‘Let them own their country’

Liam Taylor on the popstar politician taking on a ‘horrifying’ election battle in Uganda.

Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as the popstar Bobi Wine, speaks during a rally in Hoima in the west of Uganda. OPA IMAGES/SIPA USA/PA IMAGES
Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as the popstar Bobi Wine, speaks during a rally in Hoima in the west of Uganda. OPA IMAGES/SIPA USA/PA IMAGES

What’s it like running for president of Uganda? ‘Horrifying,’ says Bobi Wine. The popstar-turned-politician has been riding a wave of popular support since he embarked on his bid to dislodge Yoweri Museveni, the ruling strongman who has held power since 1986. Wine’s popularity has got him in a lot of trouble. ‘I’ve been more or less declared a public enemy,’ he says. ‘In Uganda it is the biggest crime to stand up against injustice.’

Wine – real name, Robert Kyagulanyi – spoke to New Internationalist before setting out on the campaign trail. A lot has happened since. In November, on the day he handed in his nomination papers, police harassed him, smashing his car window and dragging him away from his supporters.

Two weeks later, as he met voters in eastern Uganda, he was arrested for violating Covid-19 restrictions, sparking protests across the country.

Soldiers and police filled the streets, firing teargas and live ammunition (the president said that 54 people died, but the true number was almost certainly higher). It was the most significant unrest for a decade, with more tensions expected ahead of polling day on 14 January.

Repression is par for the course in Uganda. Museveni, a former rebel involved in toppling Idi Amin and Milton Obote, fought his way to power and has ruled with a tight grip ever since.

In the last four elections his main rival has been Kizza Besigye, another old soldier, who has been repeatedly teargassed and arrested on dubious charges. But Besigye is sitting this one out, dismissing the whole process as hopelessly unfair.

Wine has inherited much of Besigye’s support, but he also brings something new. At 38, he is half Museveni’s age. His star swagger and message of change endear him to young people, already familiar with his songs. A generational chasm runs through national politics: half of all Ugandans are under 16, making it the second-youngest population in the world.

Frustration runs highest in the growing cities, where Museveni’s free-market policies have failed to create enough jobs. Wine was raised in Kamwokya, a poor neighbourhood in the capital Kampala. He styles himself as ‘the ghetto president’ and his songs – about slum clearances, corruption, and the plight of street traders – expose a widening class divide.

‘Bobi Wine has captured the public imagination,’ says Su Muhereza, a political analyst. But it will be almost impossible for him to win an election, she adds. ‘The security forces seem to be quite focused on making sure they squash any growing popularity that he has.’ In fact, on 1 December, Wine suspended campaigning for one day due to the violence against him and his supporters.

The real challenge that he presents is not at the ballot box, but on the streets.

‘This is no ordinary election,’ the singer says, calling on his supporters to come out and ‘defend’ the votes that they cast. Opposition politicians have tried and failed to ignite an uprising in the past; the odds are that Wine will fail too. But he has a surge of young people behind him. ‘Let them own their country,’ he concludes. ‘Let them think for themselves.’