News | State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Africa - East Africa "People Power" an Emergent Political Movement in Uganda

The third force in Uganda’s political landscape and the precarious counter narratives.

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Posters of the long ruling president Mosveni cover countless buildings in towns large and small across Uganda. Mosveni Posters, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Adam Cohn

An emergent political movement known as “People Power,” led by musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine is quickly altering the landscape of Ugandan politics. The young politician and his team are quickly becoming the new political kingmakers with massive appeal across the political divide; rewriting the rules of engagement with their burgeoning influence. Known to political commentators as the “Third Force”, the phenomenon is challenging the longstanding power centres in the country, including the 32-year rule of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) led by President Yoweri Museveni and established political opposition parties. However, the People Power movement is also facing strong counter narratives with some voices denouncing it as a western propagated organization with no ideological base; and portray it as a wave that will soon expire like many before it.

The People Power Movement has taken the country by storm and it is no surprise that the movement is being ferociously opposed by strategically prepared narratives disseminated both by the state and non-state actors, including church. The counter-forces through various traditional and digital platforms,  allegedly supported by the Ugandan government, are shaping new messages aimed at characterising the People Power movement and its key proponents within opposition parties, civil society organisations, and other like-minded social movements as disruptive elements working with or on the behalf of western external groups. President Yoweri Museveni, in his recent September 2018 address to the nation, further portrayed these new political elements as economic saboteurs creating alarming distortions of the political happenings in the country. He accused the new leader and its sympathizers of spending too much time on social issues-- such as human rights women rights, and LGBT rights -- instead of more urgent issues of infrastructure, the state of the economy and underplaying the successes of the ruling National Resistance Movement Party.

With Ugandan government’s waning ability to deliver credible messages, especially to their elite audience; and now extending to other groups following a number of communication mishaps over the past years, other maneuvers to shift public opinion about the People Power Movement have emerged. Over the past months, the government information office has been running an effective media campaign in order to promote counter narratives. It seems evident that the state has a well-established infrastructure to support these efforts. Using prominent propagandists like Journalist Andrew Mwenda, Charles Rwomushana, this base alleges that the People Power Movement is a radical, extremist, anti-democratic, intolerant and violent group that uses democracy and human rights only as a convenient tool to score political points but does not intend to advance them at all. Furthermore, branches of the Ugandan church have referred to Bobi Wine as a ‘drug addict’ and a promoter of LGBT rights, claiming that Uganda and Africa can’t be secular.

Bobi Wine says he has been well aware of these counter forces. Unfortunately, for him his alleged torture by the state operatives makes his position more precarious. In his latest memorandum, Bobi Wine declared that the state has attempted to use a third party to reserve and register the name People Power as a political organization with the Uganda Electoral Commission with the intention to hijack the name and to prevent the movement from using it further. He also suspects that the state is planning to invoke Section 56 of the Uganda Penal Code Act and declare People Power as an unlawful party after state officials were rumored to have stated that they would consider declaring People Power a terrorist organization. Seasoned Ugandan journalist Nicholas Sengooba notes that the Ugandan elite circles discuss politics of confusion and indeed various commentaries have raised key questions on whether or not such counter narrative forces may influence social movements. Nicholas argues that although the Ugandan middle class clearly identifies with People Power, the amount of violence and intimidation from the political apparatus propels doubt in that milieu and eventually counter narrative message may become accepted.

The People Power Movement has maintained that the accusations of working with other liberal movements are fabricated by the state to make the movement seem like an extension of western ideals. Bobi Wine contends that if democracy is to work in such a young nation, alliances at the national, regional and other levels have to ensure that issues such as the constitutionalism, the rule of law, inclusiveness in political participation remain on the agenda. The movement argues that there is a popular upsurge of militarism, in particularly the East African region, which is affecting nearly all political and socio economic quadrants. He adds  that only a united front across boarders will safeguard the aspirations of emerging democracies in the region.