Kampala, Uganda – Bobi Wine, Uganda’s most prominent opposition figure, cut a lone figure when speaking to reporters in central Kampala on Tuesday, two days before a tense presidential election.
Most of the team of the music star-turned-politician who has faced the country’s president for 35 years have been jailed during an election campaign marked by deadly violence.
Dozens of his supporters were killed in November and others seriously injured as police violently dismantled opposition rallies, often firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Bobi Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has himself been arrested on several occasions and mainly campaigned wearing a bulletproof vest and ballistic helmet.
“We rulers are servants; you are the real masters, take your destiny in your hands ”, he urged the Ugandans on Tuesday. “It will be a revolutionary election, be it a protest vote.”
‘The power of the people’
Bobi Wine, 38, is half the age of longtime Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a 76-year-old former rebel leader who seized power in 1986 – and has held it ever since.
Prior to entering politics, Bobi Wine was a so-called “ghetto president”. He grew up in Kamwokya, a slum in central Kampala, with dozens of siblings and half-siblings.
It was there that he started making music, producing a number of reggae, pop and hip hop hits. But his music has become more and more political over time. In songs such as Rise Up and Freedom, he complained about corruption and called for change. And in 2017, Bobi Wine was elected Independent Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East, winning by a landslide.
He gained international attention in August 2018 when he was arrested in Arua, northwestern Uganda, and his driver shot dead. In prison, Bobi Wine says he was tortured.
When he was released on bail, he traveled to the United States, garnering support and receiving medical attention.
Since last July, Bobi Wine has been the leader of the national unity platform. Previously, its movement was known as “People Power”, its members distinguished by their red berets, until the government banned them from wearing in 2019.
In his spacious home in Magere, in northern Kampala, he has gladly hosted journalists – local and foreign – in recent years.
In contrast, Museveni rarely grants interviews, preferring instead to speak at length in televised speeches.
Bobi Wine has also recognized and sought to harness the power of social media.
It is followed by supporting live broadcasters, which broadcast its activities on a series of social media pages. In Thursday’s election, he encourages voters to film any wrongdoing they witness at polling stations, in order to gather evidence.
“Use your phones, use your cameras,” he told them. “Your phone is a very powerful weapon”.
Ugandan communications regulator Tuesday ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately cease all access and use” of social media and online messaging services.
Bobi Wine’s wife, Barbara Kyagulanyi, is a public figure in her own right. She has amassed over 739,000 Instagram followers and nearly half a million on Facebook.
Their four children flew to the United States with a parent last week, after Bobi Wine said he was told of a plot to kidnap them.
But Museveni, who is seeking a sixth term, accused Bobi Wine of being “an agent of foreign interests”.
“He receives a lot of encouragement from foreigners and homosexuals. Homosexuals are very happy with Bobi Wine. I think they even send him support ”, the president said in an interview with Channel 4 News in the UK last week.
‘Secure your future’
When he first came to power, Museveni spoke of making the country a true democracy, but critics say he has since moved away from that idea. Instead, the constitution was amended to remove both the term of office and the presidential age limit of 75.
“This old man who saved the country … How can I get out of a banana plantation that I planted and which has started to bear fruit?” he said, during the last election.
When speaking to citizens, Museveni describes young Ugandans as “bazukulu” or “grandchildren”. Across the country, the smiling president’s face can be seen, on posters and billboards, with the slogan: “Secure your future.”
It is widely believed that Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba is lining up to succeed him. Kainerugaba is currently the commander of the special forces, responsible for protecting the president.
Critics say Bobi Wine’s campaign – which calls for “a new Uganda” – lacks concrete policies. He himself argues that new leadership is more important than anything else.
“We are convinced that all Ugandan voters would like a better Uganda, peaceful change,” Bobi Wine said on Tuesday.
“Uganda’s future needs every vote.”
At the same press conference, Kizza Besigye – an opposition veteran who has run against Museveni four times and has been arrested a lot more – greeted Bobi Wine, as well as the other opposition candidates for the presidential.
Besigye said they had done a great job crossing the country, despite restrictions making the campaign difficult “by design”.
He joked that if Museveni remained in power, for the next election the candidates would need “armored trucks”.
Also present at the event were Patrick Oboi Amuriat, the candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change, and Mugisha Muntu, who is running on behalf of the Alliance for National Transformation.
Eleven candidates in total are running for the president on Thursday, with the result expected two days later. A parliamentary election takes place on the same day.
Since independence from Great Britain in 1962, Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transition of power.