January 14, 2021

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.