Crooning to a catchy afrobeat melody, Ugandan musician-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine used his hit song “Dembe” or Peace, released just before the country’s 2016 elections, to call for a smooth transfer of power. “We have been at war since independence,” he sang, “governments change through war, and every government wants to go through war.”
Wine, who was born Robert Kyagulanyi, implored his countrymen to do things differently; to cast their ballots and to refrain from violence.
This message fell on deaf ears. A month after “Dembe” first blared from radios across this east African nation of 44 million, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni claimed a landslide victory. While opposition challenger Kizza Besigye languished under house arrest for some 40 days, two people died in protests over a vote marred by allegations of rigging.
Nonetheless, Wine continued to believe in the messages of his “Dembe” anthem and the possibility of change brought about through the ballot box. In 2017, he won a seat in parliament. Two years later, buoyed by a wave of youthful optimism, he announced he would run for president and put an end to Museveni’s more than three-decade-long rule, promising to be Uganda’s first democratically elected President.
“On behalf of the people of Uganda, I am challenging [Museveni] to a free and fair election,” Wine said in an address to supporters at the time. “Our people are united by pain. Our people are united by the challenges they go through every day. I am personally ready and willing to lead you in the struggle.”
Despite these high hopes, Wine’s presidential ambitions ended in January with the candidate and his wife under de-facto house arrest, scores of people dead and the Internet shut off across the country, as Museveni clinched his sixth term in power.
Now Wine is challenging that election result in court.
The Ghetto President
Born to a struggling nurse, Wine, 38, was just four-years-old when Museveni overthrew President Tito Okello in the guerilla war that brought him to power. Wine came of age on the hard-scrabble streets of Kamwokya, a slum in Kampala, the capital, where people often make a living selling fruit at the roadside and doing other informal jobs.
In a country where the average age is 17 and more than 75 percent of the people are under the age of 30, Wine rocketed to fame as a dreadlocked rapper, calling himself the “Ghetto President,” and singing about romance and money. But his songs quickly turned more political. In a style dubbed “edutainment,” he decried ills ranging from poor sanitation in Kampala to government corruption.
President Museveni is a shrewd political operator who has long curried favors with western governments and receives some $970 million from the U.S. annually.
It was these songs that helped carry him to the legislature in 2017. Declaring he would “bring the ghetto to parliament” Wine beat opponents including a more established opposition candidate, and a member of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), winning a seat in the Kyadondo East constituency on the outskirts of Kampala.
A fresh leader with an inspiring background, he posed a distinct threat to the ruling party.
“He’d risen from the ghetto and gone through all the hardships of a typical youth here in Kampala; the slum life, the poverty, the unemployment [and] somehow he had made it on his own,” Michael Mutyaba, a political commentator and writer in Uganda told the Indypendent, adding that Wine had “electrified the population.”
A Formidable New Challenge
Wine cemented his status as a rising political star by stumping for other opposition candidates. It was while both Museveni and Wine were in the northwestern town of Arua for one such by-election that opposition supporters were accused of throwing rocks at the Presidential motorcade. In the ensuing chaos Wine’s driver Yasin Kuwuma was killed with a bullet that Wine says was meant for him.
Wine was subsequently arrested, charged with treason and allegedly tortured. Museveni bluntly dismissed these claims, but the young lawmaker was so badly injured that he struggled to walk without support and fled briefly to the United States for treatment.
The clampdown on Wine in Arua was perhaps a miscalculation by Museveni, a shrewd political operator who has long curried favors with western governments and receives some $970 million from the U.S. annually, according to the State Department’s website. This money supports Uganda’s military, as well as education, health and agriculture programs.
Superstars like Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin signed a petition demanding Wine’s release from detention. While recovering in Washington, Wine met with politicians and gave lengthy interviews. He returned to Kampala a hero. When Wine announced he would run for president, analysts declared he presented the most formidable challenge to Museveni yet.
A Blood-Soaked Campaign
Even if violence helped fuel Wine’s popularity, it has not stopped the government from targeting the opposition leader, who fronts the National Unity Platform (NUP). Attacks renewed as soon as the campaign period started, and Wine was dragged from his car and pepper sprayed while delivering his nomination papers to Uganda’s Electoral Commission in early November.
Later that month at least 54 people were killed demanding Wine’s release after he was jailed for allegedly defying COVID-19 protocols at a rally in eastern Uganda. “Having that number killed in just two days prior to elections was terrible,” said Roland Ebole, a researcher with Amnesty International.
Weeks afterwards, police fired bullets directly at the windshield of Wine’s car, in what he described as another assassination attempt. Journalists covering the opposition were also attacked, and Wine’s 24-year-old bodyguard Francis Sentenza was killed after reportedly being run over by a police vehicle, a charge that security forces deny.
Many of the problems Wine sings about are shared, on a continent that has the world’s youngest population, presided over by some of its oldest leaders.
By late December, some 100 members of Wine’s campaign team had been arrested. Wine himself took to wearing a flak vest and ballistic helmet on the campaign trail, as if to symbolize the danger he was in, and sent his four young children out of the country for protection.
Meanwhile, an internet blackout, beginning the day before elections, cut the country off from the outside world. Ugandans went to the polls on Jan. 14 in total darkness, as armed security forces surrounded Wine’s home, trapping him inside with his wife Barbie Itungo Kyagulanyi.
Museveni then announced another victory with some 58% of the vote, to a nation that had been stunned into silence. The opposition cried foul.
The Future is Uncertain
Wine was freed from house arrest late last month following an 11-day detention. On Monday his lawyers officially delivered a petition to overturn the election results to Uganda’s Supreme Court, supported by others in the political opposition. Petitioners claim that the election was neither free nor fair, as required by Uganda’s constitution. They’ve alleged various forms of voter fraud, and accused the ruling NRM of repeatedly using violence to block Wine’s campaign.
As Uganda’s opposition prepares for this legal challenge, Wine’s message has reverberated beyond the country’s borders.
“When young people look at Bobi Wine and Uganda they are not necessarily seeing Bobi Wine or Uganda. They are seeing their own local heroes,” said Chris Mukasa, a Nairobi based poet, who runs the community organization and youth forum Fatuma’s Voice.
Many of the problems Wine sings about are shared, on a continent that has the world’s youngest population, presided over by some of its oldest leaders. “Young people are frustrated. Not only in Uganda, not only in Kenya but across the African Continent,” said Sam Soko, director of Softie the Film, which charts the political journey of Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi.
“We are tired of unemployment, we are tired of poverty, we are tired of dreams that have not been fulfilled,” Soko, who made his documentary free to view in Uganda ahead of election day, added.
These frustrations are not going away, but Wine’s chances of success in court are dubious. Museveni’s NRM have stated that they are prepared to defend their candidate’s victory. And Museveni has denounced fraud accusations, calling this year’s elections “the most cheating free” in Uganda’s history.
Opposition candidates also went to court to challenge the election verdict in 2016, 2006 and 2001, respectively. Each time, judges found irregularities, but failed to nullify the results.
Museveni is one of the longest ruling Presidents on the African continent. Another term would hand him a total of 40 years in office.
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