Uganda: What is commitment? ‘It’s life’, says Bobi Wine

By Nancy-Wangue Moussissa

Posted on Friday, 2 September 2022 11:07, updated on Thursday, 24 November 2022 12:21
Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi also known as Bobi Wine arrives at the news conference at his home in Kasangati, Kampala
Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi also known as Bobi Wine arrives at the news conference at his home in Kasangati, Kampala, Uganda July 24, 2019. REUTERS/James Akena

18 months since his defeat in Uganda’s tainted presidential election, Bobi Wine is the one touring the world as his global stardom reaches new heights.

The musician-turned-opposition leader has long captured hearts and minds across the continent as a champion of the downtrodden. Instead of despairing over President Yoweri Museveni’s sixth-term victory, the restless revolutionary in the signature red beret is spending his summer standing up for African democracy from Kenyan polling places to the crimson carpet of this year’s Venice International Film Festival.

The Africa Report caught up with Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – by phone in mid-August as he prepared to launch the annual convention of his National Unity Platform (NUP) with members of the Ugandan diaspora in the United States.

“He is currently on a crazy travel schedule through California,” his longtime Washington lobbyist, Jeffrey Smith, explains as he struggles to catch up with his friend and client.

Finally, we’re connected. The trumpeting, piercing voice of Uganda’s popstar politician echoes in my office: “Hello?”

Movie magic

I’ve reached out to Wine eager to get his thoughts on a new documentary about his life, Ghetto President, that premiered on 1 September at the Venice Film Festival.

Directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, the film presents an intimate portrait of Wine, his wife Barbara and their children as the singer “rises from the ghetto slums of Kampala to one of the country’s most loved superstars,” according to the movie’s synopsis. “His musical talent lifts him and emboldens millions of previously voiceless people.”

The world will see what we’ve survived and what the people of Uganda are enduring under the military dictatorship of General Museveni.

“This is not just a story for Uganda, it is a narrative for all those who struggle under dictatorial regimes,” the synopsis reads.

Wine is no stranger to the silver screen, having starred in such movies as Yogera, Situka, and Divizionz, as well as his own reality TV show, also named The Ghetto President. But this time, he’s the subject.

“I was lucky that I had friends that enabled me to film this,” Wine says. “The world will see what we’ve survived and what the people of Uganda are enduring under the military dictatorship of General Museveni.”

Filming was marred by violence from the security forces.

Two cameramen – Briton Sam Benstead and Italian Michele Sibiloni – quit before Bwayo took over. Authorities interfered on set, arresting Bwayo and charging him with “unlawful assembly” and accusing him of subverting the Ugandan government.

Bwayo and his wife are now seeking asylum in the US after receiving multiple threats.

“Moses was brought as a camera guy,” Wine says. “But because he was hanging around us all the time, we ended up becoming friends and sharing so many deep conversations.”

Art imitates life

The singer and the politician are two sides of the same coin, sharing similar hopes and fears but using different outlets to get his message across.

Wine’s latest music video, ‘Tujune’ (“redeem us” in Luganda), addresses structural governance issues in Africa while conveying a sense of vulnerability through its visuals and lyrics. Wine appears distraught and dispossessed, praying God to give him strength.

Last year’s ‘Ogenda’ (“you’re going”), a revolutionary song denouncing the Museveni regime’s atrocities, has a quite distinct vibe. Here the artist is more explicit in his use of violent images, standing strong against oppression.

“Fighting a dictator in Africa means you’re fighting every institution,” Wine says. “In Uganda, fighting Museveni means you are up against the bank of Uganda, the national military, the courts, the parliament and every other institution.”

Still, he remains defiant. Last year, he boldly stated that the country’s powerful religious leaders were partaking in a systemic cycle of injustice by continuing to support Museveni.

“Regardless of how much ammunition and resource the wrong has, wrong can never be stronger than the truth,” he says. “Women were up against a system built by men, but women eventually won. Colonialism, apartheid, and all these operative evil systems have been defeated. Therefore, dictatorship will be defeated too.”

Power to the people

Seven out of 10 Africans say they prefer democracy over any other form of government. True to his democratic aspirations for the continent, Wine had just returned from an election observation mission in Kenya with the Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank, when I talked to him.

In Nairobi, he met with former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Wine describes the election as “largely peaceful,” even as Raila is disputing his loss to Deputy President William Ruto in the courts.

Wine’s Kenyan experience was a far cry from last January’s poll in Uganda, when the government cracked down on the opposition and shut down the internet on the eve of the election. In Kenya, radio stations and TV channels continued to operate, the military stayed home, and voters were largely left alone.

“It was amazing. According to the standards of Uganda, it was as if it’s not an election day in Kenya”, Wine says.

“Without a doubt, one day [Uganda] will get there,” he adds hopefully. “Kenya has not always been like that.”

Indeed, President Arap Moi’s 24 years in power were characterised by an autocratic leadership that purported to espouse egalitarian principles, erecting a Potemkin Village democracy. Likewise, Museveni’s 36 years in office have showcased a narrative built around a rule of law fiction and a democratic façade.

Wine blames western democracies that Africans look up to for participating in the charade.

“They should say what they mean, and mean what they say,” he says of the West. “If it is those values of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law that bring us together, then they should be seen to uphold those values. Let them not be partners in crime. Let them stop sponsoring our oppression”.

The Ghetto President film makes the same case.

“Those who oppose them quickly discover that Western democracies have interests that do not extend to holding autocrats to account,” its synopsis reads. “This story has never been so relevant.”

Wine also has choice words for western – particularly US – admonitions for Africa to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I don’t want to be asked whether I support Russia or America. Nobody has that right to ask me,” he says. “I just want to be asked as a human being, whether I support right or wrong.”

“In this case, Russia happens to be wrong and Ukraine happens to be right,” he adds. “Nobody chooses enemies for me. I choose my enemies, and my enemies are those that stand against the right.”

Fighting on

Back in Uganda, Museveni is grooming his son, land forces commander Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to take over the presidential throne.

Meanwhile, Wine’s supporters in California held a protest against the president and his human rights abuses. “People Power, Our Power,” they chanted at the top of their lungs.

I ask Wine about his seemingly undying commitment to the cause, and what it means to stick to an ideal through threats, harassment and torture.

“It means everything to me,” he says. “It means freedom, it means life. Our entire generation has been denied a life and has been denied a chance to shape its destiny.”

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