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For a man just freed after a two-day-stay in prison, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, was in robust form when we met in the headquarters of the National Unity Platform (NUP) in Kampala. The musician-turned-politician’s decision to run for the presidency in the elections on 14 January 2021 has been one of those life-changing decisions.
“No amount of arrest, torture or pepper-spraying will stop us. Why can’t President [Yoweri] Museveni realise that we are not going to give up,” says Bobi Wine, when asked if he is afraid of returning to the campaign trail. “I have been brutalised before. I have been arrested countless times, but I will keep pushing for what I believe is right,” he adds.
Even before Bobi Wine, who is 38, had announced he was running in 2021, he had been tortured and beaten multiple times as one of the new cohort of young and outspoken opposition members of parliament (MPs).
His driver Yasin Kawuma was shot dead by police in Arua town in August 2018. Wine says the bullets were meant for him. State security officers claimed that Wine and his supporters had been planning to attack the convoy of President Museveni, who was due to fly into town on the same day.
Since then, Wine has stayed in the crosshairs of Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation, tasked by Museveni with counter-intelligence and surveillance of the opposition. The most serious clash this year came on 18 November after Wine’s arrest in Luuka, east of Kampala, for holding a rally in breach of coronavirus pandemic regulations. Candidates are meant to limit rallies to 200 people.
When Wine’s supporters went onto the streets across Kampala and other cities to protest, army and police officers, and some men in plain clothes, opened fire. After two days of clashes, 54 people lay dead. Some of them were workers or students caught up in events, their relatives say.
Police spokesman Fred Enanga said in a statement: “The violent demonstrators set up illegal roadblocks and burnt tyres, violently attacked law enforcement personnel in the city centre.” He added that police had arrested “hooligans” for looting, vandalism and robbery.
More trouble ahead
Rights activists are calling for an independent investigation into what was Uganda’s most serious political clash in a decade. But many expect more trouble ahead of what is likely to be one of the toughest election campaigns for years as the economy reels from the effects of the pandemic and slowdown in regional trade.
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That was Wine’s second arrest since he was nominated to run for president, and one of many he has endured since 2017, when he won a seat in a by-election to become an MP on the ticket of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Very quickly, Wine’s appeal to Uganda’s youth became clear and he switched to being an independent, espousing the idea of ‘people power’. Suspecting he would be blocked from registering a party, especially under the ‘people power’ rubric, Wine took over an already registered party, the NUP, in July. Within weeks, 21 MPs joined its ranks: 16 from the opposition Democratic Party, two from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and three independents.
A barrage of blocking tactics
Wine’s arrest in November did not come as a surprise and he insists it was nothing to do with public health regulations. “When they blocked me from holding concerts, there was no Covid-19. When they blocked me from carrying out nationwide consultations, there was no Covid-19. When we embarked on the campaigns, we were already expecting these interruptions. But we shall not be intimidated by them,” says Wine.
The following week, Wine was campaigning in Kayunga district, north-west of Kampala, when his music producer Daniel Oyerwot was hit in the mouth with a rubber bullet in more clashes between his supporters and security forces. After that, Wine was driving on to another campaign site in Jinja, east of the capital, when security forces blocked his car, shooting and blowing out its tyres. He then temporarily suspended his campaign in early December to raise the issue of state violence with the National Electoral Commission.
The ruling party uses all manner of tactics to block and disrupt opposition campaigns, says Wine. Anything from organising police roadblocks to ordering hoteliers in the hinterland to deny accommodation to Wine and his team. “We all know how President Museveni treats his opponents, so these arrests are something we shall always face as long as we continue to oppose him,” Wine adds.
When Museveni came to power in 1986, after leading a guerrilla struggle against Milton Obote’s military-backed regime, he was just 41 and was as radical as Wine is today. Then Museveni, an avowed Marxist after studying at Dar es Salaam University in the 1960s, announced that “the government should not be the master but the servant of the people”. He added that a big problem for Africa was those leaders who overstayed in power.
Initially, Museveni was wildly popular, seen as one of a new generation of leaders remaking Africa. Then the promises parted company with the reality of rule by Museveni’s NRM (National Resistance Movement). Dissenters within the party began to accuse the government of corruption, nepotism and patronage politics.
One of the most battle-hardened challengers to Museveni’s presidency has been his former personal physician, Colonel (retired) Kizza Besigye, under the banner of the opposition FDC. Detained, beaten and pepper-sprayed in the eyes, Besigye has run against Museveni in four elections. He got 34% of the votes in the 2016 election against what he said was Museveni’s fraudulent victory.
Some of Besigye’s support had dissipated after a split in the FDC. And Besigye, who is on good terms with Wine, decided not to stand in the 2021 elections but has joined the FDC’s new presidential candidate, Patrick Amuriat on the campaign trail. Given Besigye’s close ties with Museveni and the NRM, his candidacy looked more like a dispute within the ruling elite, buttressed by party defectors. Wine’s challenge is a different matter. One Kampala journalist described it as “the children of the revolution” taking on their parents.
“Museveni has never had a challenge similar to the one before him right now,” argues Wine. “There is a whole generation of citizens that is hungry and angry. That generation is yearning for change and I am here to deliver it.”
Rural youth – the crucial factor
Wine has amassed a large following among Uganda’s urban poor and the young people, who account for about two-thirds of the 17.2 million registered voters. But those young people are far from being a homogenous group, according to a political analyst in Kampala. “The concerns of young people with smartphones in Kampala are quite different from those 300km away in the countryside where life is much more precarious. […] They are going to be much more susceptible to pressure or inducements from the ruling party.”
Seeing the threat from new parties, the NRM has worked hard to woo the youth in the countryside, expanding patronage in return for party loyalty through its Youth League. Under the village council system, the party and state are fused together at local level, which could give the NRM more than two million votes through those structures.
Before turning to politics, Wine had made a name for himself through his music, which he was using to rally support for social change. “I have been communicating to the people of Uganda through my music for the last 20 years,” he explains. Importantly, in electoral terms, he has been using his music to appeal to youths outside the cities, trying to bring the urban and rural youth together in his ‘people power’ movement.
That may be why the government started banning his concerts last year as their political power became clearer. “Now, I am only making a non-violent call to action. Young people have been excluded for a long time and denied rights that are rightfully theirs. That’s why our support base is largely the young people who are keen to see change and live in a Uganda that works for them.”
Music has the message
Wine sings about issues such as poverty, injustice, corruption and human rights, which resonate with the young, unemployed and disenchanted – all those who feel excluded from the economic progress that the country has registered in recent years. “The government has failed to account for the 35 years they have been in power. Young people have no access to decent jobs because of corruption and nepotism,” Wine says.
In one of his songs, ‘Freedom’, Wine called on citizens to resist amendments to the constitution that led to the removal of the age limit of 75 and paved the way for Museveni to contest the elections in 2021 and beyond.
Known to his fans as the ‘Ghetto President’, Wine rose to fame from the slums of Kamwokya, where he moved with his mother when his father went into exile, the family having lost everything in a historic political struggle. With his wife Barbara and their four children, Wine still lives in Kamwokya, where people greet him in the streets as “my president”.
At first he was a local legend, but now Wine’s message has gone national and international. “We want the voice of the people of Uganda to reign supreme, to be exalted. My hope is to have a Uganda that is free, united and offers equal opportunity to its citizens,” he says.
Despite all this, Wine is aware of the hurdles that he faces. Museveni has access to the state media, which he uses to label the opposition as criminals backed by foreign powers. He touts recent oil deals that could boost the economy and programmes to help smallholder farmers. “Few of us can conceive that the current head of the electoral commission will pronounce a name other than Yoweri Museveni as winner of the presidential elections in January,” an analyst comments.
Some sense a new desperation by the authorities, which could intensify if the opposition parties unite on a common platform – an alliance that Wine has been trying to organise. “Ugandans are going to speak and they are going to speak loudly,” he predicts. “This is a national cause where citizens are aspiring for a new Uganda. We have already told our supporters to come out in big numbers to vote.”
Whether or not there are sufficient votes in the ballot boxes come January, Wine’s lead and his youth-oriented campaign has already changed the face of Uganda’s politics.
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