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Uganda is undergoing some serious political architectonic movements that are worth monitoring closely including the government's suspicions with the red colour, associated with opposition activist Bobi Wine. 


Pliny the Elder’s aphorism that “There is always something new out of Africa” is now being proved in Uganda.  The new thing in Uganda is about the 20 table napkins at Gertrude Byanyima’s home in Muyenga that have become a national, if not global sensation.  What wrong have the innocent red napkins done other than being associated with Bobi Wine’s People Power Movement? The theoretical framework that guides these very brief thoughts is politics of symbolism and politics of paranoia.  

What is in colour red?

When the red colour becomes a prohibited item and political temperatures rise in a country as a result, then you know that time is nigh. There is red in Uganda’s national flag, just as in many African flags, symbolising the blood of patriots, who sacrificed their lives for the emancipation of their countries. People wear red socks, including cardinals. Churches use red vestments for some special feasts—celebration of martyrs who died for their faith—recall the Uganda Martyrs, plenty of red flowers—many love red roses and they are a multimillion dollar business; we all have read blood! Come Valentine’s Day on 14th February, and red will be all over the town as amorous exchanges take centre stage.  Will all these items be confiscated as Uganda slides into politics of paranoia? I wonder and worry for the beloved country at the trend of events.  When colour red threatens state security, then we have come full cycle, and be prepared for shocking political melodrama in the Pearl of Africa.

At the centre of the brewing storm around the red napkins, is none other than Gertrude Byanyima—until recently the less known of the Byanyima daughters, sister to global feminist icon, Oxfam International’s Executive Director, and wife to Kizza Besigye, Winnie Byanyima.  Why have simple red table napkins become a sensation in Uganda and across the globe? Simple answer—law of unintended consequences and guilt by association.  Colour red is associated with Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who has become a headache for President Museveni since the ill-fated incidents in Arua’s by-elections, that saw a number of opposition Members of Parliament arrested, Museveni’s car allegedly pelted with stones.  Bobi Wine is seen adorned with a red beret cap and T-shirt.  The red colour has now become a symbol of the People Power Movement (PPM) in Uganda’s unfolding political discourse and praxis.  Beware if you have the red colour as your most favoured colour—it is now a restricted item in Uganda!

PPM: Will it replace the National Resistance Movement?

The controversial red napkins at Gertrude Byanyima’s home need to be placed in the broader perspective of the PPM that has been ushered in by Bobi Wine, Uganda’s new political sensation.  Winnie Byanyima, sister to Gertrude Byanyima has hinted that her sister has been energised by the PPM.  Why not! Many Ugandans who, until recently had fallen into political apathy after several failed attempts to challenge Museveni’s clinging to power for 32 years, have all of a sudden become energised on seeing the prospects of a people power upsurge.  Whether it is Bobi Wine’s music skill that has injected new blood in Uganda’s politics or not, I do not know. But what is sure is it is not business as usual.  The survival of President’s Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) is at stake, for those who care to observe what is unfolding.

Unlike the NRM that started off with a protracted armed struggle in Luwero Triangle, the PPM was ushered in by a popular artiste with just song and a guitar. The rest as they say is now history. The PPM does not seem to consider the use of guns as a viable option in handling President Museveni. At most the proponents of the PPM can resort to stone-throwing if this becomes necessary for self defence.  Not sure how Museveni’s well-trained and heavily armed security operatives will handle this unprecedented strategy.  Instead of guns, the PPM uses Twitter, Skype, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp and SMS. Other than putting heavy taxes on these social media, there is not much you can do about them.  And soon some information and communication technology innovators will develop an application to evade the tax on social media.

What is Gertrude Byanyima up to with the red napkins?

My guess is as good as anybody’s.  But for sure Gertrude Byanyima will not stand by as Uganda’s new political dispensation begins to unfold. Whether the red napkins have anything to do with this, it is the security agencies to verify.  But even if the red napkins were playing a crucial political symbolic role, and used as a tool for mobilisation, what is wrong with that?  When political space is heavily constrained, then people will devise all manner of strategies to evade state-brutality.  So instead of hunting for anything that looks red, the government of Yoweri Museveni should seriously look inside and examine whether it is genuinely committed to a level playing field when it comes to political contestation.  Why should opposing a regime that has been around for 32 years be a matter of life and death, attracting all kinds of violence, torture and criminalisation of peaceful assembly and association?

Only Gertrude Byanyima knows the real motive for using red napkins at her home.  If she uses them for some political message, so be it. This is a constitutional provision that allows for freedom of expression, association and assembly.  If one creatively turns a dining table into a platform for political mobilisation, who are we to judge.  Radical post-modern political theorists are fully aware that the personal is hugely political. 


Today it is red napkins; tomorrow it will be red cups or plates.  What about red attire? While political temperatures rise, it is better to sober up a bit, lest we escalate what would be a normal and legitimate contestation of political power.  As the PPM gains momentum, Uganda should brace up for more confrontation around the colour red.  In case Gertrude did not have any political motive in using red napkins, the state by over-reacting, almost with political paranoia, has provoked her to go political.  

Winnie Byanyima might soon weigh in within her constitutional mandated space (by law she cannot engage in active politics since she is head of International) and add a word or two to the current political developments next door.  People will begin to listen and the PPM might gain clout that it would not have otherwise gained had not been for the government’s knee-jack and near paranoid response to a rising political Tsunami, as Besigye once labelled the political developments in Uganda.  Watch this space.


*Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi teaches social and political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he is also Dean of Philosophy Department. He edits the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.