How Ugandan Musician Bobi wine Won Parliamentary Election

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On Thursday June 28, a by-election was held in the Kyadondo East constituency in Wakiso District.

It was billed as yet another face-off between the ruling NRM party and the main Opposition party, the FDC, as these by-elections tend to be.

The seat was declared vacant after FDC’s Apollo Kantinti was disqualified by a court ruling.

One of the novelty candidates was Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, the dancehall singer. He was viewed as an interesting addition of colour to the race.

Sure, many of the city’s riff-raff would follow him about during his campaign tours, but that is as far as it would go.

Most Kampala “bayaye”, anyway, are not registered voters and don’t vote and so their support of the musician would not count.

When the final vote count was tallied, Bobi Wine had won 77.7 per cent of the ballots cast, a landslide that was already apparent within minutes of the first polling stations counting their votes.

His victory was so emphatic and so one-sided across all the polling areas that there was almost a feeling of anti-climax about it.

The immediate challenge the new MP faces is not in trying to reach out to the minority who did not vote for him but in how to meet the expectations of the large majority that cast their votes for him.

A Kampala-based Canadian public relations consultant, Anne Whitehead, is reported to have advised Bobi Wine’s campaign.

The following morning, dozens of radio stations in Kampala naturally had little choice but play some of Bobi Wine’s best-known songs, further reinforcing the brand that is now a national topic.

Bobi Wine not only had been claiming to speak on behalf of the frustrated and unemployed youth.

He often dresses and behaves like them, walking through the streets of Kampala in slippers and buying “rolex” and “kikomando” snacks sold by the roadside.

His recording studio at Kamwokya has that same rundown, slum area look.

Bobi Wine’s win is significant on several fronts.

The first is the usual one: It re-confirms the common view that Kampala is a mainly Opposition political area, where the NRM cannot expect to make much headway.

If the minister of Kampala and former Opposition presidential candidate Beti Kamya had hoped to deliver President Museveni an 80 per cent victory in Kampala in the 2021 general election, Bobi Wine’s victory should remind her of how much work she has before her.

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Secondly, about two months ago Bobi Wine got embroiled in a land dispute with the Buganda establishment at Mengo that became tense.

His clear win should send an uncomfortable signal to the Mengo authorities: The common man in Buganda is nurtured to feel loyalty toward the kingdom and the Kabaka.

But that common man is also a human being who has interests and feels a sense of justice and personal slight. For Kyadondo voters to elect Bobi Wine overwhelmingly even when they were aware of the dispute with Mengo signals that the Buganda Kingdom cannot indefinitely take the loyalty of its subjects for granted.

It too, like the central government, must be seen to be fair and just or it too, like the central government, will face a crisis of fading legitimacy.

Thirdly, the belief that Kampala is full of lumpens who might be a majority in number and who show up in large numbers at Opposition rallies but who do not actually vote, has been dispelled.

Not only do they show up at rallies; they actually vote and as happened with Bobi Wine, do vote as a bloc and of one mind.

On a number of occasions, Museveni has shown his instinctive knowledge of the power of this large force of Kampala “ghetto” youth when in matters where KCCA or other city officials acted against boda boda motorists, the President overruled his own officials.

All the UN, Uganda government and other figures about Uganda having a large population with more than 70 per cent under the age of 25 and of a high youth unemployment rate of about 83 per cent in Uganda have been proved to be true.

The view that to win political office at a parliamentary or national level one has to be a seasoned politician is another assumption that has been put to the test once again.

Politics is largely about influence, appeal, name recognition and engaging with the hopes, sentiment and problems of the majority.

Name recognition attained through the performing arts such as music (Judith Babirye, Bobi Wine), theatre and radio (Kato Lubwama) and other media and entertainment fields is as useful as an avenue by which a political career can be launched.

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Ugandan political analysts will now have to rethink their dismissive attitude toward comedians, musicians, actors and sportsmen.

However, in 2016 another singer Daniel Kazibwe (who goes by the stage name Ragga Dee) vied for the office of Mayor of Kampala on the NRM party ticket but was badly beaten by Erias Lukwago.

In 2006, the playwright and actor Charles James Ssenkubuge contested the presidency but pulled out after a few weeks of campaigning.

So it is not always inevitable that being a musician or an actor makes one a front runner in a political race.

Bobi Wine’s victory was a statement by and about this youthful demographic.

At the end of the day, Bobi Wine won so handily because he was and came across as a man of the people, personally and consistently concerned about the common man’s plight.

What can Bobi Wine achieve as an MP?

Bobi Wine joins the list of Opposition-leaning political figures and activists (Kizza Besigye, Erias Lukwago, Ingrid Turinawe) who speak for the suppressed and desperate Ugandan population.

His win in turn reflects the 21st Century reality of Uganda. The country is seeing a rise in migration to the capital city Kampala and other towns.

But this rural-urban migration is not the result of increasing manufacturing and industrial activity that would create thousands of jobs.

Rather, it is the result of the collapse of the rural economy and the increasing inequality of income and opportunity in the country in general.

The tens of thousands flocking to Kampala find few real opportunities and so are forced to settle into low-income, low cost slums and shanty areas on the periphery of town.

Having sold their family land to move to Kampala, they cannot return to their villages and yet there simply are no openings for them in Kampala.

The government has no real answers to or solutions for the crisis of urban youth unemployment.

Its only recourse, in the absence of industry creating manufacturing and processing jobs, is to tighten the police presence in the city.

If one can’t employ the desperate youth, then at least try and contain the acts that might result from this desperation such as crime, rioting during political rallies and other protest actions.

For the same reason that the government is handicapped and helpless to do much about youth unemployment, Kyagulanyi as the Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East will be unable in the short and medium term to do anything about the situation either.

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He will speak out on the floor of Parliament and his fellow MPs and the country will find it fascinating to listen to his contributions.

Most likely he will be a regular on radio and television talk shows, articulating the crisis in the inner city. He stated on the day of his election that he has no intention of abandoning his music career.

As well he must, because this is what he will find as the vehicle for his political action and mobilisation.

Like many MPs, both from the ruling NRM and the Opposition parties, Kyagulanyi will discover the limitations of what an MP can do at the legislative level.

He, like his fellow MPs, will get caught up in addressing the immediate and pressing material and financial needs of his supporters and others in need.

Politics, by its nature, requires constant compromising and reaching the lowest common denominator.

In a bid to win over the 22.3 per cent of Kyadondo voters who did not cast their ballots for him, Bobi Wine will have to take actions or make statements that offend his core ghetto supporters.

Just being an MP alone will mean he sheds much of his ruffian and street image, alienating many of those who campaigned and voted for him precisely because he was the “Ghetto President.”

He could organise community events such as the collection of garbage and cleaning up the neighbourhoods in his Kyadondo constituency, organise charity music concerts with fellow musicians and initiate projects by the youth to start up small businesses.

Bobi Wine’s main political impact, in other words, will be and remain outside of Parliament than within the premises of Parliament.

A constituency like Kyadondo and even a city like Kampala in general are now beyond the capacity of any Uganda government, KCCA administration of MP.

What can turn Kampala around is a large-scale rebuilding of the city by Chinese, as they are already doing with the major road highways and bridges.

Then in this large-scale re-building can come some of the services and jobs to employ the millions of unemployed Ugandans.

By Timothy Kalyegira

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