The Ugandan singer who could radically change his country

Bobi Wine is using his celebrity to shake up Uganda’s politics, despite violent reprisals

Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as pop star Bobi Wine, speaks to people at Kibera slum in Nairobi,  Kenya. Photograph: Biko Macoins/AFP/Getty Images

Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as pop star Bobi Wine, speaks to people at Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Biko Macoins/AFP/Getty Images

 

In the Kampala slum where he grew up, Robert Kyagulanyi is king.

Walking the streets of the poor Kamwokya neighbourhood, the member of parliament greets residents with an embrace and a wide smile. Even at night in the poorly lit shanty town, he is instantly recognised by everyone. But this is no ordinary politician.

Better known by his stage name Bobi Wine, the 36-year-old activist and singer is Uganda’s most famous musician, becoming an MP only last year. And he is using his celebrity to shake up the country’s politics for the first time in a generation.

“The status quo needs to be disrupted,” Wine said in an interview earlier this month from the backseat of a Toyota Land Cruiser on the way to a recording studio, after a day spent strategising with Uganda’s opposition leaders. “We need a total overhaul of the system.”

Wine was thrust into the international spotlight in August when he was detained and severely beaten by Ugandan security forces after campaigning for another independent candidate in a byelection. His car driver was killed in the incident.

He was released following an outcry and allowed to seek treatment in the US. The violent incident propelled Wine to the forefront of Uganda’s growing opposition movement and made him an international star of a new youth-led drive for greater democracy in Africa.

“They beat me so hard they thought I’d died,” Wine said of the assault. “They cursed me because I’m an ordinary ghetto youth who thought he could unseat the president.”

Dissatisfaction

First through his music and now through his politics, Wine has given a voice to the millions of young Ugandans dissatisfied with life under longtime president Yoweri Museveni.

In power since 1986, Mr Museveni has brought relative stability to the landlocked east African nation. But this has come at the expense of genuine democratic competition. Over the years he has tightened control on all aspects of Uganda’s political life. Last year an age limit on presidential candidates was removed, allowing Mr Museveni to rule until 2034 – when he will be 92.

“The country has sunk into a one-man rule. And if that’s not annoying enough there’s been serious isolation, especially of the young,” Wine said. Uganda has the world’s second-youngest population. About three-quarters of people are under the age of 30, and Mr Museveni’s government has struggled to deliver the jobs, opportunities and progress they are demanding.

“The country is split between the oppressors and oppressed, between the haves and the have-nots, the high class and the low class,” Wine said. He continued: “This struggle is not limited to Uganda. It’s a struggle for all people, especially young people and particularly in Africa.”

Politics is in Wine’s blood. His father and grandfather were both active in Uganda’s independence movement and the struggles that followed. But by the time he came of age, any wealth the family had was gone. “My mother told us to stay away from politics. She said it was because of politics that we’d lost all we had,” he said.

Yet growing up in Kamwokya, he was moved by the problems faced by ordinary Ugandans. This filtered through to his music, which was inspired by other politically aware African artists such as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. “I saw the need to sing about HIV/Aids, about sanitation, about social empowerment,” Wine said.

In a 2014 track entitled Time Bomb, he sang: “Freedom comes to those who fight.”

However, the outspoken reggae star’s record is not beyond reproach. He was once denied a UK visa after he backed Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act and wrote lyrics that campaigners said incited homophobic violence. He has since renounced those views.

Spooked

The rise of Wine and his youthful supporters has spooked Mr Museveni, according to diplomats in Kampala. An experienced political operator, the president has always stayed several steps ahead of his opponents, regularly reshuffling his cabinet and allowing the opposition just enough space to be relevant but not enough to win power.

Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, at a presentation at the PAWA 254 offices in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, at a presentation at the PAWA 254 offices in Nairobi, Kenya. Photograph: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

However, the attack and detention of Wine during what was a comparatively inconsequential byelection was a misstep that has stirred up domestic opposition and strained the president’s historically close relations with western governments.

As he attempts to regain the initiative, Mr Museveni last month conducted an unexpected tour of Wine’s Kamwokya neighbourhood along with other members of the ruling party and security detail, doling out money to slum residents.

For Wine, such tactics will not work. The money belonged to the people anyway, he said. “What the young people need – what the ghetto people need – are [political] systems that make sense for them,” he explained. “What they need is dignity, not handouts.”

For the moment, Wine says he is not planning to run for the presidency in 2021. Nor is he going to join one of Uganda’s existing opposition parties, despite overtures from leaders hoping to benefit from his star power. “The solution to Uganda’s problem is not joining or forming another political party. It’s asserting the power of the people, across all the parties,” Wine said.

He plans to work with all those who want change and is staging a concert at Kampala’s national stadium on November 9th that he said would be “the biggest show in Uganda’s history”. That is, if the concert is allowed to go ahead.

“They’ve blocked my shows before, claiming they allow Bobi Wine to perform but they don’t allow the honourable Kyagulanyi,” he joked. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

Background - Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine

Born

February 12th, 1982, in Kampala, Uganda

Music

Began his recording career in 1999 under the stage name Bobi Wine. Named artist of the year at Uganda’s Pearl of Africa Music Awards in 2006.

Politics

Elected to parliament in late 2017 after winning 78 per cent of the vote. Later that year he released a track called Freedom attacking proposed changes to Uganda’s constitution.

Detained and badly beaten by security forces in August 2018 and charged with inciting violence. Returned to Uganda the following month and pledged to work for political change.

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