Ugandan agitator Bobi Wine: ‘I am slowly losing the moral authority to hold back the proponents of violence’

Democracy advocate who ran for his country’s presidency in 2021 deplores developed countries’ ‘hypocrisy’

As an election observer in Kenya, Bobi Wine, the “ghetto president” who inspired a generation with his 2021 run for neighbouring Uganda’s presidency, says he has learned that “Kenya is farther from us democratically than we thought”.

“By this time in Uganda all the cities [would be] besieged by the military,” he says. “Here I don’t see the heavy military deployment ... Kenya is certainly not a perfect democracy. But it’s a democracy.”

The 40-year-old, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was in Nairobi as part of an election observation mission with the South Africa-based Brenthurst Foundation think tank. Counting of votes continued on Friday, three days after voters went to the polls to elect a successor to outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Sitting in the garden of an upmarket hotel, wearing his trademark red beret, Wine, a former pop star and head of the People Power movement, says he continues to speak out against Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni despite his electoral loss last year and “every effort [being made] to silence me”.

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The point of contesting elections in Uganda is “not just to secure a win, it is also to expose the holes and the inconsistencies and the hypocrisy. And by exposing it we are moving towards changing it”

—  Bobi Wine

Uganda’s hotly anticipated election in January 2021 saw the internet shut down for five days, while Wine was placed under house arrest. In the preceding months at least 54 people were shot and killed, while many of Wine’s team were detained.

Wine claims that detentions continue “every day” in Uganda and those picked up are “held in unknown places”. He says there are still 465 people missing that he knows of, and thousands in prison.

Still, Wine says he has no regrets about his actions during the election period, saying there was nothing he could have done better under the circumstances. “We did everything moral and legal that we could do,” he says.

The point of contesting elections in Uganda is “not just to secure a win, it is also to expose the holes and the inconsistencies and the hypocrisy. And by exposing it we are moving towards changing it.”

Anticipated mass protests did not take place after Wine’s loss last year (he says the loss was not legitimate and the vote was rigged). Killings had caused “a wave of fear”, while the detention of many of his party also stopped them from mobilising, says Wine. “As a leader I always try to protect my people as much as I can so I discouraged them from going into harm’s way.”

‘Tolerated’ dictators

He was also uncertain that protests would have an impact. “The reason why mass protests have not worked is because of the hypocrisy of the international community,” he says. “When people protest massively, and the international community stands on their side, there is change. When people protest, peacefully and massively, and the international community stands on the side of the tyrant, the people lose. That has been the case [in] Uganda and many other countries ... Dictators that are tolerated — and unfortunately funded and facilitated by the world’s biggest democracies — have kept their people under oppression for so long.”

Wine is critical of developed countries who work with the government of Uganda, an east African country of about 45 million people.

Museveni, who turns 78 next month, has been in power since 1986. Speculation is rife that his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba (48) is being lined up as his successor, though Museveni has not publicly confirmed this.

Uganda also went through one of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns, with schools shut for nearly two years and a curfew imposed in what critics said was a misuse of Covid-19 rules to control opposition and crush dissent

Wine says his current strategy is to continue “agitating” and “struggling” in any “moral” and “constitutional” way he can.

“I detest violence, because violence only begets violence. Violence does not offer any real change. I mean, we have had violent revolutions [in Uganda in the past] and they’ve not given us democracy. However, I am slowly losing the moral authority to hold back the proponents of violence ... because the democracy that I stand for has been undermined violently.”

Wine says young people in Uganda — one of the world’s youngest countries — are politically excluded and denied a voice, while facing a raft of problems, including high unemployment.

The situation has become worse in recent months, with the cost of fuel and everyday essentials surging. Uganda also went through one of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns, with schools shut for nearly two years and a curfew imposed in what critics said was a misuse of Covid-19 rules to control opposition and crush dissent.

Whoever is elected next Kenyan president, Wine also has words for them. “I would ask them not to put diplomacy above morality; values above democracy, above human rights. Many times, leaders have seen it more important to defend their counterparts. And that has unfortunately turned ... the east African community into a club of presidents where they will sit, wine and dine, on the blood of oppressed people.”