Bobi Wine and the fu­ture of Uganda

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - Pa­tience Akumu

We Are Fight­ing for Free­dom is the un­of­fi­cial an­them of Kam­wokya, a slum in Kam­pala, Uganda, where the mu­si­cianturned-politi­cian Robert Kyag­u­lanyi Ssen­tamu – whose stage name is Bobi Wine – grew up. Kyag­u­lanyi re­leased the song to ex­press his anger at at­tempts to amend the con­sti­tu­tion to give pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni yet an­other term in of­fice, af­ter 32 years in power.

The song can be heard through torn cur­tains and across open sew­ers, mix­ing po­tently with the res­o­lute words Free Bobi, which are sprayed across frag­ile walls.

The gov­ern­ment is ter­ri­fied of Kyag­u­lanyi. It has clob­bered his sup­port­ers and jour­nal­ists, and even im­posed an elec­tric­ity black­out as he was due to ap­pear on Voice of Amer­ica. The money it has tried to use to bribe Kyag­u­lanyi’s young sup­port­ers from the ghet­tos, called the “peo­ple power” move­ment, be­trays its des­per­a­tion.

It lends cre­dence to the idea that Kyag­u­lanyi is on to some­thing big­ger than he re­alises.

In Au­gust, he was ar­rested af­ter his driver, Yasin Kawuma, was shot dead dur­ing a lo­cal elec­tion. The gov­ern­ment had been rest­less over Kyag­u­lanyi’s abil­ity to turn the tide of an elec­tion.

Ev­ery can­di­date he en­dorses wins. Af­ter his ar­rest a mil­i­tary court charged him with un­law­ful pos­ses­sion of firearms, and the mil­i­tary pa­raded guns and tried to con­vince Ugan­dans that the weapons had been found in his ho­tel room. When it be­came clear the story didn’t add up, the charges were dropped and, ema­ci­ated and limp­ing, Kyag­u­lanyi was re­leased, af­ter weeks in a mil­i­tary prison. He was handed over to po­lice, charged with trea­son and held in a civil prison.

His ar­rest won him in­ter­na­tional sym­pa­thy and put him in the ranks of young Africans chal­leng­ing the old guard’s hold on power – along­side Rwanda’s Diane Rwigara, who at 38 has stood up to Paul Kagame’s pres­i­dency, as well as op­po­si­tion lead­ers in South Africa and Zim­babwe. Af­ter pres­sure from so­cial me­dia ac­tivists, diplo­matic mis­sions and civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, Kyag­u­lanyi was re­leased on bail af­ter nearly a month.

Three-quar­ters of Uganda’s pop­u­la­tion are un­der 35.

Kam­wokya’s res­i­dents sup­port 36-year-old Kyag­u­lanyi be­cause he is, like them, young, hun­gry and an­gry that the only pres­i­dent they have known is Mu­sev­eni, 74. They re­alise the man they sang nurs­ery rhymes in praise of is not in­dis­pens­able, and that their poverty is not in­evitable. Kyag­u­lanyi’s jour­ney from the ghetto to Magere – a mid­dle-class area of Kam­pala – is an in­spi­ra­tion.

Un­like pre­vi­ous op­po­si­tion lead­ers, Kyag­u­lanyi does not have links to the es­tab­lish­ment or a mil­i­tary back­ground. His wealth, un­like that of most of Uganda’s rich, is trace­able. He was born in the ghetto: a life of crime and drugs beck­oned. But, through mu­sic, he rose above it, made money and changed his life. So when he talks about trans­for­ma­tion, his sup­port­ers be­lieve he can do for the na­tion what he did for him­self.

Yet Uganda has been in this state of hope be­fore – in ev­ery elec­tion since Mu­sev­eni took power in 1986. Kizza Be­si­gye, who has run and lost against Mu­sev­eni four times – twice in elec­tions the courts found to be flawed (but not flawed enough to jus­tify the nul­li­fi­ca­tion of the en­tire elec­tion) – also seemed to have sup­port. Crowds fol­lowed him, and peo­ple lined up for hours to vote.

But in Uganda, pop­u­lar sup­port – and, in­deed, peo­ple power – mean noth­ing, and Mu­sev­eni knows it. Why? Be­cause beyond an­gry so­cial me­dia posts and in­sult­ing memes, most Ugan­dans will not dare leave the com­fort of their key­boards and risk be­ing killed in the name of change.

Mu­sev­eni knows all he has to do is re­mind the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that with­out his army – which is al­ways avail­able for peace­keep­ing mis­sions, wher­ever the UN and US want them – the re­gion could com­bust into con­flict, lead­ing to an­other refugee cri­sis. So gov­ern­ments around the world con­tinue to fund var­i­ous Mu­sev­eni projects, in­clud­ing Uganda’s mil­i­tary.

But peo­ple power sup­port­ers are not or­di­nary Ugan­dans, con­tent to make a noise in the safety of the in­ter­net. Kyag­u­lanyi’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced the poverty that lies be­hind the statis­tics. They have gone to bed hun­gry many times. They have known hope­less­ness.

The real free­dom from their daily malaise is yet to be won, but they will not let hope go •

Pa­tience Akumu is a writer for the Kam­pala Ob­server in Uganda

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