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On the campaign trail with Bobi Wine

Bobi Wine, the musician who is running for president, is standing on his porch and a preacher is anointing him with a bottle of olive oil. It is the fourth week of election campaigns in Uganda, and he needs all the help he can get. Then Wine turns to the supporters in his garden. “They come with bombs and teargas, but we come with God,” he sings in Luganda, punching the air. “Even David beat Goliath because he trusted in God.”

Wine (real name Kyagulanyi Ssentamu Robert) styles himself as the David in this story; the Goliath is Yoweri Museveni, president since 1986. And so far, says Wine, the journey has “been hell”. In Hoima, the police and army surrounded his hotel, blocking a scheduled radio appearance. In Migyeera, he slept in his car because, he claims, the police told hotels not to let him in. In Luuka, he was arrested for violating Covid-19 restrictions, sparking nationwide protests in which the state shot scores of people dead.

Now it is 1 December, a Tuesday, and Wine is on the trail again, with an entourage of old friends. Dan Magic, his music producer. Eddie Mutwe, his barrel-chested bodyguard. Francis Zaake, a 29-year-old MP, on crutches after beatings by the police. There are fans too. A group of young women in red gowns tell stories of toiling as housemaids in Saudi Arabia. “[Wine] has been in the ghetto,” says one. “He knows the life of the person below.” 

And when Wine sets off, waving from his sunroof, it is the “people below”, the abantu bawansi, who line the roads to greet him. They shout from shopfronts and run through banana gardens. Men break branches from trees to wave in welcome. Mothers clutch babies with one hand and punch the air with the other. A posse of schoolchildren dash from their classroom and gape at the cavalcade in awe.

After two hours Wine reaches Kayunga, the town where he is due to address his first rally of the day. Suddenly there is tear gas everywhere. Wine is bent forward, coughing. One car has stopped, white gas billowing from its open window. Young men melt away between the tin-roofed houses, skipping over panicked chickens. Then they run back, cheering as loudly as before.

The procession is on the backroads now, tumbling through startled villages in a cloud of dust. Wine is trying to get back to the highway, but police trucks block his way. He starts walking, then leaps on the back of a motorbike. The police, outfoxed, let the cars through.

Wine, back in his car, reaches town. More delirium. More tear gas. He stops to remonstrate with the police. Then there is a loud bang and a cloud of smoke as a tear gas grenade explodes behind him. The police will later claim that it was thrown by one of Wine’s own associates, despite video evidence to the contrary. Dan Magic is hit in the mouth, either with a rubber bullet or a fragment from the blast; Wine gets in the ambulance beside him. A police officer assigned to accompany the candidate is also hurt.

They drive to a nearby health centre, where police fire down the road to clear the crowd. On benches outside, waiting patients cower in fear; a mother pulls her daughter close. Wine, his hair fringed with dust, is visibly distressed for Dan Magic. “His face is shattered and his teeth have come out,” he says, as medics bustle behind him. “They’re targeting our lives.” 

But Wine continues. His aim now is Jinja, the city at the source of the Nile. The procession is building: motorbikes and land cruisers and police pick-ups and media vans, careering down both lanes. There is a man sitting on the roof of a car in a kayak, a beer in his hand. There is a man splayed motionless on the tarmac after an accident, a bike in a ditch.

From the crest of a hill, the magnificent new Source of the Nile Bridge comes into view, its supporting cables spread like two inverted fans. This image is a favourite in the Museveni scrapbook, alongside pictures of smooth roads and shiny aircraft and industrial parks. But Wine is being driven onto the old bridge, along the top of a dam, a crossing normally used by the boda-boda motorbike riders deemed too scruffy, too disordered, to be allowed on the new one. Briefly, there is calm. A rainbow shimmers in the spray thrown up beneath the turbines.

Wine is on the outskirts of the city now, but still he is being pushed away, along dirt roads, past maize gardens and behind the notorious police station where, a fortnight ago, he was detained after his latest arrest. He reaches a clearing. Soldiers stand in a churchyard. Police guard a flimsy metal railing, which blocks a right turn into town.

Some of Wine’s supporters approach the railing; there is a scuffle. “We are fighting for freedom,” sings a recording of Wine, blasting from speakers in his convoy. The car turns. Then gunshots. Bullets go through the tyres, the wheel rim. Another bullet flies through the top corner of the windscreen. Zaake, sitting in the passenger seat, is frozen in silence. It has missed him by centimetres.

Wine will go no further today. Standing beside his battered car, he calls a temporary halt to his campaign. Tomorrow he will go to the Electoral Commission of Uganda and complain about his treatment. A police spokesman will condemn his “continued acts of impunity and lawlessness”, which are “in total breach of the electoral  commission guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19”.

It is true that Wine shows little concern for Covid-19 these days. True, too, that he has a performer’s instinct for theatre. But perhaps there is no other way for an opposition candidate to campaign — in this country, in this year — than by exposing through his own struggle the violence of the state. After eight hours on the road, Wine has been unable to address a single voter. “Who is in charge of this election?” he asks. “Is it the military and the police, or is it the electoral commission?” A ring of journalists is gathered around him. And beyond them, watching silently, stand the men with guns.

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Liam Taylor
Liam Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. He has reported widely from Africa for The Economist, and has also written for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Christian Science Monitor and African Business magazine, among other publications

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