For years, Uganda’s best-known musician-turned-politician has sung about intimidation and oppression. But with his latest prosecution on treason charges, Bobi Wine’s life is starting to imitate his art.
The message of the 2016 single, “Situka” – or “rise up” in the Luganda language – is hitting uncomfortably close to home for the singer-songwriter, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine in his native Uganda and the rest of the world.
“When the going gets tough, the tough must get going – especially for when leaders become misleaders, and mentors become tormentors. When freedom of expression becomes a target of suppression, opposition becomes our position,” croons Wine as the video clip display news footage of Ugandan security officials storming the offices of an opposition party.
Wine, an actor-musician beloved for his funky ragga dancehall tunes, released Situka in 2016 – the year Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won his fifth presidential term.
A year later, Wine entered the political fray, announcing his candidacy in the 2017 parliamentary elections, which he won with an overwhelming majority.
While the Situka music video showed images of a police crackdown on the opposition FDC (Forum for Democratic Change) party, Wine himself chose to stand as an independent.
Wine’s 2017 election victory was big news in East Africa, with regional papers splashing photographs of the lithe, ragga musician making his way to parliament for the swearing-in ceremony like a rock star, with jubilant crowds swarming around his open-top vehicle.
But analysts warned that Wine had yet to cut his teeth in the rough-and-tumble of Ugandan politics. And in Kampala opposition circles, that meant experiencing firsthand the brutality of the state’s machinery. Kizza Besigye, the head of the opposition FDC for example, has been arrested, beaten, charged with treason, then exonerated before fleeing into exile and returning home only to be arrested again and having to endure another round of the persecution cycle.
The wealthy, young Wine, it was implied, had yet to undergo his political baptism by fire.
Arrested in Arua
That changed on August 13, 2018, when Wine was in the northwestern town of Arua, where he was campaigning for a local lawmaker in the Aura by-election. Since his election last year, Wine has a turned into a formidable kingmaker for sorts, with many of the candidates he has supported wining by-elections.
President Museveni also happened to be in the same town that day, campaigning for a candidate who eventually lost.
While the 73-year-old Ugandan president was leaving Arua, authorities said the presidential motorcade was pelted with stones by protestors believed to be supporters of Wine and the candidate he backed, Kassiano Wadri.
Wine’s driver was shot and killed that evening, allegedly by security forces. In an August 13 Twitter post, Wine tweeted a grisly picture of the driver, with his chest bloodied, slumped in the car. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot at me. My hotel is now coddoned [sic] off by police and SFC,” said Wine, referring to the Special Forces Command.
The next day, Wine was arrested along with other lawmakers and charged with illegal possession of firearms.
His arrest sparked massive protests in the capital, Kampala, and other parts of the country.
Uganda’s “ghetto president” – a moniker earned since the popular star continues to record his music in the impoverished Kampala slum of his childhood – had been detained and his supporters were not in the mood to take it lying down.
A number of top international musicians — including Angelique Kidjo, Chris Martin and Brian Eno – signed a letter demanding his release and the handle #FreeBobiWine went viral on social media sites.
But days later, when Wine appeared for a court hearing, the international community was in for a shock. Aided by crutches, the Afrobeat star limped gingerly into the court, wincing painfully. The illegal firearms charges were dropped, but he was slapped with the much more serious charge of treason.
His lawyer said the injuries were sustained during severe beatings in custody, a charge the government denied, which none of Wine’s supporters believed.
‘Uganda seems to be moving backwards’
In his 2017 song, “Freedom,” Wine in his characteristic biting style, is filmed belting the lyrics from behind bars. “Uganda seems to be moving backwards,” he sings. “Now we see the whole nation is miserable.”
Life seemed to be imitating art in the most grotesque fashion.
Uganda’s list of human rights violations runs the gamut, from crackdowns on freedom of speech and assembly, extrajudicial killings, to the criminalisation of homosexuality.
Since Museveni came to power in 1986, the constitution was amended in 2005 to scrap presidential term limits and in 2017 to remove presidential age limit caps, enabling the 73-year-old Ugandan leader to rule for life if he so desired.
That however does not correspond with the hopes and aspirations of Wine and his young supporters, and with his recent arrest, the tensions in the landlocked East African nation are set to escalate.
On August 27, Wine, aided by crutches, once again made a court appearance, where he was granted bail.
His release on bail was greeted by scenes of jubilation, with supporters gathered outside the Kampala courthouse chanting, “People power! Our power!”
But power still resides in the hands of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party and with treason charges still pending against him, Wine is likely to spend the next few months, maybe even years, fighting the case.
The legal battles are likely to cripple his anti-government activism and his ability to campaign for the change he has been advocating in songs since the early 2000s.
Togikwatako – don’t touch it
But the 36-year-old ragga star is not likely to be easily silenced, and that could prove the biggest challenge to the NRM’s continued domination of power.
It’s been a long journey for a boy growing up in the slums of Kampala. But it’s also a background that has toughened Wine and prepared him for the brutality of a life in Ugandan politics.
Born in the central Ugandan district of Gomba, Wine grew up in Kampala’s gritty Kamwokya slum. He went on to earn a BA degree in music, dance and drama from Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University and later earned a post-graduate degree in law.
By then, he was already a popular musician, following the success of his early singles such as Akagoma and Funtula.
While his songs have always had a direct social message, they turned daringly political during the 2016 campaign to block another attempted constitutional amendment.
In his signature red beret – a sartorial addition quickly embraced by his young fan base – Wine took to the streets holding demonstrations that featured his hit tunes belting out of loudspeakers. Wine emerged as the leading voice of a movement called “Togikwatako – or “don’t touch it” in Luganda.
Tomukwatako – don’t touch him
Married to Barbie Kyagulanyi, with whom he has four children, Wine is known to advocate family values and has been criticised by gay rights campaigners for writing homophobic lyrics. In 2014, a concert hall in the English city of Birmingham cancelled a concert due to criticism of his anti-gay lyrics.
Wine has since moved away from his early populist lyrics of “a man better be a man” and “a girl better be a girl” to embrace a social justice message, one that has soothed once-ruffled features in international circles.
Certainly his philanthropic works, particularly in the impoverished slums of Kampala, have earned him worshipful followers among Uganda’s youth.
In a country that has one of the world’s youngest populations – with nearly 60 percent of Ugandans under the age of 20 – Wine’s ability to mobilise the youth vote is a serious threat to Museveni and his ruling party.
His latest incarceration, and the international outcry it has sparked, has made it more difficult for Uganda’s ruling party and security services to carry out the levels of intimidation it has managed thus far on other opposition politicians.
Since his arrest in Arua, Wine’s supporters have tweaked their Togikwatako rallying cry to “Tomukwatako” – or don’t touch him. And they seem ready to take Wine for his word, particularly when he sings — as he did in “Freedom” – “Remember that if rabbits in large numbers stand together as one they can chase away a leopard.”