Kampala, Uganda – Bobi Wine, Uganda’s most prominent opposition figure, cut a lonely figure as he addressed journalists in central Kampala on Tuesday, two days before a tense presidential election.
Most of the team of the music star-turned-politician who is taking on the country’s president of 35 years have been imprisoned during a campaign season marred by deadly violence.
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Scores of his supporters were killed in November and others badly wounded as police violently broke down opposition rallies, often firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has been repeatedly arrested himself and in recent weeks campaigned in a flak jacket and ballistic helmet.
“We, the leaders, are servants; you are the true masters, take your destiny in your hands,” he urged Ugandans on Tuesday. “It is going to be a revolutionary election, let this be a protest vote.”
Bobi Wine, 38, is half the age of Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni, a 76-year-old former rebel leader who seized power in 1986 – and has held onto it since.
Before his entry into politics, Bobi Wine was a self-styled “ghetto president”. He grew up in Kamwokya, a slum in the centre of Kampala, with dozens of siblings and half-siblings.
It was there where he began making music, producing a number of reggae, pop and hip hop hits. But his music became increasingly 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 as an independent MP for Kyadondo East, winning by a landslide.
He rose to international attention in August 2018 when he was arrested in in Arua, northwestern Uganda, and his driver was shot dead. In prison, Bobi Wine says he was tortured.
When he was released on bail, he travelled to the United States, gathering support and getting medical treatment.
Since last July, Bobi Wine has been the leader of the National Unity Platform. Before that, his movement was known as “People Power,” with its members distinguishable by their red berets, until the government banned the wearing of them in 2019.
In his spacious home in Magere, northern Kampala, he has readily welcomed journalists – both local and foreign – over the past few years.
In contrast, Museveni rarely grants interviews, preferring instead to talk at length in televised speeches.
Bobi Wine has also recognised and sought to harness the power of social media.
He is followed around by supportive live-streamers, who broadcast his activities on a series of social media pages. In Thursday’s election, he is encouraging voters to film any wrongdoing they witness at polling stations, as a way to gather evidence.
“Use your phones, use your cameras,” he instructed them. “Your phone is a very powerful weapon”.
On Tuesday, Uganda’s communication regulator ordered telecommunication firms to “immediately suspend any 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 more than 739,000 Instagram followers and nearly half a million on Facebook.
Their four children flew to the US with a relative last week, after Bobi Wine said he received word of a plot to kidnap them.
But Museveni, who is seeking a sixth term, has accused Bobi Wine of being “an agent of foreign interests”.
“He gets quite 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 the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News last week.
‘Securing your future’
When he initially came to power, Museveni spoke about ensuring the country became a proper democracy, but critics say he has since moved away from this idea. Instead, the constitution has been changed to remove both term limits and a presidential age limit of 75.
“This old man who has saved the country … How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?” he said, during the last election.
When he addresses citizens, Museveni refers to young Ugandans as “bazukulu”, or “grandchildren.” Across the country, the president’s face can be seen smiling down, from posters and billboards, with the tagline: “Securing your future”.
It is widely believed that Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is being lined up to take over from him. Kainerugaba is currently the commander of the Special Forces, which is tasked with 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 voters in Uganda would want a better Uganda, a peaceful change,” Bobi Wine said on Tuesday.
“The future of Uganda needs every single vote.”
At the same news conference, Kizza Besigye – a veteran opposition leader who has run against Museveni four times, and has been arrested many more – praised Bobi Wine, along with the other opposition presidential candidates.
Besigye said they had done a great job crossing the country, despite restrictions making the campaign difficult “by design”.
He joked that, if Museveni stayed in power, for the next election candidates would need “armoured trucks”.
Also attending the event were Patrick Oboi Amuriat, the candidate for 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 president on Thursday, with the result expected two days later. A parliamentary election is held on the same day.
Since independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power.