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Uganda: Bobi Wine’s crisis of confidence

Upon The Continent’s first mention of President Yoweri Museveni, Bobi Wine interrupts. “For clarity,” he says, leaning forward in his chair, “I won. Only I wasn’t announced.”

It has been nearly nine months since Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the Ugandan presidential election, and Bobi Wine — real name Ssentamu Robert Kyagulanyi — is still angry. The 39-year-old opposition leader believes the election was stolen from him, and he is not alone: the US and the UN, among others, have raised concerns about the vote.

Refusing to legitimise this alleged electoral fraud, Wine pointedly refers to “General” Museveni throughout his interview with The Continent in Johannesburg. He is in South Africa at the invitation of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German organisation that promotes liberal politics, and is speaking from its offices. The foundation also has links to several other opposition parties in Africa, including the Democratic Alliance in South Africa.

Shortly after Museveni was named president yet again, in January, more than 400 riot police descended on Wine’s Kampala residence. Hundreds of his friends, relatives, colleagues, party members and supporters were arrested by security forces. 

Some were tortured in detention, a few turned up dead and others have yet to be accounted for.

The ferocity of the state’s response to Wine’s People Power movement is an indication of its effectiveness: for perhaps the first time in his 36-year rule, Museveni was genuinely scared. 

Bobi Wine was able to tap into a deep well of disillusionment and resentment, particularly among Uganda’s youth, who make up such a large proportion of the country’s demographics.

His obvious charisma and his roots in Kampala’s slums gave him instant legitimacy; his first career, as one of Uganda’s most popular musicians, meant that he was already a household name.

But is that enough? Will it ever be enough in Uganda? When pressed, Wine admits that, in those dark days in January, while under house arrest, he started to have doubts. “I was very sceptical, to be honest. I was sceptical about the ability to change things, to change power, democratically.”

The recent election in Zambia has restored some of his faith in the democratic process. In his sixth campaign, Hakainde Hichilema unseated the increasingly autocratic Edgar Lungu in the presidential election, amassing such a decisive majority that the vote proved impossible to rig.

Hichilema’s win is a “ray of hope”, but Wine’s doubts have not been entirely banished. The Ugandan context is very different. Unlike Lungu, Museveni is one of the continent’s most accomplished autocrats. 

Such is his control over the institutions of state that Wine does not believe that elections in five or even 10 years’ time will deliver a different outcome.

So what next? Only people can deliver real change, he says — but he is coy on what exactly this change looks like, except to note that his People Power movement is bigger than the political party that he leads: the party exists to contest in democratic processes, while the movement is designed to bring an end to the regime.

“The movement is a liberation movement that pushes for the end of dictatorship, even before the end of the next election cycle,” he explains. “The people shouldn’t leave options for General Museveni, just like they didn’t leave options for Idi Amin, just like the people of Sudan didn’t leave options for Omar al-Bashir. The people must take charge of their own destiny.”

Amin was ousted in 1979 after an army mutiny, amid widespread dissatisfaction with his brutal rule. Bashir was ousted in 2019 in a revolution.

If Museveni’s regime is to be swept aside, Wine will have to maintain and grow the momentum that he carried into the January election.

This is easier said than done, of course, and outside of Uganda the news agenda has already moved on.

With the exception of a reporter from The Continent, not a single journalist turned up to the press conference he was supposed to address in South Africa on 2 September — although this could also be a symptom of the insularity of most South African media houses.

And, despite its protestations about the conduct of the vote, the international community has continued to engage — and finance — the Museveni regime.

Regional and continental bodies such as the East African Community and the AU are little more than presidents’ clubs, says Wine, while international organisations and Uganda’s “development partners” — the US, the UK and the EU — are little better.

The international community’s approach is rooted in racism, Wine argues — no European president would be allowed to get away with treating their people the way that Museveni treats Ugandans.

Why is the standard of human rights so low in Uganda? That is racism. The lives of the people of Uganda are as valuable as the lives of citizens of the rest of the world. I want them to know that we feel the hypocrisy, and it shouldn’t be like that in 2021.”

Despite the formidable forces ranged against him, Wine says that he has no intention of giving up the fight. When he and his wife Barbara Kyagulanyi were younger, they pledged to work as hard as possible in their youth so that they could retire aged 35 and really enjoy their lives. That milestone has come and gone. 

“She sees me now, scratching [at] another explosive endeavour, and she’s like: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ But at the end of the day she realises this is not just about me but about the entire country. So she embraces this.”

Interview over, Wine walks away with the exaggerated swagger of the pop star that he is. Retirement is no longer on the agenda. Revolution might be. 

This is an edited version of an article first published by The Continent

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.
The Continent
The Continent is a free weekly newspaper published by the Adamela Trust in partnership with the Mail & Guardian.

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