Yoweri Museveni has held power for 32 years in Uganda where the majority of the population is 25 years old or younger. Is his grip on power finally being challenged?
When he started calling himself the Ghetto President, Robert Kyagulanyi, the youthful Ugandan MP popularly known as Bobi Wine, probably did not know that he would become a political sensation and shake up Uganda's political landscape in ways that even senior politicians can only dream of.
But he has—and is already forcing the real president, Yoweri Museveni, to spend hours on state TV discussing the achievements of his government before a bored audience in what is widely seen as an attempt to ward off a major political firestorm.
Until he became an MP in June 2017, Kyagulanyi, now famous for his People Power slogan, was only known as a singer who had managed to build a successful music career despite the steep odds that were stacked against him.
He was raised in the slums of the capital Kampala (which is how he ended up with the unofficial title of Ghetto President)—and his success story remains a rich source of inspiration to many of his impoverished younger supporters, who view him as one of their own.
Although he has been an MP for just one year and several months, Kyagulanyi has been instrumental in helping the opposition win by-elections by campaigning for opposition candidates and those standing as independents. He himself is an independent MP.
That has not gone down well with Museveni and appears to have set him on a collision course with security forces and the government, and led to his recent brutal arrest and incarceration, which grabbed headlines in the local and international media.
His driver was shot dead by security forces, and another MP—with whom Kyagulanyi was campaigning for a candidate—was so badly beaten that he sustained horrific injuries and is currently receiving medical treatment in India.
With support among young Ugandans (25 years and younger), who account for more than 70 percent of the population, the singer-turned-politician is being touted as a future presidential candidate.
Many of his supporters view him as a political messiah and a credible challenge to Museveni's 32-year rule, although he has yet to declare any presidential ambition.
Too young to lead?
Kyagulanyi uses his music to convey political messages and fires off Facebook posts denouncing what he calls Museveni's misrule. He is hogging the limelight and appears to have politically dwarfed Kizza Besigye, who for decades has been Uganda's best-known opposition politician and Museveni's main challenger in four presidential elections.
Some Ugandan political pundits think that Kyagulanyi, who was only four years old when Museveni seized power in 1986, is still young and inexperienced and wouldn't be a good fit for president. But he does meet all the constitutional qualifications for the job, and there is no shortage of Ugandans who wish to see him run for president.
If he joins the presidential race in 2021—and it is still a big if—will Kyagulanyi defeat Museveni and become the first Ugandan president to be handed power peacefully by a civilian president?
Does he have the kind of support that media reports suggest he has?
Opinion polls are rarely conducted in Uganda and can be notoriously unreliable. Gauging Kyagulanyi's support is still difficult. All that Ugandans know is that he is popular. As a successful singer, he can bank on the support of his fans, but that cannot be guaranteed—and the actual number of those fans is not known.
Kyagulanyi's major advantage appears to be the disenchanted youths in urban areas who are jobless and Ugandans who are fed up with Museveni and are ready and willing to vote for anyone they think will cause a political earthquake and remove the long-serving leader.
As one Kyagulanyi supporter said on social media: "Change is all we need, even if it's a dog wearing human clothes."
Change may be on the lips of many Ugandans, but it doesn't seem like it is on the horizon yet—even as Museveni's critics maintain that his grip on power is becoming tenuous. While Museveni's response to Kyagulanyi's People Power suggests he is in full panic mode, he remains politically strong and has some achievements.
Of the 35 parliamentary by-elections held since the last presidential election in February 2016, Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement has won 31.
The opposition only started to gain ground with the victory of Kyagulanyi, who has successfully campaigned for only four MPs so far. In all, the opposition has 60 out of 450 seats. The vast majority are National Resistance Movement (NRM) seats and the rest belong to independent MPs.
The NRM also swept local council elections held in July, winning more than 90 percent of the vote in 60,800 villages across the country. Unlike previous elections held under secret ballot and whose results have often been disputed, the local council elections saw voters queuing behind candidates, making rigging almost impossible.
Museveni still enjoys other electoral advantages. He appoints the electoral commission, and while the commission's chairperson and the commissioners are vetted and approved by parliament, the vast majority of the lawmakers are supporters of the ruling party.
Efforts by the opposition to push for an independent election commission and electoral reforms that will ensure that laws governing presidential elections are fair have not been successful, as the president has flatly rejected any changes.
If Kyagulanyi runs for president or backs any opposition politician who will contest the next presidential election, his popularity will be put to a real test.
It remains to be seen how he will overcome obstacles that Museveni—who changed the constitution to extend his rule—is ready to pile into his political path.
The Ghetto President may be making political waves, but the real president is still a hard nut to crack.
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