I was born in 1982, four years before President Yoweri Museveni captured power in Uganda after a guerrilla war. He promised that what had just happened in Uganda was not a mere change of guards but a fundamental change in the politics of our country. He wrote at the time that Africa’s problem was not the people, but leaders who overstay in power. As I grew up in the ghettos of Kampala, I was one of the many who believed that President Museveni meant good for our country. He viciously criticised the past governments of Idi Amin and Milton Obote for torture, corruption and bad governance. Uganda hoped for a new day.
I had never been political in my youth — my only passion was making music. But over time, an increasingly autocratic Museveni made it impossible to remain apolitical. I watched the government become suspicious of the unemployed youth who demanded for a better life. I was disgusted that whenever young people chose to protest peacefully, some would end up dead, others injured and many incarcerated for long periods. It is such injustices on me and on the people of Uganda that politicised me.
I decided that I should use my music to speak out more about social justice. We call it edutainment: using entertainment educate. I decided to be a voice for the common citizen of Uganda, who is too often silenced. When I was elected to Parliament just over a year ago, I decided to continue rallying the young people of Uganda to shun corruption, reject bad governance and believe in their capacity to shape their destiny.
This message is premised on the first Article of our country’s Constitution, which provides that all power belongs to the people. And the people have been buying our message. For the first time in a long time, Ugandans are united in purpose and their hope is being renewed. They are snubbing the regime’s divide and rule strategy, which has worked to prop it up in the past. Regardless of their respective religions, tribes, regions, economic standing or political affiliation, young Ugandans are uniting in the quest for a better country. One based on democracy, equality and social justice. A country that provides equal opportunities.
This message and the resulting effect is my heinous crime in the eyes of the regime in Kampala. They say I am inciting the population against them. It is for that reason that last month, while on the campaign trail, I was violently arrested, tortured, incarcerated in military facilities and charged with unlawful possession of firearms. The police assembled three guns, which they claimed to have found in my hotel room. The baseless gun charges quickly were dropped, only for me to instead be charged with treason alongside other friends. It is a charge that has been laid on so many people who have dared to stand up against President Museveni’s regime of national shame.
In desperation, Museveni is pushing a narrative that Ugandans, who are demanding redemption, are being funded by the West. His regime has now begun to deport Americans doing charity work in Uganda, and a large-scale crackdown on my supporters is underway. Those who dare oppose this government are finding themselves kidnapped and brutalised. The streets resemble those of a police state, with military officers on alert to harass all those who raise their voice in the face of injustice. Journalists and protesters are now forced to choose between doing what is right, and escaping bodily harm.
I know that this is only a beginning. I am not the first target of incongruous state violence. The biggest crime in Uganda is having an alternative political view. One can get away with murder, corruption, vote rigging and any other atrocity — as indeed so many government apologists do on a daily basis. But one cannot get away with standing up to the evils that have turned our nation into a laughing stock. It breaks my heart to think we used to be called the Pearl of Africa.
My present trials are nothing compared to what so many Ugandans have had to endure in the past. One cannot count the number of those who have paid the ultimate price in this quest for a better Uganda. Every election cycle, President Museveni unleashes untold violence on the population, rigs the polls and announces himself winner, pretending to rule by law.
This is why we are fighting for freedom. Ours is a non-violent struggle. The government has been overwhelmed by young people in thousands singing, “people power, our power” which is our slogan. Uganda has the youngest population in the world, and indeed over 85% of our people are younger than me. They were not around when Museveni took power and have seen no other president in their lifetime. Their challenges are nothing that the rulers of Uganda comprehend. We are therefore simply yearning for long, long overdue change.
And because the government does not know how to respond to a united, youthful population, they have been desperately trying to project them as violent so that they can pay them back in the same measure, which is their expertise. This explains the rehearsed allegations of treason and unlawful possession of firearms.
I am very grateful to the world for standing with us at this critical point. Earlier this month while in the US to receive treatment for injuries sustained during my torture, I received overwhelming support from Ugandans living there, and many other people from around the world. President Museveni’s regime has conveniently tried to dupe the world into believing that he means good for his people. He has used our military’s involvement in regional peace missions to keep the eyes of the world away from the repression at home.
The military aid our country receives ends up used to acquire advanced weapons which all serve to suppress the citizens of Uganda. Footage from the recent protests puts on stark display the nature of ammunition deployed on the streets of Kampala, as though it was a war zone in Mogadishu. The writing is on the wall. Uganda cannot export genuine peace to the region when it is not at peace with itself. My appeal to the world is to solidly stand with the people of Uganda in their aspirations.
Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, is a musician and independent Member of Parliament representing Kyadondo East Constituency in the Parliament of Uganda.