By Sophie Neiman
Uganda’s government is clamping down heavily on opposition figure Bobi Wine, but he and his supporters remain undeterred.
Outside of the Chief Magistrate Court in Kampala, crowds of young people decked in red berets and clothing sing and cheer. They came here to support Bobi Wine at his bail application hearing and are now jubilantly celebrating his release. Others race down the road to the popular singer’s home, fighting police tear gas on the way, to give him a hero’s welcome.
These scenes are evidence of how big a following Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi) has built up in Uganda today. Drawing on his rough upbringing in Kampala’s slums, the 37-year-old singer-turned-politician has styled himself as a warrior for ordinary people. His critiques of Uganda’s many ills in his speeches and songs have won him widespread support, particularly among a frustrated youth.
“Since he is from the ghetto, he knows what we want,” says Rahmah Lubowa Juma, a crimson red scarf – the colour of Wine’s People Power movement – covering her hair. “All the systems are rotten. We don’t have medicine in hospitals. Women die daily giving birth. All the services are for those who have money.”
Frank Lubega, another fan who came to support Wine, agrees. “He will do everything for us,” he says. “This Uganda will become a paradise.”
Despite just being released from maximum security prison, Wine is similarly adamant that Uganda needs radical change and that he will fight for it. “I’m standing up for my rights, but I find myself representing so many other people who share the same plight with me,” he told African Arguments. “I am desperate, just like all other young Ugandans who have worked so hard and have hoped for a better Uganda for so long only to realise that we are the only ones that can give ourselves the liberty that we want.”
A rapid ascent to power
Over the last few years, Wine’s outspokenness and popularity have become a thorn in the side of Uganda’s regime. In July 2017, the singer won a by-election to become the MP for Kyaddondo East. He has drawn enormous crowds for his concerts and in campaigning for other opposition candidates.
In response, the government of President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, has embarked on a campaign of repression against the young parliamentarian. In August 2018, security forces arrested and allegedly tortured Wine following a reported assassination attempt on him. In late-April 2019, the government arrested the MP again, accusing him of statutory disobedience during a protest against the social media tax last year.
His subsequent bail application was just the latest example of the state’s varied attempts to make life difficult for him. In the hearing, the opposition leader was only allowed to appear via video conference. According Nicholas Opiyo, a leading human rights lawyer who has provided counsel to Wine, this prevented the defendant from privately consulting his lawyers and violated his constitutional rights.
Wine was nonetheless released on a cash bail of USh 1 million ($265) after four hours of legal arguments. He will face charges later this month, but the integrity of the process remains unclear.
“The legal system has become a tool of the state, not a vanguard or a place for hope,” says Opiyo. “Legal processes, like all other processes, are incapable of restoring sanity in themselves.”
As well as targeting Wine, President Museveni’s government has also clamped down on opposition and dissent more broadly. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets against Wine’s supporters is part of a long-running trend. “What Bobi Wine is going through is not new,” says Seif Magango, East Africa Deputy Director for Amnesty International. “It has become a hallmark of Ugandan police treatment of its critics.”
One man, who has had more than his fair share of police brutality in Uganda, is Kizza Besigye. The 63-year-old has been Museveni’s most prominent opponent for decades, galvanising popular frustrations into huge protests. He has tried to defeat Museveni through the ballot box four times as leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), but at a recent rally in Kitgum, suggested a different approach. He called on his supporters to rise up like the protesters in Sudan rather than wait for the next elections in 2021.
Wine agrees that it is worth looking to Sudan, where enormous demonstrations led to President Omar al-Bashir’s removal last month.
“Any citizens’ uprising in any part of the world inspires people that share the same plight,” he says. “What has happened in Sudan gives us so much confidence that we can face the military that is armed to the teeth. We are inspired to believe that we can now peacefully protest and raise our voices.”
Wine, however, falls short of calling for a Sudan-style uprising outright. His hesitancy may be justified. The political situation in the two countries is vastly different, as Adam Branch, director of the African Studies department at Cambridge University, explains.
“In Uganda, protest movements would need to figure out how to bridge the divide between the middle class and the urban underclass; between urban and rural areas, perhaps through building support in small towns and semi-urban centres; and, of course, between north and south of Uganda,” he says . “They would also have to figure out how to deal with the unrelenting support – financial, diplomatic, and military – the government receives from Western donors.”
For any widespread movement to emerge, various opposition parties would also need to unify. According to Betty Aol Ochan, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, this unity could come about through the shared goal of unseating Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) whether before or during the 2021 elections.
“We are all fighting the dictator and we want to dictator to go,” she says. “The only thing which is left is to let all of us come together.”
On 8 May, Wine and Besigye released a joint statement suggesting they may be moving in this direction. “We agreed, and commit ourselves not to engage in conduct which creates disharmony and undue collision amongst the forces of change, and to always act in a manner that reflects togetherness and comradeship,” it read.
If Uganda is to emulate Sudan, it will have to encourage huge numbers of people to take to the streets. And as Wine, Besigye and many others have learnt, this comes with huge risks. Peaceful protesters in Uganda are treated as rioters, and people who speak against the regime put their lives on the line. “Anybody who gets out to demonstrate has to contend with the fact that there is a possibility of actual damage; harm, death, arrest, imprisonment,” says Opiyo.
Despite the dangers, however, many remain defiant, angry at the government’s corruption and economic mismanagement.
“Sometimes you spend sleepless nights and say, why am I subjecting myself to this kind of risk? Why am I subjecting myself to this struggle? Why am I doing this?” says Ochan. “But at the same time, without people standing up, to say let us be the leaders of this struggle, it will not work.”
Wine similarly recognises the sacrifice it takes, but vows to continue and help build a movement.
“It hurts to deny me my freedom and the opportunity to be a father, to be a husband,” he says. “But at the end, it gives me so much satisfaction to know that what I am suffering for is a noble cause.”
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