Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been apotheosised among African leaders by comparisons to Nelson Mandela or by labels such as “beacon of hope”. But a crackdown on political dissent last month in Arua, a town in northwestern Uganda, suggests that his regime may be gradually turning it into a de facto one-party state. It began on August 13, when Mr. Museveni was campaigning in Arua for a by-election. In a different part of town, a musician-turned-politician named Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — known by his stage name Bobi Wine — also drew large crowds. Then, even as Mr. Museveni was leaving the area, his motorcade was stoned, allegedly by Bobi Wine’s supporters. The reprisal was swift and brutal. Police used teargas and shots on the crowds and security personnel “brutalised” Opposition members. Although street protests took place in the capital, Kampala, immediately after news broke of the events in Arua, civil unrest escalated after it became known that Bobi Wine and several other MPs had been arrested and apparently ill-treated in custody. When Bobi Wine appeared in court several days later, he was on crutches; but he won a reprieve by getting bail. On the surface, the Museveni government may have created the illusion that it has smoothed over the violent episode, yet there is an open challenge from Bobi Wine that could shake the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to its very core.
The rise of Bobi Wine represents the yearning for a new Uganda among the country’s youth. Since the time he entered the presidency in 1986, Mr. Museveni has presided over what has been called a “movement system”, one in which all political candidates are forced to stand as individuals rather than as members of national political parties. This means not only that a democratic multi-party system is banned, but that local issues come to the fore far more than national ones. This passed muster during the last decades of the 20th century because the NRM primarily relied on the support of rural voters who focussed on local issues that affected them the most. Now a new generation of young Ugandans are united by the growing preponderance of social media, platforms that enable fierce debates over burning issues in national, not only local, politics. Social media is also making it harder for the Museveni regime to keep facts hidden — starkly evidenced in the way images of Bobi Wine, lying apparently bruised and beaten on a hospital bed, went viral and stoked anger across the country. In this brave new world of information connectivity, Bobi Wine and his ilk have a chance to focus attention on the pressing challenges that Uganda faces, including high unemployment rates, lack of economic opportunities, and rising crime. They must hope Mr. Museveni won’t take to their plans unkindly.