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The Observer

His soaring popularity comes from his strong repertoire of protest music that forcefully speaks truth to power. If Bobi Wine’s new body of artistic work has a singular thrust, it is that people can fully enjoy their inalienable rights only for as long as they are willing to fight for them. It is a battle he is prepared for in any way possible, including exchanging punches if need be.

There is a new Afrobeat/dancehall song in Kampala enjoying massive rotation on social media. This is all the more so because the government will not let it play on radio or television – whether public or private – that it tightly controls.

Freedom is a bit catchy, a bit mournful four-minute track by Kyagulanyi Robert Sentamu aka Bobi Wine, one of Uganda’s leading pop musicians and arguably its most consistent protest artiste to date. He turned lawmaker in June 2017 after winning a landslide victory against candidates from the long ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, and its main opposition, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).

Freedom has a faint echo to Redemption Song by Bob Marley – a huge influence on Bobi Wine’s life. It opens bemoaning the reversal of the “fundamental change in the politics of our country” longtime President Yoweri Museveni promised in 1986 when he first captured power through a devastating five-year armed rebellion. It castigates his dogged efforts to remove presidential age limits in order to extend his 35-year rule beyond 2021 when the next general elections are expected. It rounds off with a clarion call to all young people to rise up and take active roles in building the better country they would like to live in.   

The 1995 Constitution currently disqualifies anyone aged below 35 and above 75 years to seek election as President. Mr Museveni will be 76 years in 2021. The upper age cap is the last safety valve, after his removal of term limits in 2005, against anyone overstaying in state power and the regression, tyranny, oppression and exploitation the Constitution stated result from it. The nation’s supreme law, which lists among Museveni’s signature achievements to date, sought to cure, once and for all, these ills and more that have bedevilled Uganda through time. That he seeks to tinker with it again for selfish gain is revealing of the fundamental change he himself has undergone.

To note, back in 1986 Museveni diagnosed the “problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power, which breeds impunity, corruption and promotes patronage.” But in classic Orwellian fashion, that diagnosis was amended in February 2012 to “What does Africa need? Is it just change of leaders or is it programmes, the way forward in terms of socioeconomic transformation…The problem of Africa is not who but what.” 

Uganda’s elusive quest for peaceful change  

Powering Freedom, which Bobi Wine is pushing as the national anthem to nationwide resistance against removal of age limits, is the unflattering fact that Uganda has not had a peaceful handover of state power ever since the end of direct foreign rule in 1962.

Under Museveni’s long rule (longer, in fact, than all his post-independence predecessors’ reigns combined), he has avoided to hand over power at least six times now through trickery and corruption.

In 2005 he paid lawmakers about $1400 (at current exchange rates) to remove term limits so he could extend his rule. So far, he has already spent nearly six times that much on lawmakers alone to scrap age caps, which he says discriminate against him because he is old.

His apparent desire to remain in power amid ever growing strains in governance, the economy, and security is a source of rising popular discontent and a risk to the country’s hard-won stability, according to a report the International Crisis Group issued on November 21, 2017.

To de-risk Uganda of Museveni requires focusing “not on the NEXT GENERAL-ELECTION but rather on the NEXT GENERATION,” as Bobi Wine said in response to Museveni’s comments on his victory in July.

Twice now, Museveni and Bobi Wine have clashed, via the free-for-all social media platforms, over the current state of Uganda and what needs to change. Museveni roundly dismissed Bobi Wine as a young political upstart who is “indisciplined, uninformed and arrogant”. In turn, Bobi Wine told Museveni times have altogether changed and so has Ugandan society. He is ill-equipped ideologically and lacks the necessary flexibilities to comprehend, let alone offer requisite leadership to pressing issues the new generation has to contend with. These include rapid changes in science and technology, effects of climate change, and finding economic models that are more inclusive. As such, it is high time young people got involved in decision making for their country.

Strangely, Museveni once appeared to back such view. In 2012 he said in a television interview that “if you want very active leaders it is good to have ones below the age of 75.”He added, in no uncertain terms, he would not seek to rule beyond 75 or, more significantly, get involved in changing the Constitution to enable him carry on. This, he explained, owed to his thinking that “after the age of 75 there is some scientific idea that may be the vigour is not as much as before.” 

Museveni’s endless turns on his word(s) have supplied Bobi Wine more than enough succour in his charge against him. The brash, cocky and irreverent way he does it is not only reserved to self-made people, which both men are. It also demonstrates the anger and frustration characteristic of young people today. Many feel the status quo easily gives short shrift to their needs and aspirations out of pure self-interest (and sometimes an inability to grasp them).

Birth of a (protest) artiste

Bobi Wine has made light work of channelling this collective despair because he commands a firm understanding of it. He grew up underprivileged in the slums around Kampala. Basic survival in these neglected spaces is guaranteed only to those who can fight for it. Leaders who promise its dwellers heaven on earth cut and run upon election as fast as one drops a hot piece of charcoal.

Bobi Wine started singing at about 19-20 years in search of personal solace, to encourage himself and his peers to voice their dissent about being marginalised and abandoned by the state as if they were aliens, and to claim their space and rights.

Around 2006/7 he formed the “Ghetto Republic”— a caricature state — headquartered in the Kamwokya, one of the prominent slums in Kampala where he grew up. Inside it, he and colleagues have used “popular music to provide a stern critical engagement with government on socio-political issues with considerable success,” says Jonathan Mugenyi, who is conducting a doctoral research on ‘Popular Music, Popular Politics and Contingencies of Protest’.

Although his first songs were the happy-go-lucky types, some of which dissed his supposed rivals, he ended up building a successful career on protest music with a clear raison d'être: to raise social and political consciousness and to articulate the plight of the downtrodden. Age and fatherhood, he says, triggered the change.  

“As you grow up and become a father you begin nurturing new thoughts and ideas. You start seeing the world around you differently and at some things more critically than you used to,” he explained at a seminar on August 25, 2017. Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) organised it to reflect on the meaning of his euphoric campaign and decisive victory to the broader political terrain in the country; the first time it was focusing a discussion on a contemporary event.   

In his self-assigned role as the people’s artiste, he has responded with a hit record to every major question of the day. Say, when the issue at hand was government’s slow response to HIV/Aids, he sung Mwekume (Protect Yourself). When the streets were cleared of the poor, beggars and hawkers in preparation for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2007 he released Ghetto accusing government of treating lowly people as trash. For the prevalent cancerous corruption and fraud in Uganda he recorded Kiwani (Fraud). To caution against divisive politics he sung Obululu Tebutwawula (Elections Shouldn’t Divide Us). Ebibuuzo (Questions) spoke to general societal discontent with the government failure to deliver basic services. While the insensitivity and highhandedness of Kampala’s new administrators inspired Tugambire ku Jennifer (Intercede for us before Jennifer [Musisi]).

Ms Musisi was appointed the Executive Director of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) in 2011 after the central government’s unscrupulous takeover of the city’s administration. She quickly gained notoriety for her blind zeal by which she went about what she prioritised as the most pressing problem in Kampala: restoring trade order in the city by ridding its streets of low income earners majority of who, needless to say, reside in the slums. Some of them were killed, including a two-year-old who was run over by a KCCA car while her incarcerated mother pleaded for her freedom. Others escaped with gruesome injuries. Many more lost their little merchandise to her brutal better-off enforcement officers.

Tugambire ku Jennifer helped to temper down her administration’s brutality but not its political ramifications. Museveni blamed her ruthlessness for badly losing the Kampala vote in 2016. She has since cut down her enthusiasm, to borrow from a hit record Sala Puleesa (Calm Down) by Bobi Wine’s peer Emmanuel Matovu aka Mun*G.

Bobi Wine’s fine articulation of the current public mood of indignation against the state, both in song and speech, is borne of long experience and has continued to fan his popularity. He has become a choice guest on national and foreign media, and at public affairs symposia nationally and beyond. And wherever he has been he has wowed his listeners with his fervour and deep grasp of issues, which many people least expected of him.

“He had, in the past, appeared to only be a ganja-smoking dreadlocked Rasta with some nice beats. People are surprised that he is more than that by how knowledgeable and articulate he is,” noted Rachael Kiconco Mbabazi, a key strategist in her father former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2016.

Uganda’s flawed transition process

Bobi Wine’s emergence as the newest political sensation and counterweight to Museveni has introduced a new axis in Uganda’s perennial political battle. For nearly two decades now, it has pitted Museveni against his former physician Dr Kizza Besigye; the founding president of FDC and its flagbearer in the last three presidential contests.

The rougher and bitter these former guerrilla comrades have fought each other the more they have polarised the country, shrunk space for consensus building that would inevitably include presidential succession, frustrated an orderly rise of potential successors, and forced NRM to close ranks against Mr Besigye, for as long as they can, out of fear and uncertainty that he will seek vengeance.

The unexpected rise of Bobi Wine appears to be tapping into a yearning for a way out of the mire these two political heavyweights have confined Ugandan politics. Otherwise, ordinarily a guy like him would have needed to work doubly hard to become the new political darling he is today.

As Yusuf Serunkuma, a doctoral fellow at MISR noted, “Even when we dance to their music, the general pulse is to dismiss artistes as clowns – as lowly people! Well, many of them are social outlaws of sorts: their fashions are strange; they often drink hard or abuse drugs, and sometimes are caught up in a series of revolting circumstances. This substantially damages their social-moral standing.”

Yet even if a person like Bobi Wine were to “clean up”, transform and conform to expected societal dictates (as indeed some of his colleagues have done, for example Ragga Dee, born Daniel Kazibwe, who last year ran unsuccessfully for Kampala Lord Mayor), he would at the very least have needed to wait, in Uganda’s case, well behind the generation of Besigye.

The four-time presidential candidate was once the chief ideologue of the ruling NRM party. In 2000 when he first announced his presidential bid, Mr Mbabazi accused him of “jumping the queue”. Implicit in the charge was a tacit understanding that there existed a succession plan within the NRM that placed Mbabazi, who was Museveni’s right-hand man for a long time, and a few others ahead of Besigye that he was now trying to scuttle. Besigye retorted no such queue existed and that Mbabazi would come to accept that sobering fact someday.  

Indeed, in 2014 Mbabazi was hounded out of the NRM and forced to run as an independent presidential candidate in 2016. His inglorious exit from the party he literally built once again showed Museveni’s ruthlessness in purging anybody who threatens his hold on power. 

Mbabazi’s departure weakened the NRM a great deal. It also depleted it of its last formidable candidate it could have fielded especially against Besigye whom the NRM acknowledges as a tough challenger. Little wonder then that besides Museveni’s self-interest in the presidency, he remains to some people within the NRM its one and only best bet in a presidential contest. That is why in their calculus, age limits must go for the party to continue its hold onto power. 

From protest artiste to activist politician

Besigye has tried to dislodge Museveni from power but he has repeatedly been cheated out in more ways than one. Had he been declared winner in the 2016 presidential race, which he remains insistent he won, Bobi Wine would all the more likely have continued to steer clear of active politics. He was inspired to throw in his hat particularly because of how badly the Electoral Commission conducted last year’s polls. From his standpoint, it was no longer enough to just speak (or sing) out against such and related injustices when he could physically participate and offer leadership in finding solutions to the challenges at hand.

As it is, he has all but become the face of resistance against the removal of age limits, framing it as a generation defining issue. This has caught on like wild fire. Here is why: At 35 years, he is within the bracket of some 23.7 million Ugandans today, out of the country’s present total population of 37.7 million, who were born under Museveni’s rule.

While Museveni likes to praise himself for pulling Uganda out of the doldrums, majority of Ugandans today have no lived experience of its worst past. What is worse, the more he cracks down on growing dissent against his reign, the clearer he emerges as no different from past leaders he has always sought to distinguish himself from. Bobi Wine has suffered such clampdown and loses no opportunity to rub in the similarities, and more.

Earlier in October, police banned cross-country concerts he has been staging ever since his election; the first time Bobi Wine was touring the country in his entire career spanning over 15 years. The shows attracted massive crowds that treated him to powerful emotional receptions everywhere he went. He, in turn, missed no opportunity to drum up the message of Freedom that he initially explored in Situka (Rise Up), which he released shortly after the disputed 2016 general elections, in Dembe (Peace), which he released on the eve of the elections, and Uganda, which came out about seven months before Freedom.

Police accused him of using his music to push his political ambitions and to incite the public to violence – a charge they all too often throw at anyone critical of the government. Bobi Wine turned it on its head, tweeting “Police isn't supposed to be partisan. One can't use Police to push his political ambitions!!! (sic).” Uganda’s Human Rights Commission, alongside similar organisations, has repeatedly accused police of partisanship.

That police felt the need to clamp down on Bobi Wine suggests he has rattled the status quo in ways they feel threatened by. Music as a channel for political mobilisation has gained incredible visibility in Ugandan politics since Museveni’s so-called rap song titled ‘You Want Another Rap?’ in the 2011 elections that in part won him the youth vote. In 2016, Museveni leaned on music again by recruiting some star artistes to sing his praises in Tubonga Nawe (We’re With You). Bobi Wine’s landslide victory owes in large part to his strong repertoire of protest music that forcefully speaks truth to power. Its bluntness had long endeared him to the public since it departs from camouflage that Ugandan artists of different kinds have previously used in the country’s political struggles. This is what police sought to suffocate – a practise Museveni’s government indulges in all too often to cut off its opponents.

Between Museveni and Besigye

If Bobi Wine’s new body of artistic work has a singular thrust, it is that people can fully enjoy their inalienable rights only for as long as they are willing to fight for them. It is a battle he is more than willing to engage in in any way possible, including exchanging punches if need be.

For at least 30 minutes on November 27 this year, he held off some members of Museveni’s elite guard who had stormed parliament’s debate chambers to evict opposition lawmakers to enable the tabling of the age limits bill. Lean as he is, it still required at least six men to subdue and bundle him out, including one who had to first sneak up to and grab him unawares from the back. His tough stance, as modernspeak goes, broke the internet. His daring response – while all around him colleagues got seized by fright, scampered away from the unravelling terror, or simply watched in disbelief at the unfolding events –further won him public admiration. Here was a man who was ready to take a stand and fight for what he believed in: freedom to represent his constituents’ views without fear or favour.

In the process of all these confrontations with Museveni, Bobi Wine has somehow overshadowed Besigye. He would naturally be leading the charge against Museveni’s supposed plan to rule for life as, in fact, he has done for a number of major opposition causes over the last 17 years. 

Besigye’s unsuccessful attempts to unseat Museveni have jaded a section of the public, which now perceive him as equally power hungry as his ‘political nemesis’. Inside his FDC, there is resentment against him over his continued stranglehold on it.

While Besigye remains popular overall, there is a sense in which Bobi Wine appears his able successor. He is as fervent and brave as Besigye but he is also young, comes across as fresh and more authentic, has national name recognition, has demonstrated organisational capabilities, owes no party anything as to be beholden to it, and is without political baggage to burden him.

What is more, he is already being touted as fit to compete in the 2021 presidential race – an idea he also entertains. While appreciating his wife’s contribution in delivering him to victory, he pledged to make her the first lady of Uganda someday. Hubris, perhaps? But what is politics without an excessive dose of self-confidence? Or, what else does a person who has had to pull himself up by his bootstraps have to rely on for his next high-stakes gambles? 

The future

Powered by a Fanonian sense of mission (ala “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”) Bobi Wine recently addressed an online letter to young Ugandans. He noted in it how the responsibility to build or fail their country lay completely with them.

“Can we therefore stop lamenting only and think about what we can individually and collectively do to redeem this country and set it on a path to true independence? Can each one of us ask this noble question: "What kind of country do I want my child to grow in? What can I do to create that country?" As a generation, what shall we be remembered for? For looking on while our country went to the dogs or for standing up for what we believed was right...

“We must never forget that about four decades ago, young people in Uganda faced similar dilemmas that we face today. They had a choice to make. They refused to sit down and fold their hands and watch as the country went to the dogs. We are once again at that point. Our generation does not have to resort to violence because as we have seen violence begets violence and the cycle never ends. But we can do something to refocus the direction of our country!”

At the onset of his parliamentary journey, a few observers wondered whether by Bobi Wine joining the club he had always criticised he would remain as transformative, revolutionary and influential as he is as an artiste. To this has now been added whether he would respond to the nascent agitation and have a crack at the presidency in 2021.

So far, he has shown that although he is in parliament he is not of parliament. He has continued to organise and mobilise outside of it, through his shows for instance, in ways that suggest he is exploring the idea. His approach can be compared somewhat to how Americans aspiring to political office begin by setting up political action committees to raise money.

Moreover, the way he has continued to lambast the political class has won him few, if any, new friends on both sides of the political divide. Whereas this sounds sweet music to his base, it hardly makes good politics. At the August 25 seminar at MISR, its director Prof. Mahmood Mamdani noted to Bobi Wine that while one man can make music he cannot politics, which inevitably is about alliances. So, what did he think about the current state of political parties in Uganda and nature of political organising generally?

Political parties, Bobi Wine said, are the most civilised way of organising but the current ones in Uganda are saddled with endless and pointless bickering. There is an urgent need to unite regardless of political differences for the betterment of Uganda. Accurate as his response was, it was woefully short on action points.

His critics have latched on such shortage of practical solutions to challenges he well articulates to write him off as a complete political upstart as they come. Yet as with Besigye, who too was quickly written off when he first emerged, or Museveni for that matter, time remains the true arbiter of Bobi Wine’s political trajectory.

* GAAKI KIGAMBO is an independent journalist in Kampala, Uganda.



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