For at least two decades, Uganda has been considered the once and future “donor darling” of East Africa, frequentlt competing with Kenya and Ethiopia for the title. This was due in large part to the relative political stability and continuity that Museveni’s administration offered international investors.
But events over the last few weeks have changed all that.
With the arrest of popular opposition MP, Bobi Wine, Museveni has attracted a new spotlight, one that is especially hot. This decision to arbitrarily arrest an outspoken opponent not only exposes Museveni’s ego and willingness to resort to violent repression, but also introduces a certain anxiety – uncertainty – for Ugandans, friends of Uganda and international observers.
Thus far, the case does not inspire great confidence in the Ugandan judicial system. First, Kyagulanyi and others were charged by a military tribunal with illegal possession of weapons. Their court appearances have been harrowing, as many appear to have been mistreated in detention, a charge the government denies. When the military charges were dropped, they were immediately replaced by charges of treason in civilian court. Within Uganda, demonstrations and riots erupted in protest, and journalists covering them have been beaten along with participants. While Kyagulanyi and others were granted bail on August 27, they remain in legal jeopardy.
Kyagulanyi’s treatment once again exposes the Ugandan government’s intolerance of dissent and its tendency to conflate political opposition and challenges to the status quo with threats to state security. Of course, this is not a new development; opposition politicians in Uganda have routinely been arrested on highly questionable charges, as the many legal trials of opposition leader Kizza Besigye demonstrate.
But two factors make the Bobi Wine crisis different from what Uganda has seen before. First, Kyagulanyi’s relatively youthful thirty-six-years of age make for a pointed contrast with Museveni, who, at seventy-four, has been leading Uganda since Kyagulanyi was about four. The frustrations of Uganda’s tremendously youthful population are easily channeled into anger over the persecution of the young MP. Moreover, his status as a pop culture influencer and artist brings the realities of Uganda’s authoritarian politics to a much wider and different domestic and international constituency than those who have traditionally followed Ugandan politics. He has triggered interest and activism from other musicians and creative professionals beyond Uganda’s borders, not least through the #freebobiwine social media campaign.
In Uganda, new influencers are emerging and inserting themselves into a previously predictable political dynamic. President Museveni seems to be betting he can maintain control until oil revenues come online and make it easier for the government to deliver more to its frustrated young people. Whether or not he is right bears close watching.