A lesson from Uganda about ‘people power’

Bobi Wine’s platform in Uganda is alluring, though it has no policy other than “people power.” Is he a new kind of leader, or just another strongman?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Bobi Wine’s chair, engraved with his slogan, sits in the yard of his home in Magere, a village outside Kampala, Uganda.

Bobi Wine could be a portrait of the new Africa. Or he could merely perpetuate the old.

Mr. Wine certainly looks like someone new. A 30-something rapper who attracts crowds of young people, he is challenging Uganda’s four-term president, Yoweri Museveni. 

There is an allure in Mr. Wine’s platform, which has no discernible policy other than “people power.” Nearly 80% of the population is under 30, which means they have never known any president other than Mr. Museveni. 

The same demographics are true across much of Africa. The continent is ripe for a change and its young people are positioned to lead it.

Yet Africa has seen this before. As countries on the continent have gone through cycles of coups and counter-coups, charismatic young leaders or military men or freedom fighters have seized power – sometimes violently – promising a new dawn. The reality has often been merely an altered form of colonialism, as these new leaders established or perpetuated self-serving governments fueled by patronage and corruption.

Enter Mr. Wine. Is he a new kind of African leader, or is he merely the newest avatar of the African strongman? And how would we even know? Many of those swept into power decades ago appeared to have the best intentions.

The Monitor’s Peter Ford talks to Mr. Wine in this week’s cover story and travels around Uganda to take a measure of the man. But the deeper theme of Peter’s story is an exploration of power. 

Mr. Wine himself has gone on a journey in understanding his own power – first as a popular rapper and then in realizing he could use that power for change. The most immediate question is whether the government will give that power space to grow. Already, Mr. Wine has been imprisoned and intimidated. But change is coming, and the longer-term question is what the Bobi Wines of Africa will do in the years ahead.

A world away in Hong Kong, protesters are fighting not for a person or a personality, but for ideals and, crucially, the institutions that uphold them. The people of Hong Kong know what freedom looks like, and it is not a charismatic person charged with carrying out his or her singular vision.

This is hardly a catchy campaign platform: Help me build democratic institutions! But it is the task of the true reformer, seen from the Magna Carta to the founding of the American republic. Individual leaders, no matter how brilliant, must commit to building something larger than themselves for the change to be genuine, progressive, and lasting.

South Africa’s Nelson Mandela is only the most obvious African model. Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed is dramatically recasting the country, and alone in the Arab world, Tunisia has held to the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring in struggling to create a nation truly governed by “people power.”

It is a difficult task. But, if done honestly, it is also the only way to expand power so it is not just wielded by one person, but increasingly shared by all.

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