“I have come to continue exactly where I stopped”, declared Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, upon his arrival to Kampala on September 20. He had just come back from a trip to the United States where he sought treatment for injuries he says were caused by his torture at the hands of Ugandan security forces.
“We must get our freedom or we shall die trying to get our freedom,” he told reporters. Large crowds of supporters came to his house to welcome him, defying a police order.
Over the past few months, his appeal has grown and his profile raised in Uganda and beyond. He has helped unseat three incumbent ruling party MPs, including in the city of Arua, where he was arrested in mid-August. After news broke of his detention and torture, the #FreeBobiWine campaign spread rapidly across East Africa, Europe and North America.
This put pressure on the Ugandan government to release him and allow him to travel to the US. There, he met with and lobbied US officials to withdraw support from President Museveni over the human rights violations his administration has committed. His cause was also brought up in legislatures in the United Kingdom and the European Union.
He now has many high-profile friends and sympathisers around the world who are watching every move of the Ugandan government, ready to blow the bullhorn should something happened to him again.
Ugandans have seen the rise and fall of challengers to President Museveni over the past three decades but many seem to sense that something is different this time.
It seems the 36-year-old musician-turned-MP has managed to get under Museveni’s skin, rattling and unsettling him in a way that no politician ever has.
Quite out of character, the Ugandan president has even flip-flopped on his social media stance. While just a few months ago, he was trying to tax the youth for using social media platforms to spread “gossip”, he took to Twitter to deny the obvious and to push the narrative that the rising political star is just another irritant, a troublemaker.
Museveni has also given two lengthy speeches to defend his legacy, promising to fix the country’s intractable problems but disillusioned Ugandans, mostly young Bobi Wine “diehards”, see him as an old man out of touch with reality, obsessed with past glories and clueless about present-day challenges. They even nicknamed Bosco, a technologically challenged character in a popular ad released by a local mobile operator.
However, it would be foolhardy to start writing Museveni’s political obituary now. Despite his many weaknesses, he has managed to fortify himself in power in a way that gives him absolute control and unquestionable loyalty, which Bobi Wine will most likely fail to break.
One of the main challenges for any politician who eyes President Museveni’s seat is the role the military plays in Ugandan politics. Over the past three decades, the Ugandan president has managed to militarise the state by giving government and legislative positions to top military officers. In 2005 he introduced the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces Act of 2005 giving vast powers to the army.
One of the stipulations of the act provide for 10 acting army officers being elected to parliament by an army council, after being nominated first by Museveni himself. Apart from the obvious problems with the army having a say in legislative affairs, its presence has also invited direct meddling in deliberations, including on occasion the storming of the parliament by security forces.
The act has also enabled the army to try civilians in military courts. Bobi Wine himself appeared before a military court in August after being charged with illegal possession of weapons.
The military also has a significant presence within the cabinet, with Gen Kahinda Otafire in charge of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Gen Elly Tumwine heading the security ministry.
The people closest to the president are also army men. Museveni’s brother, a retired general, controls “Operation Wealth Creation”, a socio-economic initiative with an enormous government budget, while his son is a top-ranking general who was initially put in charge of the elite Presidential Guard Unit and then appointed Senior Presidential Advisor on Special Operations. There have been some speculations that by promoting him within the army ranks, Museveni is grooming his son to succeed him.
This lack of separation between the military – the men with guns – and the civilian government in Uganda is what is likely to upset Bobi Wine’s attempt to challenge Museveni’s power or that of any other civilian politician.
Even if he manages to rally the majority of the civilian population behind his cause and gets the backing of major international actors, he will still find it difficult to bring down a president backed by the military.
And even if he succeeds, the generals will remain and they will likely do anything to keep the political and economic power they currently enjoy. They are likely to sabotage any effort to introduce major economic and political reforms that could take away their privileges.
Museveni himself has been threatened by various powerful officers within the army. It is for this reason that he has conducted purges within its ranks, despite the risk of mutiny. So far, he has managed to silence his challengers, some as powerful as David Sejusa, a Bush War veteran (just like Museveni) and former coordinator of intelligence services.
In 2013, Sejusa called for an investigation into an alleged plot to assassinate high-ranking military officials opposing Museveni’s son. He was then accused of plotting a coup and forced to go into exile in the UK where he remained for a year before returning home; after a short imprisonment, the formerly outspoken general is now free but maintaining a low profile.
While Museveni has so far been able to handle the army, his successor might not be able to.
The events of 2011-2013 in Egypt are a good illustration of what happens when a civilian political force tries to challenge the power of a politicised military. In 2011, the Egyptian army stepped back and let the popular revolt topple President Hosni Mubarak, whose sons were perceived as a threat by the military’s top brass.
Then the army also let Mohamed Morsi take the presidency and form a government; it even let him rule for about a year. But Egypt’s military leadership blocked all efforts of his political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to dismantle its power and eventually brought him down with a coup.
While the parallel between the Egyptian and the Ugandan armies is not a full one – the former being much more powerful than the latter – it is not a stretch to say that discontent military officers could serve as spoilers to whoever comes to power after Museveni, be it Bobi Wine or someone else.
At the same time, expectations for any post-Museveni leadership will be astronomically high (the way they were in Egypt) and his successor will risk losing whatever political capital he or she has by trying to fix decades of purposeful weakening of civilian institutions.
In this sense, while Bobi Wine is indeed a breath of fresh air in Ugandan politics, we have to be realistic about how far his political project can go.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.