The Pop Star Who Would Challenge Uganda's President

8 MINS READSep 13, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Police detain musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – also known as Bobi Wine - during a demonstration on July 11, 2018, in Kampala.

Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi is arrested by police before he was whisked away by his supporters during a demonstration on July 11, 2018 in Kampala to protest a controversial tax on the use of social media.

  • Uganda's youth population is facing significant economic challenges and few job prospects, but Kampala is unlikely to create economic opportunities for them.
  • President Yoweri Museveni has been effective at sidelining challengers to his rule, but he will struggle to halt the rising popularity of Bobi Wine.
  • Because Museveni's assertion that he has brought stability to the unstable country is no longer relevant after three decades of rule, he will be forced to shift his message in order to co-opt the emerging youth movement against him.

The memo to authorities could hardly be more explicit: "This is a message to the government expressing exactly what is on the people's minds," Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine announces to open a single, "Freedom." In the song, the musician — whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — sings that Ugandans are living in a world similar to the slave trade and suffering oppression that is worse than apartheid. He proceeds, questioning the point of Uganda's Constitution while noting that he and his followers are fighting for freedom.

The Uganda Communications Commission took a rather dim view of the anthem, quickly banning it after its release in November 2017. "Freedom," however, has only served as a prelude to the singer's political ascent this year — as well as a bloody crackdown last month in which he was charged with treason and allegedly tortured in prison. For years, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has succeeded in neutralizing any potential threats to his power, but the chord that Bobi Wine has struck with ordinary citizens threatens the president unlike any other before. And as the wider continent's youth population booms, it's a note that might also resonate across Africa.

The Big Picture

For the last month, Uganda has witnessed one of its most significant political spats in recent years following the arrest of a pop-star-turned-politician. Bobi Wine's arrest and subsequent charge of treason sparked protests in the landlocked African country. And while President Yoweri Museveni remains unchallenged as Uganda's leader, the rise of the singer is a reflection of the challenges for Uganda's youth.

A Singer's Ascent

Bobi Wine's music has always held a political edge, but the singer took his first step into formal politics when he ran for a seat in Uganda's parliament in June 2017 in a by-election for Kyadondo East Country in Kampala. Authorities arrested the singer, releasing him just days before the election; even so, Bobi Wine won an overwhelming (78 percent) share of the vote over candidates from Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the traditional opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change. And now that he is a member of parliament, the opposition politician, who is affectionately known as the "Ghetto President" in Uganda, has another platform from which to spread his message against Museveni and the NRM.

Youth populations in Uganda and throughout the rest of Africa

Since his election, Bobi Wine has campaigned on behalf of other candidates in by-elections, spurring them to victory and highlighting his growing appeal across the country. Bobi Wine has also voiced his opposition to a new law that charges mobile phone users 200 Ugandan shillings (5 cents) per day to use 60 mobile applications, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Detractors argue that the law, which went into effect on July 1, is a thinly veiled attempt to silence free speech and eliminate social media as an organizing tool for opposition figures like Bobi Wine. In fact, the singer-cum-politician has even added a red T-shirt denouncing the law to his trademark red beret and jumpsuit attire.

Bobi Wine also tried to force the country's electoral commission to hold a referendum on a controversial law passed last December that removed age limits for presidential candidates. Previously, the law stipulated that candidates must be between the ages of 35 and 75, which would have effectively barred the 74-year-old Museveni from running for another term in 2021. Bobi Wine has not said whether he wishes to challenge Museveni, but the incumbent and his supporters know that the pop star could present a real threat, particularly as Uganda's population trends younger.

A breakdown of Uganda's population by age

Initiating a Crackdown

The emergence of the popular politician has convinced Kampala to revert to form when it encounters emerging opposition groups by cracking down wherever it can. On Aug. 13, supporters of a by-election candidate backed by Bobi Wine obstructed and threw stones at a convoy belonging to Museveni, who had also come to campaign on behalf of the local NRM candidate. Bobi Wine's driver was killed in the ensuing melee, while authorities subsequently arrested four members of parliament, including Bobi Wine. Eventually, the candidate supported by the singer won — albeit from a prison cell.

While in prison, authorities allegedly beat and tortured Bobi Wine and several others before charging them with treason. (After his release on bail, Bobi Wine traveled to the United States for medical treatment.) The incidents sparked unrest and protests in several urban areas in Uganda, especially Kampala, over the following week, prompting security officials to fire tear gas and live ammunition to prevent their spread. Such tactics are not uncommon in Uganda, as protests during the opposition Walk to Work movement in 2011 led to nine deaths and several hundred arrests.

Competing Visions for Uganda

Museveni has grown adept at managing potential challengers and threats to the regime from the older elite, such as politician and former military officer Kizza Besigye. At home, he has rotated senior officers in and out of Uganda's military and intelligence services to ensure that no military figure ever consolidates enough power to pose a challenge. In the region, Museveni succeeded in pushing out armed groups in the north in the 1990s; a decade later, he eliminated threats to the country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Museveni has now ruled Uganda for 32 years. When he took power in 1986, Uganda was just emerging from 15 years of chaos, first under the bloody, seven-year rule of Idi Amin, then a brief war with Tanzania that removed the dictator, and finally a five-year-long civil war, the Ugandan Bush War. At the time, Museveni promised to bring freedom to the country, institute a multiparty democracy, solve Uganda's economic malaise, lift citizens out of poverty and — at some undetermined point in the future — step aside. To put it simply, Museveni promised political stability in a country notorious for its political upheaval and ethnic fragmentation.

After Museveni took power, he sought to insert the NRM into all aspects of Uganda's military, political and even economic systems. Such measures included privileging the party's supporters economically and providing public servants with political training under the NRM's auspices. As a result of the party's efforts, no traditional party in parliament has been able to mount a credible threat to Museveni and the NRM. But after 32 years of rule, there are growing questions as to whether the NRM's basic tenets still ring true for Uganda's young population.

Uganda has the world's youngest population, 68 percent of whom were younger than 24, according to the country's 2014 census. The only Uganda they know is Museveni's, meaning they view the president, along with his NRM, as the root cause of any of the countless problems that they encounter. Reliable youth unemployment data is unavailable for Uganda, but the figure is generally estimated to be around 13 percent. The bigger concern, however, isn't so much unemployment but underemployment, as many young Ugandans have been forced to find informal employment (a whopping 87 percent, according to estimates) or are not even trying to find a job (more than half of Uganda's youth of working age are not seeking work). Even the economy, which posted a comfortable GDP growth rate in excess of 5 percent every year from 2000 to 2011, has struggled recently. The ailing economy and the few economic opportunities for Uganda's youth are only exacerbated by regressive measures like the social media tax and Museveni's single-minded drive to extend his term.

A map of the population density of Uganda

The Tricks Up Museveni's Sleeve?

Cue the 36-year-old Bobi Wine, a popular and charismatic figure who presents an unprecedented challenge to Museveni by drawing on the support of Uganda's youth. Bobi Wine's rise does not mean that Museveni won't succeed in adapting to the new challenge — particularly given the vast resources at the NRM's disposal — but it will require the government to shift its message and make genuine overtures to Uganda's youth. In an effort to do so, Ugandan authorities have sought to boost Museveni's image as the grandfather of the country. Indeed, Museveni's daughter released a film, "27 Guns" on Sept. 8, detailing the spark for the Ugandan Bush War — an attack by then-guerrilla leader Museveni in 1981.

If Uganda continues its crackdown, protests will ensue, although authorities could inflame matters even more if they refuse to drop the treason charges against Bobi Wine. In such a situation, Western countries may increase their pressure regarding human rights issues, though Museveni's overall national strategy has been to make Uganda — and himself — an indispensable ally of the West. The country has been crucial to efforts to stabilize Africa's conflict zones, acting as the launching point for the United States' offensive against Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Uganda is also a key member of the African Union Mission in Somalia and the fight against jihadist group al Shabaab.

Regardless of Museveni's strength at home or import abroad, Bobi Wine's rise in Uganda — even if a crackdown temporarily stops it — highlights an emerging trend seen elsewhere in Africa: namely, a youth population that has become disenchanted with the status quo and enamored with the politicians promising change. Uganda certainly is not the only country experiencing this shift in opposition, as the electoral victories of soccer legend George Weah (Liberia) indicate. The political emergence of Africa's youth population does not necessarily entail the election of celebrities, but it does represent a new challenge to the status quo.

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