On Thursday, the people of Uganda will cast their ballots in that country's 2021 presidential election. The incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, is aiming to secure a record sixth term in office.
In this impoverished African nation, where the propriety of presidential elections is held in such low regard that international election monitoring bodies no longer send observers, the 76-year-old president-for-life’s re-election should be a foregone conclusion.
But there is one major difference this time around. No, it isn’t Covid-19, though the pandemic has affected Uganda for sure. There have been lockdowns and school closures – though fewer deaths than elsewhere. This is partly because of the other quality that sets Uganda apart: the youthful profile of its citizens.
The sub-Saharan republic is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Its current population of 44 million people is almost triple what it was when Museveni assumed the presidency in 1986.
A former guerrilla fighter, Museveni swept to power in the aftermath of the turbulent regimes of Idi Amin and his successor Milton Abote, promising peace, stability and economic growth. And, for a time, he appeared to deliver on some of those promises. But what early progress Museveni made has long since been overshadowed by allegations of widespread corruption and personal enrichment by his extended family and his associates.
Today, more than 75 per cent of Ugandan citizens are under 30. Two-thirds of young adults are unemployed. The prevailing feeling in Uganda is that he has overstayed his welcome and that a generational change in leadership is overdue.
In Thursday’s election, Museveni will come up against something he hasn’t faced before: a young, charismatic opponent who seems capable of exploiting the widespread sense of anger and injustice felt by the country’s poorest and most marginalised citizens.
Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) is a 38-year-old reggae musician-turned-politician, who is Museveni's main rival in the ballot. As a recording artist, Wine first came to prominence in the late 1990s and quickly established himself as one of the country's most popular and well remunerated performers.
Wine's meteoric political rise has clearly rattled the authorities in Uganda
What marked him out from his rivals, and endeared him to his fanbase, was that he never attempted to disguise his ghetto roots. Indeed the downtrodden urban youth are the audience he still addresses most often in his songs.
His lyrics offer tips on things like personal hygiene, safe sex and how to start a successful small business. This novel approach is something he calls “edu-tainment”. When the pandemic came last year, he released a track titled simply Corona Virus:
"The bad news is that everyone is a potential victim
The good news is that everyone is a potential solution
Sensitize the masses to sanitise
Keep social distance and quarantine . . ."
A longstanding critic of the Museveni regime, in 2017 Wine contested a byelection for a seat in Uganda’s parliament, winning in a landslide. In office, he vociferously opposed Museveni’s attempt to rewrite the Ugandan constitution – extending the presidential term so that Museveni could stand for re-election in 2021.
The president prevailed in forcing the amendment through, thus setting the scene for this week’s election showdown. But the campaign against it gave birth to a bipartisan movement in which opponents of the proposed constitutional change made themselves known in public by wearing the colour red (of which more later).
Wine’s meteoric political rise has clearly rattled the authorities in Uganda. The police and military regularly use tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition to break up his campaign rallies. The tyres of his SUV have been shot out multiple times. His supporters have been arrested, beaten and shot.
In 2018, his driver was shot dead by police, in what the dead man’s family believe was a case of mistaken identity. (They believe his superstar boss was the real target.) Not long after that incident, Wine was flown to a US hospital to be treated for wounds he said were inflicted during detention by the security forces.
On December 27th, 2020 he briefly suspended his campaign after his security guard, Francis Senteza Kalibala, was killed in a confrontation with security forces.
A few days later, when he attended New Year's Day Mass at Lubaga cathedral in Kampala, rumours circulated that the Catholic Church intended to kill him using a poisoned communion wafer. This story gained such currency that the Archbishop of Kampala felt obliged to deny it from the pulpit.
“I am the one who wedded Bobi,”
said in his homily that day. “That means I have an attachment to him. Bobi loves his church and he should not be made to hate it just like that.”
In spite, or perhaps because of all of this, Bobi Wine is now regarded as the most popular public figure in Uganda. Across the African continent, moreover, he is seen as one of the leading lights in a wave of idealistic young activists that includes the anti-police corruption #EndSARS movement in Nigeria.
But, in what is likely to be a disputed election, does this young pretender have any realistic chance of unseating the wily incumbent? That, as the saying goes, would be an ecumenical matter.
I visited Bobi Wine’s family home outside Kampala shortly before the pandemic hit last year. There were about 20 security guards present, relaxing on the manicured lawn out the back. These were Bobi’s childhood friends from the Kamwookya slum in northeast Kampala: men he trusts to protect the lives of himself and his family.
The photographer and I both assumed that we would be searched at the gate on arrival. We weren’t. There were no guns visible anywhere on site. Decked out his trademark red beret, our host did a very convincing job of projecting calm and reassurance.
“Come in, come in,” he greeted us. “Meet my team. This is Jaya, this is Vince.” In that blissful pre-Covid era, we were all able to shake hands warmly and without hesitation. “Have some plantain,” Wine offered. “Have some boiled eggs. Everything is safe. If you want to use your cameras, feel free.”
Today 44 million Ugandans are ruled by one family. All of the power is in the hands of one family
The singer drew my attention to the ground beneath our feet; tens of thousands of fire ants were scurrying in lockstep across the pebbledash footpath. “You see this?” he asked. “Everyone pulling in the same direction? Do you have this in Ireland?”
Bobi Wine asked if it was my first time in Uganda. I told him it was my second visit. It’s a very beautiful country, I observed. “You see,” he replied. “This is why we need change now, because this beautiful country should be enjoyed by all Ugandans and not just members of one family.
“Today 44 million Ugandans are ruled by one family. All of the power is in the hands of one family. So even though all live in a beautiful country, they don’t live beautiful lives, because they don’t have opportunity.”
Wine talked about the top priorities Uganda needed urgently to address: establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights. Securing the country’s first ever peaceful transfer of power. He talked with passion about health, education, agriculture and rates of infant mortality.
As he spoke, I couldn’t help noticing in person that the man carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his back has surprisingly narrow shoulders. How is he so sure that he is the right person to deliver the change his country needs?
“It is for not me, as a person, to bring the change that the country needs,” he replied. “It is us as a generation. This has never, and will never, be about me as a person. It is about all of us. I’m only the face of this change, because when I speak, I get the support of all these people. But I am only a representative of them.”
Again and again, the conversation came back to his opponent. “Museveni has destroyed everything. Our taxes are collected. They are allocated to the departments that are supposed to offer services. But because everybody in a powerful position is connected to the president, either by blood or by marriage, these people have a licence to do corruption.
“He is indeed the fountain of all corruption. So once [his regime] ends, everybody responsible will be held accountable.”
Clearly, Bobi Wine was about to take on some very powerful vested interests. I pointed out that none of the security guards around him were armed. Didn’t he fear assassination? “There are threats against me, yes. I continually get information saying the regime has resolved to eliminate me and deal with the consequences.
“But no, I don’t have guns. Knowing that the truth is on our side, that God is on our side and the people are on our side . . . we fear no evil. So while I live every day as if it is my last day, I know that those who have guns are actually more scared than we that are armed only with the truth.”
The previous morning, the photographer and I had attended a Sunday service at the Jesus Worship Centre in Nateete, Kampala. When the service ended, a group of half a dozen or so young parishioners invited us to join them for coffee. These were bright, well-educated young people. For half an hour or so, they peppered us with questions about journalism and the media.
When one young man asked me what I was planning to do the next day, I told him we were meeting Bobi Wine. His eyes widened. He immediately asked if he could accompany us, acting as our assistant. I told him that I’d see what we could do, fully expecting that Wine’s security team would veto the suggestion. But they had no objection.
That's how Athuaire Gavin and I came to be sitting together on matching garden stools in Bobi Wine's back lawn next day, watching on as the Ugandan opposition leader sat down for an interview with a South African television news crew.
In interviews, Wine tends to frame his battle with Museveni in very stark, black and white terms. Perhaps conscious of the need to deliver 15 seconds for the TV news, he now seemed to rely even more on catchphrases and soundbites.
“The time for change is yesterday,” he told the news reporter. “All the problems of Uganda begin and end with Museveni.”
Only in his regime would one walk into public office and hear only one language
A few feet away, one of Wine’s young daughters sat playing video games on a smartphone. Gavin was able to identify each of the Wine children in succession as they appeared on the back porch. How did he know their names, I asked?
Gavin scoffed. Clearly, I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of Bobi Wine’s celebrity in Uganda. “He talks about them all the time, man! In his music and his concerts!”
When Gavin and Wine chatted later, however, I came to appreciate that Gavin was less of a wide-eyed devotee to the opposition leader’s cause than I had originally taken him for. In fact, he seemed genuinely apprehensive about the future of the country.
They spoke about tribalism in Uganda. Gavin expressed the fear that when the Museveni regime eventually fell, the opposition might turn on one another and things might be even worse than they currently were.
Wine appeared irritated at this suggestion. “That’s nonsense,” he said. “I think every tribal stereotype is nonsense. All of us are equal. All of us are equally gifted and, when presented with equal opportunities, all of us can be equally productive.
“It is President Museveni and his cronies who are tribalistic. Only in his regime would one walk into public office and hear only one language. Look at all the lucrative ministries. Look at the military. Look at the police.”
But Gavin persisted, telling a shocking story. Just three weeks earlier, his brother Yiga Ronald, a taxi driver, had been involved in a protest in a place called Kikyusa.
Apparently, government funds had for years been promised to carry out repairs on roads in the area. But the money had never materialised and several motorcycle taxi drivers had been involved in collisions trying to avoid potholes. So they staged a protest, blocking the road with rock and burning car tires to signal their displeasure.
Gavin’s brother hadn’t originally been involved in the protest, but when one of his fellow taxi drivers asked him to come out in support, he threw on a red T-shirt and headed down join his friends. A tense showdown with local police ensued.
“One police officer was pissed [angry]. They believe whoever has red colour is a supporter of Robert, aka Bobi Wine. They call them goons. So the police OC shot my brother three bullets in the stomach and he died.”
At the funeral, police fired tear gas to prevent any demonstration taking place and Gavin’s mother missed the burial of her son. “It is a bad memory for my family.”
Bobi Wine was sympathetic, but he held his ground. "It was the great Nelson Mandela who told us that in a struggle for freedom, it is not the oppressed that decides the move or the strategy. It is the oppressor. Even Museveni himself, when he was my age, was asked what to do to a government that has closed off all means of peaceful change? He said, you either resort to slavery or you fight back.
“Museveni is someone who’s always clung to power through rigged elections. Through intimidation, through extrajudicial executions and imprisonment of his opponents. We have studied how Museveni has manoeuvred for 34 years, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that we are ready to take him on using any legal and constitutional means at our disposal.
"Our generation is blessed in that we can fight back using different means. We've seen this before in Burkina Faso, in Algeria, in Sudan. The guitar is stronger than the gun. Lyrics are stronger than bullets. We will never give up on non-violent struggle."
This report was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.