Bobi Wine: Past year shows life isn’t going to get any easier for presidential hopeful

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For Bobi Wine, 2018 was a difficult year that saw him detained for months on end, severely injured while being held by military officials and charged with treason. It was also a pivotal year that cemented his status as Uganda’s primary hope for political change – not only among the country’s youth but also the international community.

The injuries he sustained while being held in detention left him requiring specialist medial attention in the US. Ugandan authorities assumed Wine would take his chance to flee the country, charges of treason and never return. They were wrong. Instead, Wine took his story to the US mainstream media, which had already gained an interest in his struggles prior to leaving Uganda.

TV interviews spread his message across the global stage and placed him as a true threat to President Museveni’s grip on power. Wine then promised to return to Uganda and continue his fight for political change while acknowledging that doing so puts his freedom – and possibly his life – in constant danger.

He was telling the world to watch his return and pay attention to Museveni’s response. Wine had successfully captured the world’s attention and now he called upon it to keep the spotlight firmly shined on Museveni’s regime.

Now, Wine is gearing up to take Museveni on in national election in 2021 and concerns are already being raised over the build-up to next year’s vote. The past twelve has proved that life isn’t going to get any easier for Bobi Wine. In fact, the closer he gets to standing against Museveni, the more danger his career and life are likely to face.

January 2019: Bobi Wine named among the top 100 global thinkers

In January 2019, The United States Foreign Policy magazine has named Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine among the top 100 foreign policy global thinkers of the previous year.

“Uganda’s firebrand singer-turned-politician grew up poor in Kampala. Today, he represents a section of the city as a member of parliament. Bobi Wine, born Robert Kyagulanyi, has rallied Uganda’s youth by arguing against a proposed social media tax and fighting for the dignity of the poor. Ugandan soldiers attempted to silence Wine in August 2018, first beating him brutally and then bringing him to trial for treason in a military court, although he is a civilian. Wine recovered, picked up attention in the international media, and his “people power” campaign continues, undeterred.”

He was named among the world’s top actors in Activism & The Arts with his struggles and achievement in 2018 credited by the publication. It was proof of the international recognition Wine had achieved and a good start to 2019 for the opposition leader.

March 2019: Wine says Museveni’s days as president are numbered

Carrying on from the momentum of a good start to the year, Wine spent the early months of 2019 spreading his message within Uganda to increasingly large audiences. In March, he sent out a message to President Yoweri Museveni, warning him that his days at the country’s leader were numbered.

“I tell you [Museveni], your days are numbered. How can you say you went to the bush and fought for democracy yet you don’t even practise it in your NRM (National Resistance Movement) party even after 33 years?” he was quoted by multiple local news sources.

April 2019: Bobi Wine arrested once again

Towards the end of April, Wine found himself being detained by authorities once again. Authorities in the country had spent recent weeks placing the politician under house arrest and preventing him from holding concerts. Wine managed to escape security officers at his home and reach his private club where the event was planned to be held.

Security officers later shut down the event, allegedly pulling Wine from his car before arresting him and firing teargas at his supporters.

Police later said Wine had been arrested for his alleged involvement in a street protest the previous year over the introduction of Uganda’s controversial social media tax. He was charged with holding an illegal public assembly without obtaining prior police authorisation.

May 2019: Museveni warns Wine, Besigye over ‘hate speech’

By May, Bobi Wine’s status as a potential rival to Museveni in Uganda’s next presidential election was higher. With the world’s attention on events in Uganda, Wine resisted attempts by the authorities to intimidate him and his supporters. The president responded by firing a warning shot at Wine and long-time opponent Kizza Besigye over what he called “hate speech”.

What he was really referring to was the pair’s individuals calls for political change ahead of the 2021 polls. Museveni said authorities would continue to prevent Wine from holding rallies and events until he stopped preaching hate to Ugandans, contradicting previous claims made that there weren’t enough security officials available for his events.

June 2019: Wine’s promoter arrested by counter-terror police

In June 2019, Bobi Wine’s promoter Andrew Mukasa, who more commonly goes by the name of Bajjo, was arrested by police and charged with inciting violence and offensive communication against the president. The prosecution claimed that Bajjo incited members of the public to carry out acts of violence against Museveni at events in multiple parts of the country and uploaded a video to social media claiming he would overthrow the president.

His court case dragged on with Bajjo remaining in detention throughout.

By July, Bajjo’s lawyer said he needed urgent medical attention in a harrowing reminder of the injuries Bobi Wine had sustained while being detained the previous year. Later the same month, Bajjo was granted bail and in November the courts threatened to dismiss the case against him, which continues to drag on.

July 2019: Wine confirms he will run for president in 2021

July was also the month Bobi Wine confirmed his plans to run for president in 2021, announcing that he would “challenge President Museveni on behalf of the people.”

At the same time, he admitted that he fears for his safety every day amid intensifying pressure from authorities. He cited the shooting of his driver in August the previous year, which he said he believed to be an attempt on his own life.

August 2019: Wine charged with ‘annoying’ President Museveni

In August, Bobi Wine was arrested and charged with intending to “alarm, annoy of ridicule” President  Yoweri Museveni. The incident not only proved how difficult Museveni is prepared to make life for Wine, as long as he continues his political aspirations, but also how absurd the charges authorities are prepared to use him can be.

September 2019: Uganda bans Wine’s signature red beret

With support for Bobi Wine continuing to grow in Uganda, the government imposed a ban on the red beret he adopted as his political symbol. The ban named the headgear and other military accessories as property of the state and threatened to prosecute anyone wearing or selling such items under military law.

October 2019: Wine escapes house arrest

On October 9, Bobi Wine escaped security forces at his home, where they had allegedly placed him under house arrest, and evaded them on a motorcycle. He later posted a video on Facebook of him standing on the back of a bike, riding through a busy road with his right fist held in the air, wearing his signature and now-banned red beret.

Sirens can be heard in the background with the police appearing to chase a convoy of motorbikes. The bike carrying Wine is surrounded by a group of supporters cheering and beeping their horns. Wine had earlier said that he was placed under house arrest in order to prevent him from holding and Independence Day concert. Ugandan police responded by claiming they didn’t approve the concert due to a lack of security personnel being available to protect those in attendance.

Wine suggested that the security officers sent to his home could have instead been used for the show.

November 2019: Wine named on TIME 100 Next

Bobi Wine received some more international recognition in November when he was named in the 2019 TIME 100 Next.

“Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine spent his career singing about social injustice. In 2017, he decided to take things a step further by running for, and winning, a seat in parliament. Now the 37-year-old singer, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has set his sights higher, announcing in July that he will take on President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for the past 33 years through a combination of deft politics, questionable election practices and constitutional manipulation.”

The publisher focused on the MP’s desire to instigate political change in Uganda and the risks this comes with. “Wine’s growing popularity amounts to peril,” it explains. “He has been jailed, beaten and charged with treason—proof, he says, that the President is running scared well in advance of the 2021 election and that change is on the way.”

January 2020: Wine arrested again, police fire

teargas at supporters

After a positive start to the previous year, 2020 began with less promising prospects for Bobi Wine after he was arrested on January 6. This time, his crime was holding a public meeting ahead of officially starting his campaign to rin as president in next year’s election. Once again, police fired teargas at his supporters as they broke up crowds and arrested other members of his political group.

Little more than a week later, the Committee to Protect Journalists accused police of harassing and detaining journalists covering the event.

“On January 6, police in central Uganda’s Wakiso district detained four journalists who were covering a planned political event by opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi,” the organisation said.

“Police released three of the journalists later that day without charge, but detained Tamale, a reporter with the Luganda-language television station BBS Terefayina and a contributor to the Tamie Imagez YouTube page, until the following evening at the nearby Kasangati police station.”

The campaign season will only make things more difficult for Bobi Wine

Over the past few years, Bobi Wine has endured more than most politicians would be willing to experience throughout their entire career. However, there is one Ugandan opposition figure that stands out as the country’s longest-suffering rival to Yoweri Museveni.

Kizza Besigye has been arrested dozens of times, charged with reasons twice and was even detained during Uganda’s last election. Bobi Wine may have replaced Kizza as Uganda’s most popular opposition candidate but Besigye’s story suggests things are only going to get more difficult for Wine as the 2021 election campaign progresses.

Besigye has been Museveni’s greatest opponent for decades yet the incumbent president has come out on top at every time of asking. The biggest danger for Museveni lies in the fact that the majority of his support comes from older voters amidst growing demands for change among younger generations. In this sense, it’s only a matter of time before support for the likes of Bobi Wine becomes greater than the ageing demographic behind Museveni.

However, Wine’s emergence could also prove to be Museveni’s greatest asset. Kizza Besigye remains a popular figure with many loyal supporters and splitting anti-Museveni votes could pave the way for the president to secure an easy majority. Museveni has certainly overcome the odds before and another election win next year could leave Bobi Wine facing the prospect of becoming another Kizza Besigye resigned to battling political oppression for the majority of his career.

Featured image: By Mbowasport – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81995826

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.