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Uganda: How Bobi Wine wields his network against President Museveni

By Musinguzi Blanshe, Romain Gras
Posted on Wednesday, 12 May 2021 17:02

Arriving second in Uganda's 2021 presidential election, Robert Kyagulanyi (known as Bobi Wine) intends to capitalise on his reputation to continue to push President Yoweri Museveni, who was sworn in on 12 May for a sixth term. But who keeps the fierce opponent motivated? We have a look at his broad network.

“Our best guarantee of security are the cameras that surround us. If I had not been filmed, perhaps something worse would have happened to me.” On 7 January 2021, Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, struggled to come to his senses.

Heavily heckled by the police and violently extracted from his vehicle while in the middle of a virtual press conference, the 39-year-old opponent tightened the knot of his red tie that was sticking out of his bullet-proof vest and readjusted his Kevlar helmet, before finally resuming the question-and-answer game.

The scene is undoubtedly familiar to him. It is in any case the image of this presidential campaign during which the singer-turned-opponent in 2017 will have been at the centre of all attention.

Unsurprisingly defeated by Yoweri Museveni, who was seeking his sixth term in office since coming to power in 1986, the leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP) has nonetheless been at the forefront of the political and media scene.

Close collaborators, close family, an influential ‘lobbyist’, international lawyers, or fellow African oppositionists… Four years after his election as a member of parliament, Bobi Wine can count on a vast network to extend his influence well beyond Uganda.

Lewis Davis Rubongoya

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Lewis Davis Rubongoya is the Secretary General of the NUP and thus the de facto number two in the party. Rubongoya is in daily contact with Bobi Wine. He drafts the statements of the leading opponent, who in turn, comes to Rubongoya for discussions on strategy.

This duo bonded in 2016. At the time, Bobi Wine was finishing law school at Cavendish University in Uganda. His professor at the time was none other than Rubongoya.

Rubongoya is also the party’s financial director, a position about which he is more discreet, even though the NUP has received significant financial donations from abroad.

Joel Ssenyonyi

Joel Ssenyonyi is the NUP’s spokesperson and member of parliament for the city of Kampala. He left his position as a journalist at NTV in early 2019 to become a spokesperson for People Power, Bobi Wine’s movement.

The face of the party in the media, he is one of those driving Bobi Wine’s communication strategy on the ground.

Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu, ‘Chairman’

Bobi Wine’s older brother is also the NUP’s mobilisation secretary. When the singer entered politics in 2017, Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu became one of his key advisors. He and Rubongoya are the only two people who were involved with Bobi Wine, then leader of the People Power movement, when he was negotiating the acquisition of a political formation – the National Unity, Reconciliation and Development Party – which was later renamed the National Unity Platform in early 2020.

Bobi Wine chose to make this purchase after the state failed to register his “People Power” slogan as a political party. Fred Nyanzi Ssentamu is a very powerful figure in the opposition’s entourage and has a lot of influence in choosing candidates for parliamentary positions.

Barbara Itungo Kyagulanyi

She is the wife of Bobi Wine. They have been a couple for over two decades and have four children. Already by his side at the beginning of his career in the music industry, she has been one of his main supporters since he entered politics in 2017. In fact, she was on the front lines during the presidential campaign, often accompanying her husband on the road despite the almost constant tension in the run-up to the vote.

Barbara Itungo Kyagulanyi, aka “Barbie,” is from western Uganda while Bobi Wine is from Buganda, which is an electoral asset. According to a source close to the opponent, although she has no official role with him, she often advises him in the background on his political choices and has real influence within the party. According to the same source, she “helped him build his stature as an opponent.” She can also serve as an intermediary to access Bobi Wine.

Jeffrey Smith

He is one of the opposition’s international assets. Patron of Vanguard Africa, a non-profit organisation founded in 2016 that focuses on good governance issues and supports many opponents on the continent (Tundu Lissu in Tanzania or Maurice Kamto in Cameroon), Jeffrey Smith got to know Bobi Wine in 2017, exchanging with him on Twitter.

The two men then got closer during the convalescence that Bobi Wine spent in the United States in September 2018 after being tortured in detention. The opponent had, on that occasion, increased his interviews in the American media.

According to the pro bono representation agreement signed a few months later, in December 2018, between Vanguard Africa and the Ugandan opponent, the organisation’s mission is to connect Bobi Wine “with US government officials and decision-makers” and to “ensure the necessary media opportunities.” During the last presidential election, Jeffrey Smith organised several virtual conferences of Bobi Wine before the international press to denounce the repression of the regime.

While Yoweri Museveni and Bobi Wine are battling for influence across the Atlantic, the United States, one of Uganda’s major donors, announced on 16 April that it was putting in place sanctions against certain officials accused of having “undermined the democratic process during the last election. Museveni was quick to retaliate. On 26 April, the Ugandan government signed a lobbying contract with the firm Mercury Public Affairs.

Bruce Afran

An American law professor and lawyer, he was very present with Bobi Wine during the last presidential campaign, virtually attending some of the press conferences.

He was also responsible for filing the opposition’s complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in January against Museveni, his security minister, Elly Tumwine, and eight other Ugandan officials for human rights violations. The case is still under investigation.

On 26 April, Bruce Afran filed a second complaint, this time against General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, commander of the Ugandan army’s special forces and son of Yoweri Museveni.

Robert Amsterdam

Even if he is less involved in the procedures launched by Bobi Wine, the 65-year-old Canadian lawyer, remains an asset. Based in Washington, the experienced lawyer has been at the side of the Ugandan MP since 2018 during his convalescence in the United States. He remain in regular communication with Wine.

In addition, he is the legal representative for Maurice Kamto, leader of the Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon, and Tundu Lissu, leader of the Chadema party, in Tanzania.

Mmusi Maimane

The 40-year-old former head of South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is also a regular contact for Bobi Wine. The two opponents met in December 2019, during the Ugandan MP’s tour of South Africa. They spoke at a conference of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, a German structure that awards an annual “African Freedom Prize.”

Wine and Maimane received the award in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The foundation headed by former German federal minister Karl-Heinz Paqué facilitated the meeting of the two opponents.

Nelson Chamisa

Patron of the MDC-Alliance, the Zimbabwean opponent, who came second in the 2018 presidential election behind Emmerson Mnangagwa, is also a figure in Bobi Wine’s network on the continent.

In May 2019, at the invitation of the former candidate for the supreme magistracy, Bobi Wine had traveled to Gweru, in central Zimbabwe, to support Nelson Chamisa in his quest for re-election as leader of his party.

Julius Malema

The two men met during a visit by Bobi Wine to South Africa in December 2019. During the last presidential election in Uganda, the Economic Freedom Fighter boss publicly supported the singer.

With other opponents such as the South African Mmusi Maimane or the Tanzanian Zitto Kabwe, they gathered in an informal platform called “Young African Leaders” whose members exchange mainly on Whatsapp.

Babu Owino

The 31-year-old Kenyan MP and secretary general of the Kenya Young Parliamentarians Association has supported the Ugandan opponent for several years. The two men began talking after their respective elections in 2017.

Their first face-to-face meeting took place a year later, in October 2018. Having just returned from his recovery in the United States, Wine had visited Kenya at the invitation of Owino, with whom he had held two rallies.

Tundu Lissu

An opponent of President John Magufuli and unsuccessful candidate in the last presidential election in Tanzania in October 2020, Tundu Lissu is, like Bobi Wine, linked to the organisation Vanguard Africa, headed by Jeffrey Smith. He is also defended by the Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam.

Tundu Lissu went into exile after his defeat in the election and now lives in Belgium, where he regularly participates in webinars of the Resistance Bureau, a discussion forum that brings together several African opponents, including Bobi Wine.

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