One of the most effective public service messages of the coronavirus pandemic must a musical number by Ugandan artists Bobi Wine and Nubian Li. The reggae-style “Corona Virus Alert” is so catchy it makes hand-washing and staying home seem like the coolest things to do.
The latest stats on Uganda show that the country has only 55 cases of COVID-19 (and no deaths) but those have led its President, Yoweri Museveni, to order a two-week lockdown that he extended this week for another 21 days. That means great hardship for a lot of Ugandans – but that is another story.
Museveni and Bobi Wine will be sheltering in very different bubbles right now, but at normal times they see each other across the floor of Uganda’s parliament. The strongman president and the skinny musician from a poorer district of Kampala are a kind of Goliath and David.
Yoweri Museveni has everything a strongman needs to maintain his grip on power: a loyal military, pocketed police force, flexible birth date, cowed public, weak electoral institutions, neutered justice system, populist platform with enough supporters to fill up his rallies and, most importantly, a penchant for theatrics.
These assets, alongside a few others, have served him well and secured his presidency through the last 34 years. He is one of the few remaining so-called dinosaurs of African politics. While his peers all over the continent have been falling over each other on the way out, his grip on power hasn’t loosened, and doesn’t show signs of doing so any time soon.
He is not without political opponents though. Mostly, this is good for him. He can point them out as evidence that democracy is alive in Uganda, denounce them to his base as the enemies of progress or, if they get too strong, buy them off. However, the more genuine among them, who are seen as a plausible alternative to him, constitute a real headache.
Bobi Wine is one of these. His real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, but everyone knows him by his stage name. He was only four years old when Museveni rode to power in 1986. Now, he is the most popular prospective opposition candidate for the next presidential election.
From his humble origins he has become one of the best known artists in his country. Until 2017, he sported a verdant crop of dreadlocks, and his dressing and bearing were quite glitzy. His music was often critical of the government, but he wasn’t part of the active political opposition. With Nubian Li he turned out moving cultural commentary like “Super Woman” – a tribute to African motherhood.
He may be an unlikely hero, but he is, in many ways, the hero Uganda needs. His youth and humble background mean that he connects easily with young people, who make up an estimated three quarters of the population. These characteristics also imply that he hasn’t been close to power for long, and so hasn’t been irredeemably corrupted by it.
This latter attribute is not insignificant. Most other opposition figures have been Museveni’s stooges or acolytes. For instance, Kizza Besigye, the de facto leader of the opposition before Bobi Wine burst onto the scene, was Museveni’s personal doctor. Likewise, many politically inclined musicians have made their names praising the government.
In 2017, Bobi Wine ran successfully for parliament as an independent candidate. He had exhausted his options for achieving change outside the political system. As he put it, “since parliament has failed to come to the ghetto, then we shall bring the ghetto to parliament.” The self-styled “ghetto president” needed a bigger platform. So he exchanged his flashy clothing and dreadlocks for sharp suits and formal hair.
Initially, Museveni had largely ignored him. Why would he bother? He had bigger fish, like Mr Besigye, to fry. But since Bobi Wine entered parliament, he has become much harder to ignore. After his own election, every candidate he backed cruised to parliament. He is a curveball no one saw coming.
He has taken the wind out of the sails of the classical opposition, and represents a credible alternative to Museveni. The moment this became clear, the government instinctively reached into its toolbox of persecutions, which have worked with stubborn opponents before. However, they have been useless against Bobi Wine.
In late 2018, he was arrested, detained and tortured by the army. This came after his supporters allegedly lobbed stones at part of the president’s convoy during campaigns for a parliamentary by-election in northern Uganda, in which Mr Wine backed a candidate. Some days later, he was charged with “unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition,” in a military court, although he is a civilian.
During two weeks he was in detention, a sustained social media campaign for his freedom spread throughout East Africa, before breaking out and spreading to North America and Europe, under the hashtag #FreeBobiWine. Many Kenyans mounted protests at the Ugandan high commission in Nairobi. The EU, UK and US condemned the Ugandan government.
For me, this episode was the first proper encounter with the bard-turned-politician. Pictures of his gaunt frame, broken by torture, being dragged to court hearings, cut a pitiful but powerful figure. His supporters rallied and protested against his treatment in Kampala, but the police and military dispersed them every time.
Under pressure, the military court cleared him. Though he was subsequently re-arrested and charged with treason in a civilian court, he was granted bail and allowed to leave the country and seek treatment for his torture injuries in the United States.
On his return, he received a hero’s welcome. If anything, his ordeal had shown Ugandans and the world that Museveni was aware of how powerful he had become. And, as if to clear any doubts about this, his preferred candidate at the by-election in northern Uganda trounced the pro-government candidate.
His troubles did not end in 2018 though. His music has been banned. He has been arrested multiple other times and blockaded in his own home. He has been barred from holding public rallies, and meetings of his supporters are routinely interrupted and dispersed by police. His treason charge still hasn’t been dismissed, and will probably be weaponised against him as the 2021 election draws nearer.
No doubt Museveni means to wear him out through a drawn-out war of attrition, since persecuting him directly has only made him more popular. But he seems undaunted, and his support base continues to grow. His declaration that he intends to run for president is the boldest challenge anyone has levelled against the president in a while.
Like all human beings, he is not perfect. His youth denies him political experience and his showbiz background isn’t exactly a moral credential. But ever since he became politically active, he has shown remarkable consistency in his convictions. Perhaps his earnestness and doggedness may yet help make Museveni a new member of the extinct dinosaurs club.