The musician-cum-politician has an uphill battle if he’s to dislodge Yoweri Museveni from power
“Remember that if rabbits stand together as one in large numbers they can chase away a leopard.” These are the lyrics of Bobi Wine, a popular musician elected to Uganda’s parliament in 2017. The name of the song, “Freedom”, is what he wants. Freedom from the reign of Yoweri Museveni, president of the east-African country since 1986 and Leopard-in-Chief.
Like many autocratic leaders, Mr Museveni has laws at his disposal to punish those who threaten his rule. Mr Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, is tangled in those laws. On July 5th the Afrobeats singer told his 323,000 Twitter followers he’d been charged with an act “intended to alarm, annoy or ridicule the president”. The act in question is Mr Wine’s alleged encouragement of protestors to throw stones at Mr Museveni’s convoy in August 2018, when the president was leaving a rally in north-western Uganda.
“These are political charges,” says Moses Khisa, a columnist at Uganda’s Daily Monitor, a newspaper. The legislation being wielded against Mr Wine is the reincarnation of Uganda’s sedition law, struck down by the judiciary in 2010. The purpose of the charge is not to secure a conviction, says Mr Khisa, also a lecturer in African studies at North Carolina State University. “It’s meant intimidate, inconvenience and ultimately scuttle the opposition,” he says.
This new legal headache for Mr Wine comes on top of a treason charge – also stemming from the stone throwing allegation. The dramatic proceedings surrounding the treason charge, and allegations he was tortured in custody, ensured this rising political star had solid ground to sell his message. Simply, that the regime is rotten and change is needed, particularly for Uganda’s youth.
Mr Wine, 37, has tapped into the discontent felt by young people, who make up most of the 42m population. Three quarters of Ugandans are under 35. Poor job prospects and severe poverty – complemented by corruption and an elderly elite who have little in common with the Millennials – offer fertile ground for Mr Wine and his People Power movement.
Overall unemployment is 9%, according to Uganda’s Bureau of Statistics. For 15-24-year-olds, it’s said to be 17%. Some salt, however, should be applied when digesting these numbers: many workers toil in the informal economy and aren’t captured in official data. The real unemployment figures are thought to be much higher; a point the Bureau of Statistics quietly concedes.
Underemployment is also a problem, says Gemma Ahaibwe, a researcher at Uganda’s Economic Policy Research Centre, a think-tank in Kampala, the capital. “A high proportion of young workers are not productively employed,” she says. “Many are in vulnerable jobs and living under the poverty line.”
The real test for Mr Wine – and the fractured web of opposition parties – will come in the 2021 election. The “Ghetto President”, as he calls himself, told broadcaster France 24 he’s “seriously considering” running against the real president. But it’s a big task. Mr Museveni has command of the army, the police and, crucially, state coffers. A pliant legislature with a majority of his National Resistance Movement colleagues also helps. The judiciary, likewise, consistently allows cynical legislative changes, paving the way for the president to continue in office.
Meanwhile, legal battles will keep Mr Wine busy. And there’s the question of funding. The government prevents him from performing in Uganda, a crucial way of raising money. In response, he took his show to Europe in June to play for Ugandan expatriates. On his mind, too, perhaps, was drumming up support from foreign bigwigs.
If he does run in 2021, Mr Wine best have plenty of rabbits up his sleeve.