. The ideal is one thing, the real is quite another. The world tends to be more of the latter than the former.

Stopping Bobi Wine from performing at musical shows may slow down the momentum but will not take away the grievances fuelling his movement and the clamour for change. It is just a matter of time and the rulers know this but choose to hide their heads in the sand!


The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.


-4 #11 Budapest 2019-01-11 22:06
The Bobi phenomenon is just a misguided attempt by some elements in the West to use a young, naive but popular musician cum politician as a means to bring about regime change in order to satisfy their own selfish ends.

There's no other explanation that matters. Bobi doesn't represent the future this country needs, neither does he even represent the aspirations of majority youth in this country.

As an inspiration to a section of young people, having come from having very little save for a talent and ability to harness it, to becoming MP and successful businessman, Bobi scores very highly.

He should have used his story as proof that this country offers opportunities to anyone willing and courageous enough to look for them. But no, his message is one of a country that's gone to the dogs where the youth have no chance.

Don't bother making sense out of it, because it's all devoid of substance, just excitement and that will be over soon.
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0 #12 Akot 2019-01-12 13:29
Dickson, understood, but,

It's Ugandans who have the power to chose who rules them, how, for how long & as things are, it's Museveni they hang on to!

Dr Besigye couldn't wine a lonely battle, neither will MP Bobi Wine!

Museveni has already made it clear it's him & no other, so why will Ugandans even go for that already rigged election?

It's Ugandans composing the 90% NRM, District Chairmen & 80% MPs, right?

Who elect them?

Who are the tribal leaders keeping the divisive tribalistic system without which, Museveni has no land to stand on in the country?

Museveni's stay depends on Ugandans & no outsider will dare say a word against the dictator as long as our people keep him in post, leave Dr Besigye/Bobi Wine... to fight lonely battles!
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0 #13 Akot 2019-01-12 14:03
Lakwena, thanks.

Bobi Wine, like Dr Besigye, wants a future for every Ugandan child! Yet all Ugandans do is watch him destroyed by Museveni; our people are busy ensuring tax money, hold firm the tribalistic system so that the demon just goes on!

Ugandans are entertained by: [the fury, brutality and savagery with which the regime responded and meted out on someone who has not even hurt a fly, or known for throwing stones at stray dogs.]

[the phenomena of international outrage, continued admiration and sympathy towards BW], is sign that the international community knows Museveni MUST go,but also that it's only Ugandans keeping him in power who can throw him out....
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0 #14 Akot 2019-01-12 14:08
...But, [our petty tribal arrogance] is our self destruction while the outside world is powerless & can't even blame Museveni for being such a demon as it's our people keeping their commo enemy in power!

How can tribal leaders just enjoy quietly while the very people they pretend being leaders of are destroyed by their chief Museveni?

Will tribal leaders standing down to give chance to UNITY of Ugandans make them landless?

[For once I wish the Baganda in their drove (comparative advantage in number) united with other Ugandans and voted their own] - more so as Museveni will NEVER crown kabaka real leader of Bagandans on FREE Buganda, but only uses him to stay in power!

Why are Acholi going along with this senseless sutuation when they can be FREE just minding their small business on their rich land?

Acholi tribal leader/elites/Olara Otuunu...go to hell!
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0 #15 Akot 2019-01-12 14:15
Quoting Lakwena:
... Greater Northern Uganda rallied behind and voted for the Truthful and Pacific, Paul Kawanga Semogerere, but strangely the majority of Baganda voted for the Master of lies and violence who wrecked havoc in Luweero and recently told them off that he is State House fighting only for himself, family and strange belief.

the biggest problem with Buganda is the caprice of the political and local leadership over money (ebiggenderakko) or Iscariotism.


Buganda must surely now know that Museveni does not care about Bagandans & only UNITY of ALL against him or independent tribal states, will leave the demon landless with no right to be in State House either!
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0 #16 Akot 2019-01-12 14:32
Juwait kali,

The reason Museveni will be life time ruler of Uganda is because of what you call kingodms!

It's not parliament, but the people, the very people who vote, that ensure good rule or throw out demons/bad rulers in UNITY; no tribally divided people can ever bring change!

Museveni knew right from start that the only way he could get Uganda was through tribalistic rule & he was/is/will be there as long as the tribalistic system (kingdoms) is held in place by tribal leaders & Ugandans worship them!

The outsie world will NEVER side with tribalistic Ugandans who go along withq the disgusting tribalistic system (kingdoms)!

Real tribal leaders come together to abolish tribalism to give chance to formation of a 'nation'!

Uganda tribal leaders use migrant Museveni to ensure division while they are served, but watch their subjects go poor, oppressed slaves...!
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0 #17 Akot 2019-01-12 14:47
Juwait kali,

Believe Akot: if Museveni dissolves posts of tribal leaders, USA-Europe will be the first to congratulate him for walking out of tribalism & showing Ugandans how to be kind with themselves, respect one another as equal humans, live together as 1 people!

Buganda must now know that even UK that supported kabaka, gave him shelter, today know that this not the same situation as that of UK, but just tribalism in Uganda!

If Buganda or any tribe breaks away, it will have to make it's stand & be recognised as a 'nation' by developed countries, in order to suvive in business-friendly relations...!

Is any so called Ugandan kingdom ready/brave enough/has the leadership to be FREE to manage its business outside Museveni's Uganda?

All kingdoms are under master/god Museveni with no say, right?
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0 #18 Akot 2019-01-12 18:53
Juwait kali,

How old were you when Museveni came & now, how old will you be by the time Museveni drops dead of old age at +90?

How many Ugandans who were 30 in 1986 still live & in good health, working, have healthcare, good housing?

Do kingdoms/triba leaders have a say in how their land riches are managed/redistributed to serve subjects?

What happened to Rwenzururu tribal leader when suspected of planning to be a real leader of his people & where is he now?

So, to whom does Uganda tribalistically ruled belong, really?

33 years & Museveni has already made it clear he will not tolerate defiance in 2019, & you Juwait kali, says Akot who has been out of Uganda since 1987 plays the damn!

33 years still counting & we fight one another; who is fighting Musevnei, which tribe/kingdom is FREE?
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