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When Pop Goes Political: Ugandan Singer Bobi Wine Challenges an Entrenched Regime

After a long day of campaigning and a celebratory evening tea, Ugandan musician Bobi Wine was climbing the stairs to his room in the Pacific Hotel of Arua, a city in northern Uganda, when he heard one of his drivers calling him back to the parking lot. When he returned to his car, Bobi Wine found his other driver, Yasin Kawuma, dead. He believes Kawuma was shot by soldiers from the Ugandan army.

“Those bullets were meant for me,” Bobi Wine told me.

Uganda’s armed forces do not typically target musicians. Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu—better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine—is one of East Africa’s most beloved pop singers, and since 2017, he also has been an elected member of parliament. Nicknamed “the ghetto president,” Bobi Wine has done more than most to provoke the wrath of his country’s authoritarian regime, using his star power to help stir anti-government sentiment. The day his driver was killed, August 13, 2018, was voting day in Arua, where Bobi Wine had been campaigning for his friend Kassiano Wadri in a parliamentary by-election.

Wadri won, defeating Nusura Tiperu of President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM). Within 24 hours, Bobi Wine’s driver was dead, and Bobi Wine himself was detained on dubious charges of illegal firearm possession.

Bobi Wine alleges that police officers tortured him in jail, jabbing his ankles with pistol butts, pulling his ears with pliers, injecting him with unknown fluids, and hitting his back and genitals with objects he was unable to identify. “I groaned in pain and they ordered me to stop making noise for them,” Bobi Wine wrote in a Facebook post. “They forced my head below the car seat so as to stop me from shouting.”

After ten days, Bobi Wine was brought before a judge in Gulu, a city in northern Uganda, and the charges against him were dropped. In court, Bobi Wine broke down in tears.

Yet, as he staggered down the courthouse steps, leaning heavily on his crutches and assisted by a crowd of men, he received word—broadcast live on television—that he was being rearrested, now for treason against the state. Police officers promptly whisked him away to another prison.

This time, the Ugandan youth, Bobi Wine’s most fervent fan base, had enough. Protests broke out in many of the country’s biggest cities. In response, Uganda’s elite army unit, the Special Forces Command (SFC), was deployed in Kampala, and snipers roamed the city, according to news reports.

“All the police stations, they are having more guys, and their armored cars are out,” said “Kato,” a Kampala resident and Bobi Wine supporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. In some cases, protesters met tear gas and live ammunition. At least six have been killed, and many more have been injured.

***

Clashes between civilians and state security forces are not common in Uganda, but they have become a feature of the dogged political battles fought in Uganda over the last 30 years. Since seizing power in 1986, Yoweri Museveni has held a firm grip on authority. For almost two decades, opposition parties were effectively banned, and a series of constitutional amendments has allowed Museveni to remain in office well beyond his original term limits. The latest was the removal of the presidential age limit: Museveni, 74, is now eligible to run in the 2021 presidential elections. He is currently in the thirty-second year of his presidency.

Political opposition to Museveni has existed in Uganda for most of his rule, and Bobi Wine is not the first government critic to reportedly face torture. But Bobi Wine’s enormous popularity among Uganda’s youth poses a new and powerful threat to the regime. Uganda’s population is among the youngest in the world: according to the United Nations Population Fund, almost four in five Ugandans are younger than 30 years old. In recent years, widespread corruption and high youth unemployment rates—estimated to be 80 percent by the International Youth Foundation—have spurred young Ugandans to protest. “[Bobi Wine] stands for the young person,” Kato said. “He was never just the regular artist making the music that we enjoy at the bar.”

In 2014, Bobi Wine, still only a musician, recorded a song to warn his government that it was sitting on a “Time Bomb” called youth.

We are sitting on a time bomb / This time bomb wants to explode / When it goes off / Don’t say you didn’t see it coming,” he sang in the Luganda language.

When Bobi Wine decided to run for public office three years later, he had grown tired of waiting for the time bomb to blow. And this August, when protests broke out after his detention, Bobi Wine may have lit the fuse.

***

Despite his musical and political stardom, Bobi Wine manages to remain accessible and eager to meet with youth. Case in point: I wrote to Robert Amsterdam, Bobi Wine’s lawyer, asking if it would be possible to arrange an interview with him. Bobi Wine has been swarmed by big-time media after his high-profile imprisonment and torture, so I thought my chance of getting an interview was close to zero.

After two hours, a reply popped up. “Done,” Amsterdam wrote. Three days later, I was on the phone with Bobi Wine.

“I grew up knowing Museveni as a liberator,” Bobi Wine said. “As a teenager, I admired Museveni so much.” He grew up in the slums of Kamwookya, one of Kampala’s poorest neighborhoods, and he was only four when Museveni deposed the previous dictator in 1986. Like many other Ugandans, as a child he fostered a deep admiration for the man who brought lasting peace to large parts of the country. This admiration lasted until his early adulthood, when Bobi Wine began to find musical success in Uganda.

In 2005, Bobi Wine recorded his first political hit. The song, “Ghetto,” criticized the government for prioritizing the comfort of foreign leaders at a 2007 Commonwealth conference over the well-being of its own citizens. “Ghetto” was quickly adopted as a theme for the opposition’s election campaign.

“He’s been a leader and mentor through his music before becoming a political figure,” Kato said. “He helped young people get educated through something they love.”

Bobi Wine has stayed close to his roots—insisting on keeping his recording studio in the slum where he grew up—but he eventually felt he had to do more for Ugandans who were less fortunate. “I decided to run for [political] office after realizing that music wasn’t enough to make a change,” Bobi Wine told me. In April 2017, Bobi Wine announced his candidacy in a by-election for the parliamentary seat of Kyadondo East, a county in Kampala. His vision appealed to the disenfranchised: “Since Parliament has failed to come to the ghetto,” Bobi Wine announced during his campaign, “then we shall bring the ghetto to Parliament.”

The regime seemed to recognize immediately the political threat that Bobi Wine posed. Museveni personally visited the NRM candidate Sitenda Sebalu’s rallies, making promise after promise of improved access to education and basic services—if Sebalu won. Security forces arrested Bobi Wine just before he was supposed to hold one of his own rallies. On election day, some newspapers reported that there appeared to be more police and soldiers than voters present at the Kyadondo East polling stations. Still, Bobi Wine won 80 percent of the vote, sweeping aside Sebalu and three other rivals.

After his win, Bobi Wine journeyed to various parts of the country to campaign for candidates he supported, all of whom were government critics. All four candidates that Bobi Wine campaigned for won their constituencies’ elections, often by wide margins. It may be his strike rate as a kingmaker that has alarmed the government.

Bobi Wine was playing a key role in rapidly replacing establishment politicians with opposition allies—and he knows he could be made to pay with his life.

***

The ruthless treatment of Bobi Wine follows a well-established pattern of Museveni’s reign. Kizza Besigye, the longtime face of the opposition, said at a rally in 2015 that he had been arrested and jailed 43 times since the 2011 general election.

“What Bobi Wine has gone through, Besigye has gone through many times over,” Charles Odoobo Bichachi, former editor-in-chief at Kampala’s Daily Monitor newspaper, told me. Besigye is now partially blind due to the brutality involved in his forceful arrests.

The state also has a long history of hostility toward protests. In 1993, a few members of Uganda’s Democratic Party (DP) formed an offshoot party and organized a public rally to protest a ban on political activity.

Although the group posed little real threat to his authority, Museveni made a statement in parliament before the protest, according to Agence France Presse: “I have told police to stop gatherings using force,” Museveni said. “Tell supporters that they will be killed if they attend political rallies.”

On the day of the 1993 rally, tanks and helicopters patrolled Kampala, even though the organizers had called off the protests to prevent a tragedy.

“He fights tomorrow’s battle today,” Bichachi said of Museveni. The regime is not one to wait until a situation spirals out of control, and the heavy-handed crackdown on Bobi Wine and his supporters may be better read as an attempt to nip an escalating situation in the bud rather than as an act of desperation.

Still, Bobi Wine’s political ascent arrives at a moment when the government seems to be losing its total grip on power. “[Museveni’s] legitimacy rested on the fact that he restored stability and personal security,” said Bichachi, recalling that the current president’s rise marked the end of once-widespread violence in most parts of the country.

But recent years have seen a security crisis marked by a drastic rise in high-profile murders. The Arua by-election was called after former Member of Parliament Ibrahim Abiriga was shot dead in a still-unresolved case. Most recently, a tied-up dead body was dumped from a speeding car in broad daylight in a densely populated Kampala neighborhood, just hours after Museveni delivered a national address stressing the government’s efforts to curb violence in urban areas.

According to Bichachi, these killings do not bear the hallmarks of a “government job.” But since 2012, few perpetrators of violent murders have been brought to justice.

“The murders seem like an attempt to show that Museveni can no longer assure security,” Bichachi speculated.

In the face of the security crisis, Museveni’s actions have only grown more frantic. On September 9, he ordered 24,000 army reserves to be deployed throughout Kampala as Local Defence Units (LDUs).

He expects the plan to cost around 57 billion Ugandan shillings (roughly 15 million dollars) but said it was “no problem,” despite Uganda not having fully recovered from an economic downturn.

“We shall see which guns have more effect,” Museveni remarked during his address to the nation on September 9. Many of the LDUs will be stationed in areas with strong support for Bobi Wine.

***

After almost three weeks in prison, Bobi Wine was released on bail. As soon as he could, he flew to the U.S. to seek medical attention. He told me that he feared doctors in Uganda would be bought or coerced into harming him, and that he had received numerous tests to ensure that he was not injected with poison while in prison.

But Bobi Wine acknowledged that he had other reasons to come to the U.S. “I have been coming here for many years,” he said. “I always use it as a chance to speak to [Uganda’s] development partners and talk about how they are contributing to the situation in Uganda.” He met with American politicians and civil servants, including Representative Bradley Sherman (D-CA), and asked them to pressure the U.S. government to end military aid to Uganda.

The Ugandan SFC that Bobi Wine claims tortured him has close ties to the U.S. An elite military unit responsible for on-the-ground combat in Somalia, the SFC has received American training and equipment worth millions of dollars.

Less than a year after the Ugandan mission in Somalia began, Museveni appointed his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba as the SFC commander. Some of these troops have been assigned directly to Museveni’s presidential guard to follow his personal orders. Many Ugandans believe that they were behind both the violence in Arua and the bloody response to the more recent protests.

We want the American taxpayer to know that the American taxpayer is funding this,”  said Bobi Wine’s international lawyer Robert Amsterdam at a September 6 news conference in Washington. “The military equipment we are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens.”

Bobi Wine’s decision to seek treatment in the U.S. has been politically risky. Following Western countries’ condemnation of Uganda’s domestically popular anti-gay bill, the Ugandan government has encouraged anti-Western sentiment and derided opponents as puppets of Western organizations.

“[Going to the U.S.] works for and against him,” said Bichachi. “It has worked for him to give him an international platform to articulate his political beliefs. However, it has also portrayed him as a front for the West. That will not help him politically here.” Bichachi added, “If he is seen to be pampered by the West, it will undermine his chances at home.”

***

A few weeks before his flight back to Uganda, I asked Bobi Wine what he planned to do upon returning. His answer was fearful: “What happens after I return is not in my control.”

The possibility that he could be taken back to prison immediately seemed very real. “Yesterday [Bobi Wine and I] were talking about his return and how we can protect him from any attempt by the government,” Norbert Mao, leader of the Democratic Party and Bobi Wine’s acquaintance, told me a few days before Bobi Wine left the U.S.

As he feared, Bobi Wine says he was confronted by Ugandan security personnel as soon as his plane touched down in Entebbe on Thursday, September 20. According to his account, police charged into the plane, grabbed him, and shepherded him into one of 14 vehicles that would take him to a then-undisclosed location. Along the Entebbe-Kampala road, soldiers invaded trading centers, beating up shopkeepers and customers to clear the area for the vehicles to pass. For hours, reports circulated that Bobi Wine had been taken back to prison. But later in the day, Kampala’s police spokesperson denied the reports, stating that Bobi Wine had simply been “peacefully escorted by the police to his residence.”

The big question for Bobi Wine is whether he will challenge Museveni for the presidency in 2021. In interviews with Al Jazeera and the BBC, Bobi Wine has avoided answering questions about his ambitions, saying that his only concern is to empower leadership that responds to the people. “The next step is to inspire the Ugandan people to speak up and fight for freedom in their country,” he told me.

But his political allies are less equivocal. “Actually, our plan is that we should start pushing this government out now,” said DP President Norbert Mao.

“[Museveni] has been here for thirty-something years,” Kato said. “He has done some good stuff that I don’t want to ignore. But you don’t want to only look at the few things we have done well. This guy came into power by the gun, so I don’t think somebody can just change. He has failed to have a fair, civil conversation.”

Many of Kampala’s youth would agree, and the opposition is looking to harness this energy.

“We definitely have got to confront the regime,” Mao told me. “The people cannot wait for a timetable prescribed by Museveni.”