Friday, June 2, 2023

Bobi Wine, a tenacious challenger to power in Uganda

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Whatever you do, Robert Kyagulanyi’s mother told him when he was a young boy growing up in a difficult part of Kampala, stay away from politics. Mr. Kyagulanyi, a Ugandan pop idol better known as Bobi Wine, totally ignored this advice. This week he challenged presidential elections, vote for that took place on Thursday.

At 38, Mr Wine is the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, 76, who has used every state organ and all the stuff in the book to prolong his 35 years in power.

During the campaign, Mr. Wine was shot, beaten and thrown in jail more times than he remembers. Dozens of his supporters were killed in November, and its campaign events were stormed by police. Even his trademark red beret was banned. As Election Day approaches, many of the the Internet was disabled and his campaign team arrested.

With a third of the votes counted on Friday, the official tally showed Mr Museveni winning comfortably, with 63% of the vote. But Mr Wine, at 28 percent, called the results a “joke” and declared himself president-elect.

“I have been targeted by bullets and tear gas canisters, and injured daily by police and soldiers,” Wine told the Financial Times last week. He started boxing to better endure regular punches. Two years ago, police hit him unconscious with an iron bar and, he says, used forceps on his testicles.

In his black Cadillac Escalade with a “Ghetto” trim, Mr Wine can appear any hip-hop bling. In person, he speaks quietly, articulate and extremely serious about overthrowing one of Africa’s oldest autocrats.

Whatever the end result, its impact extends far beyond Uganda, a country of 44 million people where the median age is just 16. In much of Africa, he represents a new force in politics – a disenfranchised, ambitious and connected urban youth, but frustrated by a lack of job opportunities and the governance of predominantly elderly leaders. “Bobi strikes me as an individual with remarkable courage and tenacity of conviction,” says Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate. “The era of gerontocracy should be officially declared over.”

Mr Wine was born in 1982, four years before Mr Museveni took power after waging a bush war against dictator Milton Obote. His grandfather died in this conflict and his father, a staunch supporter of Museveni, fled to Tanzania. Mr Wine’s mother, a former midwife, was left alone to raise nine children at Kamwokya, a slum in Kampala, where she worked as a market trader. It was quite a comedown. Mr. Wine’s great-grandfather had been a chef and his grandfather “a gentleman”.

“My mother always reminded me that we are in the ghetto because of politics,” he says. She encouraged hard work, instilling in him a belief in what he called his “uptown character.” She attempted to send him to a fee-paying school and he then graduated from Makerere University, the oldest in Uganda, with a degree in music, dance and theater.

From an early age he played music, later changing his name to Bobi after Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer. The wine, he said, was because it got better with age. Supplementing his income with jobs ranging from masonry to collecting edible grasshoppers, by the age of 20 he had marked his first success with a dance piece.

In 2000, he met Barbie Itungo, a young woman from a wealthy family, then finishing her internship. “I was a wandering young man, but when I met my wife it was so transforming,” he says. The couple went on to have four children, two boys and two girls, now aged between five and 15.

His songs became more political, excoriating everything from bad sanitation to bad government. Earlier efforts had included anti-gay jibing for which he later excuse, calling them the product of youthful ignorance. Mr. Museveni, a virulent homophobe, seized on it to call him an agent of foreign homosexuals. In 2017, Mr Wine ran for parliament – protest songs couldn’t do much. Passing himself off as the “president of the ghetto,” he won by a landslide. In 2019, he declared his intention to run for president.

Khatondi Soita, a 26-year-old journalist, says she’s not exactly a supporter. “But my God, he’s such a force.

In frank moments, Mr. Wine admits he’s not qualified to be president. Its political program is long on idealism and short on politics. “I never believed I was the right person for this,” he says. In Kampala, especially in the poorest regions, he is greeted with raised fists and chants of “power of the people”. The supporters hoist him on their shoulders and sometimes bow down at his feet. He fears that they expect too much.

In the countryside, where Mr. Museveni’s political machine is most entrenched, Mr. Wine’s popularity is more difficult to assess. He cites large rallies – when he managed to escape the police – and polls which he says show strong support.

Mr. Wine’s intention was to win so overwhelmingly that Mr. Museveni had no choice but to leave. Political analysts have deemed this unlikely, especially given the president’s control over the electoral process. If Mr Museveni declares victory, mass protests could follow, although Mr Wine says he avoids violence.

Win or lose, he will stay in Uganda, he said. “If I die, I want to die here.” When asked how he was doing last week, he replied, “I’m alive.” In an election year in Uganda, this is no small feat.;


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