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Bobi Wine and the battle for Uganda Campaigning in a bulletproof vest, he speaks to young Africans' fierce desire for change

Robert Kyagulanyi, AKA Bobi Wine. Credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/ Getty

Robert Kyagulanyi, AKA Bobi Wine. Credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/ Getty


January 14, 2021   6 mins

It seems strange to think that when Yoweri Museveni grabbed control of Uganda 35 years ago, he was seen as a symbol of welcome winds of change sweeping Africa. He was the charismatic outsider who launched a bush war after rigged elections, then took power and pledged to unleash a brave new era. He was popular in his own country with promises of stability, viewed as a threat to the despotic old guard of leaders across the continent with talk of “true” democracy, and feted in the West as a harbinger of progress despite seizing power down the barrel of his guns.

Now Uganda is desperate for a fresh start. Once described by Winston Churchill as “a garden of sunshine and deadly nightshade”, the country’s hopes and optimism at independence curdled under the cruel regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. So Museveni found fertile ground when he spoke at his inauguration in January 1986 about the need for “fundamental change” and how sovereign power must lie with the people rather than parasitic elites. “We have had one group getting rid of another one, only for it to turn out to be worse than the group it displaced,” he said.

The new president embraced market reforms, sparking a surge in growth and fall in poverty rates, then wrote a book asking What is Africa’s Problem? He answered his own riddle by saying “the problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power”. He took this message to neighbours such as Kenya, where he smiled impishly and repeated his incendiary suggestion in front of Daniel arap Moi to the joy of crowds frustrated by their own thuggish and thieving president. Yet at least Moi had the sense to stand down after 24 years of catastrophic rule, transforming himself into an elder statesman.

Today, Museveni is 76 years old, still on his gilded throne and resisting removal. His east African country is suffering under the rigid grip of his ruthless cronies as they milk the state coffers, desperately trying to whip up support with spurious claims of foreigners and homosexuals threatening society. His savage security forces beat, torture and kill his foes. And as he seeks a sixth term in office at today’s election, having bribed his supporters in parliament to overturn age and term limits, this president stands before his people as a symbol of the corrosive leadership issue that he so accurately diagnosed at the start of his rule.

This time the main rival is not his former doctor, who challenged him at the last presidential election in 2016, but another rebellious younger man who symbolises a pent-up desire for change, freedom and real democracy. Bobi Wine, the self-styled ghetto president who was just four years old when Museveni took office, is a pop star who has shown immense bravery in face of assassination attempts, beatings, detention, harassment and slaughter of supporters. He campaigns in a bulletproof vest, wears a helmet and fears for his family, who have been sent abroad for safety. He offers little more than a new start for Uganda, travelling light on policy. But that is more than enough for many citizens in a country with mass youth unemployment and a median age of 17.

Wine, 38, was born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu and grew up in a sprawling slum. He is an unlikely figure to be threatening such a wily political operator as Museveni as he attempts to leverage pop stardom into power. His mother, a nurse, warned him not to enter politics after her husband, a vet, was forced into exile under Obote. Instead, he went into music, picking his stage name in homage to Bob Marley and the idea that — like a good vintage — he grows better with age. He became a big star with a fusion of dancehall reggae, hip hop and a local Afrobeat style. Seven years ago he was banned from Britain over homophobic lyrics, although has since recanted and reportedly won over many in Uganda’s LGBT community.

Gradually his songs became more socially conscious and his passion for politics grew, seeing the chance to provide a voice for the impoverished masses being let down by their elderly leaders. Wine told Rolling Stone that the 2016 election was a turning point when he saw other singers paid to perform a song in praise of Museveni, but he rejected a substantial offer of cash and decided to take on the regime. “I realised nobody’s going to save us. We have to do it on our own. I knew it’d be much more effective if I didn’t only explain, I demonstrated. So I decided to run for office,” he told the magazine. “And, man, it opened a huge can of worms.”

So he shaved off his dreadlocks, donned sharp suits and became an MP in 2017 by a landslide, arguing that he was providing a voice for younger generations at the helm of the People Power Movement. “Our weapons are our words and our ideas, not arms of destruction and violence,” he said — yet the response has been brutal. Wine has been arrested repeatedly, badly tortured, stopped from performing and seen his driver shot dead as a warning to back down. Latterly, Covid has been used as an excuse to block rallies. The risks of challenging Museveni are clear: Kizza Besigye, the physician who stood against Museveni in previous elections, was charged with rape, treason, jailed and forced into temporary exile. Others simply disappear. “Why did such a prized revolutionary decide to become one of the world’s most despised dictators?” asked Wine in a BBC interview.

Wine is not the first African pop star to run for president; Youssou N’Dour tried to win power in Senegal nine years ago before ending up as culture minister. Yet this struggle still has huge significance with a campaign cheered on beyond Uganda’s borders. “To me, he represents the spirit of Africa’s future,” said Wole Soyinka, the Nobel-winning playwright and a former political prisoner in Nigeria. Like many others, this grand old man of letters sees the contest as a crucial moment for Africa. Wine represents those younger generations who comprise the bulk of citizens in a rapidly-changing continent who are being failed by self-serving older leaders, frustrated by sluggish development and infuriated by grotesque corruption.

No doubt Museveni will rig the ballot again if needed. But as Ugandan voters go to the polls, Wine’s friends fear for his life. One just texted me to tell how the firm that installed the candidate’s home security system and guarded the house in Kampala for the past 12 years had suddenly turned up uninvited to remove it. Election observers from Europe and the United States are being denied access. Social media has been blocked, the internet slowed down. Troops are out in force in the urban areas that provide bedrock of his support. A tense country is steeled for this electoral struggle of cultures and generations, a clash between the impoverished streets and wealthy elites, a contest between those seeking change and those fearing more instability in a nation scarred by past turbulence. “It feels as though the country is at war,” said one prominent human rights lawyer.

Yet Wine presents a challenge also to the complacency of nations such as Britain and the US, which proclaim democracy while ignoring blatant human rights abuses, pandering to elites and pouring aid into their bulging pockets. Museveni has played this game skilfully as he exploited conflict, refugees and the “War on terror” to keep funds flowing from naive paymasters abroad. “I’ve been working as a public health consultant on and off in Uganda for 20 years, a period when development agencies such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development spent $20 billion on aid projects in the country,” wrote Professor Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books, explaining how she “looked on with dismay as the budgets of many of these projects were looted, elections were rigged, and innocent people who tried to draw attention to this were intimidated or worse”.

Such practises entrench inequality and stymie development — yet Britain’s aid agency in the past held up Uganda as proof that their policies promote democracy. Meanwhile Museveni’s forces have aided the bloodstained regime of his former spy chief Paul Kagame in Rwanda and pillaged the Democratic Republic of Congo with devastating consequences. He bought a private jet and was found to have ordered six Russian fighter aircraft at twice the market rate without parliamentary approval. Three years ago, I carried out an investigation in Uganda reaching into the highest levels of government that exposed rampant corruption, theft of aid, manipulation of statistics and sexual abuse of refugees. A United Nations review later confirmed dodgy land deals, lack of invoicing, overpayments, expense fiddles and untraceable workers.

Small wonder that polls show such fervent desire in the African nations still trapped under autocrats for fairer elections and greater freedoms. Whatever the result, Wine deserves great praise for his courage in drawing attention to the fierce desire for change among younger generations who deserve more from their venal leaders and festering regimes. “The people of Africa, the people of Uganda, are entitled to democratic government. It is not a favour from any government,” said Museveni in his inaugural speech all those years ago. “The government should not be the master, but the servant of the people.” Such fine words. How sad he ended up one of those ossified old men desperately clinging to power that he so despised.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I must have read this article 500 times over the last 40 years. It is only the names that change.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

there is an irony here in how a nation like Uganda has a yearning for freedom while parts of the West work feverishly toward establishing far more intrusive and controlling govts. I guess when you have the luxury of hand-wringing over first-world problems, you also lack the self-awareness to realize the pettiness of the debate.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
3 years ago

Yet another worthy piece of journalist spiel telling us about African nations burdened with corrupt leaders and their cronies.

But wait(!) we are told. A new young leader rises up among the common people. He promises hope and change. A better future for Africa is possible if only the people have the courage to reach out and grasp it!

Haven’t we seen it all before? The new revolutionary, usually drawn from the creative classes, full of romantic vision and humanitarian ideals ““ always plays well with the Western MSM.

Yet, if he wins, who will administer his brave new nation? Will they be any less self-serving and corruption prone than the bunch who were ousted? What of the people themselves ““ do they long for a strongman to lead them because democracy is just so much talk.

Perhaps corrupt oppressive cronyism is the default mode of African politics ““ the only type of government that can actually survive.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

If cronyism is the default mode of African politics, that would be extremely depressing. Actually, I don’t see much difference between the instincts of Western politicians and African. I would like to think that individuals within our institutions such as media, judiciary, police, armed forces etc. and the general lack of respect for politicians (ironically) make the worst symptoms impossible, but nevertheless, signs of reluctance to leave office still appear from time to time (Trump 2021, Brown 2010), and also that the people who run these institutions are steadily becoming less apolitical with each passing year (Maitlis, Bercow, Byrne).
However, as far as I am aware, Botswana has avoided these kinds of problems, so there is hope that they don’t have to be the default mode.

Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Sorry Colin, but Botswana a tiny African country has less than 1.8 million people and is not wracked with Tribalism because beside for a small population of white people it has only one tribe, the Swana.

Not many African countries have this hegemony, maybe because of the colonial borders, they are always bereft with a major tribe of 45 – 65 % and a minority tribe or tribes, some have 20 tribes fighting over resources. Unlike the story book blm Wakanda version of history none of these tribes ever really got on and only stopped killing each other because they had to get rid of the colonialists, once the colonialists were gone they went back to hating each other and fighting over resources..

Yip the main problem with Africa is multiculturalism, where politicians use different tribes to get different emotional affects and then use them against each other, this is why these dictators can continually keep their office, unlike Europe (which seems hell bent on importing tribalism back), Africans have never gotten over tribalism and except for the 150 or so years Europeans broke up the party they have never lived in anything but a Feudal society with a king or a dictator..

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Not a very convincing political equation Mr Elliot!

Trump 2021, Brown 2010 and (for those old enough to remember) Heath 1974 hanging on to office a few days longer than was decent.

Do you really think that kind of sulky behaviour is equivalent to the brutal grip on power exercised by the likes of:
“Âą Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe)
“Âą Idi Amin (Uganda)
“Âą Milton Obote (Uganda)
“Âą Jean-Bedel (Emperor) Bokassa (Central African Republic)
“Âą Charles Taylor (Liberia)
“Âą Jean Kambanda (Rwanda)
“Âą Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir (Sudan)
Not to mention all those who had a vested interest in keeping those monsters in power. An obvious point I know, but no dictator rules a nation single-handed.

But hey, let’s not be complacent! Without our trusty MSM to keep Western politicians in check ““ well who knows what savagery they might indulge in.

By the way, Botwana’s economic boom is founded on mineral wealth. I’m no economist but that does suggest a vulnerablility to sudden changes in worldwide demand. A major slump could see a reversion to default mode. Like the man said: “It’s the economy, stupid”.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Kiran Grimm

Indeed-and by all means do not bring up: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran-one must focus on the dangerous British and Americans.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

The issue is tribalism not cronyism. We need to understand how Africa works at a village level before we impose western democratic expectations. Uganda never asked for democracy. They had a system of government that worked well for them. Village elders, regional elders tribal chiefs etc. Outside of Kampala much of this system still exists and works well. land disputes etc are sorted out at a local level using systems that have served Uganda well from before the colonial days. We have now tried to impose western democracy over the top of this.

The reason why Botswana works well is that the democratic process there simply affirms the pre-existing tribal structure with a hereditary king who has become an elected hereditary president.

David McKee
David McKee
3 years ago

Of course, it’s all the fault of colonialism. Britain departed the scene nearly sixty years ago, but to guilt-ridden liberals in the West, that is irrelevant. It cannot possibly be the fault of Africans themselves.

But then, savvy Africans like Museveni knew exactly what to do and say to get these silly Westerners to give them oodles of free money. Everyone a winner… apart from the Western taxpayers, and the ordinary Africans. But then, who cares about them?

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago

Uganda – what a country, I love it. Full of huge potential and great resources but lacks good government. Of course Museveni has stayed too long but a big problem with Uganda politics is tribalism – regime change brings change of management all the way down the civil service to benefit the tribal heritage of the new leader. This happened under Obote 1 and 2, Amin, and Museveni.

I question how far Museveni has had to rig previous elections, I think the ordinary people fear regime change more than they fear another term from Museveni and have voted for a status quo they know and have come to live with.

For a Msungu I have had the privilege of getting to know Uganda reasonably well, sitting with old men under an equatorial sunset talking about the old days is a wonderful privilege but the stories are harrowing. Executions, wide scale government backed cattle theft, subtle government backing (turning a blind eye) to the Lords Resistance Army etc. Regime change always brings bloodshed is their experience. For over 3 decades Museveni with all his many faults has at least protected them from what they fear the most.

angelalangat
angelalangat
3 years ago

I think that Western commentators underestimate the appeal of dictators whether it be in Rwanda, Belarus or China. Most of the people the article quotes as supporting Bobi Wine cannot vote in Ugandan elections. It is possible that majority of Ugandans are pleased with the status quo.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  angelalangat

I’m getting more concerned about the number of Western commentators who envy the appeal of dictators. These are people who have run cover for the likes of Castro and Chavez, who wear Lenin and Che t-shirts, and perpetually drone on about revolution

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago

For the record, the UK taxpayer spent £96.3 million in Uganda in 2017. The main resistance to this has come not because the democracy in that country is faulty, but because it discriminates against LGBT.

Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels
3 years ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Funny isn’t it, the white mans burden knows no end.. well I guess once the UK gets to 40% BAME you can tell all these 3rd world hell holes that you don’t owe them anything, of course by then you will have the same tribalism problems they do..

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

Shocking, voter fraud ,Intimidation,Vote harvesting ,bribes, Could not happen in USA? or uk ,Peterborough,birmingham etc..

Mark Lilly
Mark Lilly
3 years ago

So, two fanatically homophobic rivals do battle in Africa for possession of the loot; what’s new?

beniamino.rsa
beniamino.rsa
3 years ago

Yes, all the trappings have yet to play out for pretender’s to the throne – but by this stage many Ugandans seem happy to roll the dice. Trading a successful music career for this perilous mess points towards some form of principle underpinning Bobi’s actions (?) and I’d be happier to go with that, in his defence, although the likelihood of some meaningful outcome short term appears so unlikely