Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine, who raised himself from the ghetto to become one of the most famous pop stars in Uganda, has emerged as the most powerful opposition to President Yoweri Museveni’s 32-year grip on the country. Epajjar Ojulu charts the unlikely story of the singer-turned-politician.
When pop star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known by his stage name of Bobi Wine, secured an unexpected landslide victory in a parliamentary by-election last year, few people could have suspected that he would stir political waters countrywide.
As soon as he was sworn in to represent Kyadondo East constituency in central Uganda, Bobi Wine led protests against the plan to amend the constitution to remove the presidential age limit of 75 years to pave the way for President Yoweri Museveni to stand for president in 2021. Wine also
led the protests against social media tax.
At 36 years old, the pint-sized Wine was only four when President Yoweri Museveni stormed to power in 1986. Yet his growing political influence is posing a greater threat to Museveni’s 32-year grip on power than that of Dr Kizza Besigye, his erstwhile physician, who has unsuccessfully contested against him three times.
The inability of the opposition to wrest power from Museveni has left some Ugandans convinced that Museveni is invincible. Indeed, supporters of the President echo that belief. Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo says Wine’s current political storm is ‘a mere passing whirlwind’. Ofwono Opondo and his ilk represent a segment of entrenched loyalties the President has built in his three-and-a-half-decade grip on power.
Nevertheless, what is not in dispute is the fact that the political storm created by Wine is unprecedented. On his first shot at a parliamentary seat in a by-election, Wine was shunned by the political party he supported, the Forum for Democratic Change of Dr Besigye, which fielded another person to be the party’s flag bearer.
Wine stood as an independent, stunning all and sundry with his landslide victory. Since then some opposition politicians have realised that Wine is a crowd-puller. Over 10 opposition members of parliament have joined Wine’s ‘People Power’ movement, which has enabled some of them to win parliamentary seats in newly- created constituencies.
After a recent string of losses to the Wine-backed opposition, Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement Party could not stand losing the North Western Arua Municipality constituency, whose former MP, Colonel Ibrahim Abiriga, a staunch Museveni supporter, was murdered by the notorious ‘City motor-bike’ gunmen.
During the campaign for the Arua Municipality seat, Wine electrified crowds with a message denouncing Museveni’s government as a failed state. He pointed at the growing unemployment, corruption and the worsening social services, and urged the youth to rise up to ‘regain their country’. Judging from the crowds that turned up for the rallies and the general atmosphere there, it was clear that the candidate backed by Wine, Kassiano Wadri, was headed for a landslide victory.
On the final campaign day, Wine, Wadri and other opposition politicians were arrested on the accusation of being part of the group that had allegedly pelted the presidential motorcade, shattering the rear indicator of one of the 50-vehicle convoy.
Wine and the opposition supporters deny the allegations, arguing that the alleged incident was stage-managed to justify the Museveni crackdown on the opposition, in retaliation for the humiliating impending defeat at the ballot box.
Plot to kill Wine?
In what the opposition alleged was a plan to kill Wine, his driver was gunned down inside his car, parked at a hotel in Arua town. Wine posted a Facebook message that night, claiming his driver’s killers mistook him for Wine.
The army, however, deny they killed the driver. The hotel owner told the media that security forces smashed the hotel doors to enter the hotel, where they smoked out Wine, who was hiding in the hotel ceiling.
Unlike the 32 other politicians and their supporters detained that night, Wine was held by the military, who he alleges tortured him to near-death. President Museveni denied that the army tortured him.
When national and international pressure mounted on the authorities to produce him in court or free him, five days later, Wine was arraigned before a Court Martial in the northern city of Gulu on charges of unlawful possession of guns and ammunition.
His lawyers and fellow legislators, Medard Ssegona and Asuman Basalirwa, told the media after the Court Martial hearing that Wine had been almost been crippled by the torture he suffered in detention. They said he could not stand and since he had wounds all over his body, he could not walk or talk coherently. They said he hardly understood what transpired in court. His wife and family were barred from the court. The government has not contradicted the lawyer’s account on the health of the legislator.
When Wine was again produced before the Court Martial a week later, charges of illegal possession of a gun were dropped but he was re-arrested on treason charges to be heard before the High Court. Walking with the help of crutches, he appeared to be in a better state than when he first appeared before the Court Martial.
Three days later, Wine was granted bail by the High Court. Standing outside the court with the help of clutches, he raised his right fist as a sign of defiance to thunderous applause from hundreds of his supporters, who chanted “people power”.
Lessons from the ghetto
The country’s political opposition seems to be galvanising around Wine. He has garnered his skills as an actor, a musician and orator to deliver his message of change to the country’s unemployed youth and other Ugandans disgruntled about the continuing corruption, insecurity and income disparities.
He has called on the youth, who represent 80% of the population below 35 years, to wrest ‘their’ country from what he describes as the failed leadership. For a man who grew up in the Kampala slums of Kamwokya, and beat the odds to shoot to prominence as a top artist, entrepreneur, farmer and philanthropist, his message strikes a chord with the youth.
“Growing up in a ghetto seems to have hardened him into a person difficult to subjugate,’’ says Dan Kisense, head of Makerere University’s department of Music, Dance and Drama, where Wine studied, and one of his former lecturers. “He was always focused on whatever he set out to do. At the time he joined university he had 80 high-breed pigs and paid university dues himself. He is a workaholic,’’ Kisense adds.
Wine is said to be among the richest by Uganda standards, with some sources putting his fortune at Ush40bn (approximately $1.2m). Much of his wealth comes from his multi-sector activities in business, real estate and music.
After his alleged torture, Wine was granted bail and permission to leave the country for medical treatment in the US. There he gave an exclusive interview to Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallachar in Washington DC.
Walking with the aid of a stick, he came across as well-balanced and highly articulate. He told Gallachar that the alleged assault had been carried out by a section of the military called the Special Forces Command, tasked with guarding the President and led by his son.
The beating and the international attention it had gained had raised Wine’s profile and his supporters would now be looking to him for leadership, suggested Gallachar.
Wine responded, “We have always wanted a free Uganda, but that freedom should not come at the cost of torture, or murder or illegal executions. It should be got free because our generation feels that the price has already been paid.
“For President Museveni to come to power, we lost half a million people in what he said was a liberation. Now that liberation does not make sense to us because we are met with brutal force every time we raise our voices, every time we seek for the changes that we know we constitutionally deserve.”
He went on to say that today, Uganda was split between the oppressors and the oppressed. “Many people are oppressed, regardless of their political parties, tribes or religions. When I entered politics, I looked at not the divisions we were having but the plight that we all shared together.” He added that the desire of the oppressed was to redeem themselves. “I know we are being joined by people across the political parties,” he said, too, because even those belonging to the ruling party were being oppressed.
Gallachar asked Wine about his meeting with people in the US and why he wanted it to stop giving the Ugandan military some $800m per year in aid. Wine thanked the US and other developing partners for helping the country in its fight against HIV and support for education, “but it is important for the US tax-payer to know that much of the military aid we get is actually used to oppress and brutalise the citizens of Uganda. The gun that killed my driver and could have probably killed me is an American gun.
“The US should be standing with the oppressed and not the oppressor. They should be standing with the people of Uganda and [not] simply with the President. It is dangerous to be dealing with an individual because what happens when that individual goes? It should be a relationship between Uganda and the US, not Museveni and the US.”
It remains to be seen whether Wine will withstand the trials and tribulations of leading the political opposition against Museveni’s 32- year grip on power. What is clear, though, is that Wine and his young supporters have more years to pursue their political dream while Museveni, at 74 years, has fewer years to defend his continued grip on power. NA