‘Everything Is Worth Freedom’: Uganda’s Opposition Leader Faces the Future

Bobi Wine, the pop star who became a presidential candidate, considers rebuilding his anti-government movement after a violent election season that left many aides and supporters imprisoned.,

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Bobi Wine’s eyes were bloodshot from little sleep. When he spoke, his thoughts trailed off, and his sentences sometimes lacked the precision and eloquence he employed while running for president. At times, he forgot to sip his coffee, even after bringing the mug to his lips.

Mr. Wine, 39, rose from a slum in Kampala, the capital, to become the foremost symbol of national resistance in Uganda, nicknamed the “Ghetto President.” But after an electrifying campaign that drew large crowds nationwide, the musician-turned-politician lost to President Yoweri Museveni in January’s election. He received 34 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s nearly 59 percent, according to Uganda’s electoral commission, despite accusations of vote tampering and rigging.

Now, three months after the end of a violent and bloody campaign season, Mr. Wine appeared nearly broken.

Among other things, Mr. Wine said his mind was on the government crackdown against his campaign, which started even before the election season and intensified in the weeks after the results were announced, when he filed a petition contesting them.

Mr. Wine’s supporters have been forcibly detained and held incommunicado for weeks on end and tortured, and his campaign aides have all been jailed. Just days before this interview, his 15-year-old nephew was kidnapped by unknown gunmen.

In his home, along a winding and potholed road named Freedom Drive, Mr. Wine was appraising the successes of his anti-government campaign while wondering how to build back an opposition movement that had been systemically assailed by Uganda’s president.

“Everything is worth freedom,” Mr. Wine said.

He was also quick to admit that his increasingly lonely and uphill fight had left him psychologically and physically exhausted. “It drains you when you do the right thing,” he said.

Mr. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, rose to fame as a dreadlocked artist whose music — a blend of dance hall, reggae and Afrobeat — drew a wide following and was featured in a Disney movie.

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“What is happening in Uganda seems to be a silent genocide,” Mr. Wine said.Credit…Esther Ruth Mbabazi for The New York Times

After winning a seat in Parliament in 2017, he transformed himself into a leading opposition figure, opposing the lifting of presidential age limits and efforts to tax social media. Last year, when he filed to run for president, he became the most potent challenger to Mr. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986.

Mr. Wine’s political activities have been largely curtailed by the constant threat of arrest.

Despite everything, he said, his presidential run was successful in achieving its main objective: turning the world’s attention to Mr. Museveni’s oppressive government.

“We are glad that he did this in the full glare of the world, unlike ever before.” he said of Mr. Museveni’s actions. “The world is watching.”

In January, Mr. Wine filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, accusing the Ugandan government of human rights abuses against protesters, human rights lawyers and political figures, himself included. He also accused Mr. Museveni of trying to kill him.

“What is happening in Uganda seems to be a silent genocide,” Mr. Wine said.

In the streets of Kampala, Mr. Wine’s election posters remain on display, his serious face and raised fist still drawing support from his followers.

Sseguya Mukasa Kenneth, 27, knew Mr. Wine for years and even practiced boxing with him. In January, Mr. Kenneth was kidnapped and beaten by security officers, he said, and was offered money in exchange for spying on Mr. Wine, which he refused. Mr. Wine, he said, has shown that “the current generation is the hope for the future.”

The opposition leader has faced his own share of criticism, specifically his use of a bulletproof car and his decision to withdraw the petition challenging the election results.

Mr. Wine said the armored vehicle was meant to protect his life — he says he has survived three “assassination attempts” — and cited “bias” and “impunity” in the Supreme Court as the reasons for pulling the suit.

At one point during the interview, his 5-year-old daughter, Suubi Shine Nakaayi, approached him. Protectively clinging to him, she said: “I don’t want my father to go back to jail.”

Mr. Wine is also considering a return to the studio, though his longtime collaborator is in detention and his producer was injured in December.

“I have had to learn to proceed even when my friends are held back,” he said. “And the next time I am offered a louder microphone, which is the studio microphone, I will express exactly what’s on my mind.”

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