Under house arrest after contested election, Uganda's Bobi Wine still hopes to inspire country's youth

·8 min read
Under house arrest after contested election, Uganda's Bobi Wine still hopes to inspire country's youth

Uganda's Bobi Wine is a pied piper of a figure who dared raise the hopes of the country's youth, only to be beaten in an election with the odds tipped against him by a man who has had his hands on the levers of power for 35 years.

So what now for the self-styled "ghetto president"?

Two days after Uganda's electoral commission announced that President Yoweri Museveni had decisively won last week's ballot, Wine and his wife, Barbara, remained under house arrest at their home in Magere, just north of the capital, Kampala.

"Nobody is allowed in, nobody is allowed out. We are stuck," Wine said in a telephone interview with CBC News on Monday morning, adding that government security forces had not only surrounded his house but "jumped over the fence and taken control of my compound."

"We demand that they release me and they release all the political prisoners so we can be able to assemble freely, like is provided for by the law, and discuss the way forward."

Wine said it was clear Museveni was trying to prevent him from speaking to his supporters.

"[The government is] worried I will make a statement that will make the people go active. We've been telling the people of Uganda and we continue to tell them that they must be non-violent, but that they must be assertive."

Wine said his National Unity Platform (NUP) plans to launch a legal challenge to the results, which accorded him 35 per cent of the vote, and to present proof of electoral tampering once internet access is restored to the country.

Museveni 'looking beyond this election'

The government shut internet providers down just a day before the vote on Jan. 14 and one day after military tanks and security forces paraded through opposition neighbourhoods in Kampala, in a show critics say was intended to intimidate opposition supporters already hurting from weeks of violence and arrests by government security forces.

Few analysts thought Wine stood a chance of winning the elections, given Museveni's determination to hold on to power and the tools available to him. But they say Wine nonetheless remains a threat to Museveni's hold on power, and that it's clear Museveni sees him as such.

Although not necessarily from the ballot box.

"People are right to say Mr. Museveni is looking beyond this election," said Fred Muhumuza, a lecturer in economics at the University of Makerere in Kampala.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

"His biggest worry is the ideology that has started, this thinking that is beginning to come. We've seen it in the Arab Spring: Once citizens feel they are not being well provided for by services that have been given by government, it becomes very hard to govern them. So I think there are concerns about the governability of the country going forward."

In a speech on Saturday, Museveni claimed the election to be the fairest in Uganda's history.

His support and that of his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), comes in large part from rural voters and those old enough to remember the stability he brought to the country after the bloody legacies of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the 1970s and '80s.

"For the older generation, the Museveni [appeal] has to do with security," said Muhumuza. "There are people who think [support for Wine] might have to do with other governments or foreign interests trying to take advantage of the youth and cause some kind of insecurity in the country."

Wine appeals to younger Ugandans

But two-thirds of Uganda's population is under the age of 30, offering up a powerful constituency for Wine in a country where jobs are scarce and many voters will have known no other president than Museveni.

"They need to get opportunities to work and for the first time they have a younger person representing them who is in their age bracket," said Muhumuza.

Now 38, Wine grew up in a Kampala slum, which earned him the moniker of the "ghetto president." He grew first to be a successful musician, changing his name from Robert Kyyagulanyi to Bobi Wine and writing songs about social injustice. In 2017, he stood for the national parliament and won.

Getty Images
Getty Images

"He's been a public commentator. Every time in Uganda we had a very sensitive issue, Bobi Wine had a song, [and was] making an intervention. The music that made him a star was music about HIV/AIDS," said Yusuf Serunkuma, a social researcher at Makerere University.

Serunkuma also thinks Museveni is worried about Wine's ability to mobilize the street. The 2018 protests in nearby Sudan, which led to the ousting of president Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power, offer a fresh reminder of what public demonstrations can do.

Serunkuma also said opposition activists understand that it's almost impossible to win an election in a dictatorship that disguises itself as a democracy.

"So what happens is that you mobilize the constituents that make it difficult for [the government] to continue. And I think that this is what Bobi Wine is doing."

Serunkuma said it's that possibility that Museveni has been preparing for, rather than the election.

Election observers kept away

The president's supporters say he has every right to order security forces onto the streets to prevent what they say could be a potential insurrection.

Andrew Mwenda, a journalist with close ties to Museveni and his inner circle, said he knows Bobi Wine "very well."

"I don't have a problem with him, even though I think he is intellectually handicapped to understand the complexities of government," said Mwenda, the founder and managing editor of a newsmagazine called the Independent.

He dismisses Wine's supporters as thugs and hooligans. "They are incapable of tolerating dissent. It's not in their DNA. They make Trump's supporters look like the most liberal democrats the world has ever seen."

On the other hand, Mwenda describes Museveni as a "very tolerant man" — even though the editor almost boasts that he himself was once jailed by Museveni, presumably for criticizing the government.

He said recent attacks by security forces against reporters covering the Bobi Wine campaign — or trying to — were "regrettable," but not a "reflection of the freedom that exists" in Uganda.

WATCH | CBC news crew deported from Uganda ahead of election:

Canada joined several European Union countries, the United Kingdom and the United States in expressing concern over the harassment of journalists and media freedom ahead of the election.

Election observers from the U.S. were refused permission to monitor the vote while the European Union pulled out its own team late last year, citing Uganda's failure to implement previous recommendations on electoral reform.

A coalition of civil society groups making up Africa Elections Watch issued a statement saying their observers found that the vote did not "meet the threshold of a democratic, free, fair and transparent credible electoral process."

Wine happy to 'inspire young people'

Wine's challenge to Museveni is the story of this election and is potentially a defining moment for the country. But it makes it no easier to predict his future.

On the phone on Monday, Wine was endlessly gracious, but the fatigue in his voice came through.

Serunkuma has described Wine's popularity as contagious. He acknowledged that Wine has "really been successful, but I'm not sure whether what he's done is sustainable. Ugandans do not take to the streets."

Stringer/AFP via Getty Images
Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

When they did in November, it came with a heavy price — at least 54 people were killed by security forces when protests erupted after one of Wine's arrests, allegedly for breaking COVID-19 restrictions.

"I don't think anything is going to happen because the president has done so much to prepare for the moment after the election," said Serunkuma. "It started way, way back."

Muhuzuma said "there are people who think the election will simply be an event in a long process of what will eventually remove Mr. Museveni."

The question is, will his regime crack down even harder on civil liberties or will some of those in power be rattled enough to try and change something from within?

"A lot of [Museveni's] supporters have, I think, picked up that signal, to say we can't just keep growth that is not inclusive, that is not creating opportunities for youth," said Muhuzuma.

For his part, Wine said he is determined to see Uganda through to a new chapter. If that means merely serving as an inspiration for real change, it will be enough.

"I came in not saying that I am the alpha and the omega, but I wanted to spark the mind that would change the world, to influence and inspire young people, and I am very glad to see that happening," he said.

Wine also said he continues to fear for his safety and that of his wife.

"We hope the world continues to put the focus on Uganda and to hold General Museveni accountable for our lives."