A rapper’s quest to be president

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Robert Kyagulanyi (who goes by the stage name Bobi Wine) has seized the imagination of a generation. And he plans to use that energy to propel himself to the presidency of Uganda.
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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has kept a grip on power for more than three decades. Can a rapper-turned-politician change that?

Parliamentarian Bobi Wine, with his signature red beret and his “People Power” movement, has seized the young generation’s imagination here. Across Africa, the median age is 19 – but young people generally play little role in politics.

Why We Wrote This

Bobi Wine wants to unseat Uganda’s entrenched ruler. Can he stir a youth revolution here and across Africa?

“Young people are standing up” across the continent, proclaims Mr. Wine, who hopes to defeat President Museveni in the 2021 elections. “Africa is shaking.”

That may be stretching things. But a number of long-serving rulers have made way for successors in the past two years, from Zimbabwe to Sudan – though rarely with good grace. 

Today, the once brash Mr. Wine has left behind the strut and swagger of a bad-boy rap star. Over the years, his lyrics addressed social issues, and eventually became overtly critical of the government. During a crackdown last year, he was arrested and charged with treason; he says he was tortured by security officers.

Some worry his populist brand of politics is thin on specific proposals – and, in fact, not unlike Mr. Museveni’s, when he first came to power. But others see him as the man to herald a newly empowered youth movement to reinvigorate democracy.

The dirt road running through this ramshackle village is packed with a rapturous crowd of cheering young men and women. Car horns shriek. Dance music blares from sound systems. Pandemonium reigns as Bobi Wine, rapper-turned-politician, pushes through the mob.

“People power,” chant his supporters.

“Our power,” echo others.

Why We Wrote This

Bobi Wine wants to unseat Uganda’s entrenched ruler. Can he stir a youth revolution here and across Africa?

As security men carve a path for him through the adoring throng, Mr. Wine, in his signature red beret, acknowledges the adulation with a smile and a clenched-fist salute. But today he makes no fiery speeches that might provoke a response from the Ugandan government, with which he has often clashed. He is simply here to plant a small tree in memory of his driver, who was shot dead exactly one year earlier, and his demeanor is as grave as his admirers are boisterous.

On a continent where the median age is 19 but where dispossessed young people generally play little role in politics, Robert Kyagulanyi (who goes by the stage name Bobi Wine) has seized the imagination of a generation. And he plans to use that energy to propel himself to the presidency of Uganda.

His popularity has already swept him into Parliament, where he has been a member since 2017. Now he is preparing an audacious bid to topple Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s towering “Big Men” who has been in office for 33 years, in 2021 elections. His fame and appeal have crossed borders, garnering him fans well beyond Uganda.

“Bobi Wine has emerged as a figurehead for a generation of thwarted aspirations,” says Ben Shepherd, an Africa expert at Chatham House, the London-based think tank.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Supporters of Bobi Wine, a leading opposition figure in Uganda, attend a prayer service for his driver, who was shot and killed one year ago.

And as the enduring strongmen blamed for dampening those dreams leave the stage – from Algeria to Zimbabwe – could Mr. Wine be the man to herald a newly empowered youth movement in Africa to reinvigorate democracy?

He would like to think so. “Young people are standing up” from Sudan to South Africa, he proclaims. “Africa is shaking.”

That may be stretching things. But there have certainly been rumblings over the past two years as a number of long-serving African rulers have made way – rarely with good grace – for their successors.

  • In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe (who died in September) was forced from office in 2017, his grip on power finally pried open for the first time in 37 years since the end of the guerrilla war he and his allies had waged successfully.
  • Also in 2017, José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after 38 years as president of Angola, though he left two of his children in key government posts.
  • That same year, Yahya Jammeh, president of Gambia, relinquished power under military pressure from neighboring West African states, which forced him to accept that he had lost an election. He had ruled since leading a military coup 23 years earlier.
  • In April 2019, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – in power for 30 years – was ousted in a military coup after months of widespread popular protests. The coup leaders have since negotiated the formation of a civilian-military transitional government, which includes opposition figures.
  • Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned as president of Algeria earlier this year as well in the face of sustained demonstrations against his decision to run for a fifth consecutive term. Young people are still protesting in large numbers every Friday, demanding greater democratic freedoms.

Students and other youth were at the forefront of efforts to unseat General Bashir and Mr. Bouteflika, but the ultimate outcomes in Sudan and Algeria are still unclear. And a number of historic Big Men – plus younger leaders apparently attracted to their style of governance and status in office – remain in power. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema is still ruling 40 years after he headed a military coup. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame shows no sign of leaving office, even 25 years after the rebel army he led ended the Rwandan genocide.

Here in Uganda, President Museveni has used the ruling party’s overwhelming majority in Parliament to eliminate presidential term limits and abolish the age limit of 75 that would have stopped him from contesting the 2021 presidential elections. With the army loyal to him, a tame Electoral Commission, and extensive powers of patronage, Mr. Museveni has kept a firm grip on power for more than three decades.

“It’s clear he has no intention of leaving and he has all the power, so how are you going to win elections against him?” asks Joachim Buwembo, a political commentator in Kampala, the capital.

“Young people are very frustrated by the president,” says one senior Western diplomat here. “He’s been there forever. They see no future and they wonder how do they get him out. They are frustrated, but they don’t have solutions.”

Mr. Wine says he has a solution: People Power.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Bobi Wine (center, in white) and his supporters walk to a prayer service for his driver, who was killed a year ago.

It took getting beaten up to spark Mr. Wine’s interest in politics.

About 10 years ago, when he was famous only as a rapper, he drove to a nightclub in his new Cadillac Escalade SUV – the only one of its kind in East Africa. As he was leaving the club he was jumped by a young man, he says, “who beat me up so bad, and asked me why I was showing off as if I didn’t know that this country had owners,” referring to its rulers.

“I was the hot boy of the night until I was deflated by that beating,” he says. “That night was a very transformative night for me. Now we want to say that this country has owners and those owners are all of us.”

Today, the once brash Mr. Wine has left behind the strut and swagger of a bad-boy rap star. His heavily tattooed arms recall his past, but the dreadlocks are gone, and during an interview in the garden of his home outside Kampala, he is straightforward, speaking softly, in measured tones.

“I had to grow up much faster than my age,” says the 37-year-old of his political education.

As a rapper, Mr. Wine made a name for himself across eastern and southern Africa and toured European capitals. He also amassed a small fortune: He is reportedly one of the richest musicians in East Africa.

Today he lives behind high gates in Magere, a village 30 miles north of Kampala, in a whitewashed villa whose pillared terrace overlooks a well-watered lawn, immaculately trimmed by a gardener. It is decorated with a flock of plump guinea fowl.

The compound is a long way from the Kampala slum where he grew up, the sixth of 10 children, but he says he is “proud that I came from the ghetto.” To press the point, he sports a vanity plate on his Escalade that says GHETTO, and he has nicknamed himself the Ghetto President.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Clenched-fist supporters of Mr. Wine, acting as his escort on motorcycles, arrive at his home in the village of Magere outside Kampala.

As Mr. Wine became more politically engaged, his lyrics grew more purposeful. In songs he branded “edutainment,” he sang about social issues and promoted personal hygiene and public health. Gradually, he became overtly political and critical of the government.

When, in 2016, Mr. Museveni won elections that international observers found neither free nor fair, “I thought it was high time I stopped being a spectator or only a talker,” Mr. Wine explains. So he ran for Parliament as an independent and won comfortably.

Political success has turned his life upside down. For a start, he complains, the Museveni government has forbidden him to stage concerts and banned his songs from being played on Ugandan radio and TV. That hasn’t kept him out of his studio in Kamwokya, the slum where he was raised. He is currently recording an album to be called “Forbidden Music,” he says, that his fans will all be able to listen to on YouTube, regardless of the broadcast ban.

As we speak, a crowd of those fans and supporters can be heard in the road outside the gates, revving their motorcycle engines and demanding to be let in. They are the escort that will accompany Mr. Wine to the ceremony later that afternoon marking the anniversary of his driver’s death.

The escorts are a motley crew of young men, most of them wearing the red berets that signal their membership in the People Power movement, but they switch their engines off and glide quietly down the drive when they see that their hero is occupied.

Yasin Kawuma, the driver, was shot in the northern town of Arua last year during a crackdown by soldiers after Mr. Museveni’s motorcade was allegedly pelted with stones by opposition supporters following a campaign rally. Mr. Wine, who was in town campaigning with other opposition figures, was arrested along with his colleagues in a hotel far from the disturbance. He says he was beaten severely with iron bars and then tortured in the military vehicle that took him to jail. Detained for two weeks, he was charged with treason (a charge that is still active) before traveling to the United States for medical treatment.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wearing his trademark white caftan, Mr. Wine and others pay tribute to his late driver.

The violence of the government’s reaction, he says, suggests that the authorities are rattled. (That impression would be strengthened a few weeks after our interview, when the government banned civilians from wearing red berets like Mr. Wine’s trademark headgear, on pain of life imprisonment.) “They are very scared of us and in a very shaky position,” he insists, lapsing – as he occasionally does – into the royal “we.” “As much as they’ve been able to intimidate a few people,” he adds, “they’ve also succeeded in emboldening us.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t fear for his life. “The regime is extremely threatened by the challenge we pose,” he says. “They seek to eliminate us once and for all. The regime in Uganda wants me dead as soon as yesterday.”

But as long as he is alive he can be playful, despite the tension. “Can I just kiss my wife?” he asks as Barbara Itungo Kyagulanyi, a social worker credited with raising Mr. Wine’s political consciousness and polishing his public image, appears from the house.

Why does Mr. Wine think he poses such a threat to the government? “Because we are the energy that seeks to unite all change-seeking forces in Uganda,” he answers. “We are the gum that seeks to bind all those other [opposition forces] so that we can exalt the people.” The strategy is working, he claims, pointing to a string of parliamentary by-elections over the past two years in which candidates he backed were victorious.

People Power, in Mr. Wine’s version of it, does not have the far-left connotations that the slogan carried in 1970s America. Rather, it sets “the people” against an autocratic president. People Power is not a political party, but a movement driven by young people. Its only ideology is embodied in the name itself.

The movement here is not the first of its kind in Africa, nor is this generation of youth the first to have been frustrated by a lack of opportunities. Yet Mr. Wine believes this wave of activism is different, both because of the number of young people involved and their ability to communicate.

“We are many. We are much more informed and connected than we have ever been,” he says. “I am placed in a generation that is unstoppable.”

But first, the young people need to gather momentum, he adds. “They have the power only if they choose to open their eyes to that reality. Our message has always been ‘assert your power, claim your power through your vote.’”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is a throbbing city of 1.6 million people that sprawls among rolling hills.

And that will take organization. Voter registration drives will be key, Mr. Wine says, but mounting such initiatives in Uganda’s rural areas, where the vast majority of voters live, is not easy. The countryside has always been the stronghold of Mr. Museveni’s National Resistance Movement political party and his supporters control much of local government, not to mention the army and police. “The government makes it extremely, extremely complicated for us to organize,” Mr. Wine says. “But we always find a way, clandestine-style.”

The government could certainly manipulate the elections in a way that ensures Mr. Museveni’s victory, as Mr. Wine is well aware. He lays out what he thinks would be the consequences if it did so.

“If he tries to rig the elections, the people of Uganda will make sure it’s not business as usual,” Mr. Wine says. “He is going to lose to the people of Uganda by any ... legal and constitutional means necessary.” He prefers not to specify what that might mean, other than to forswear violence.

Nor is he very specific about what exactly he would do if he were elected, since the People Power movement has no policy platform. Mr. Wine is impatient with efforts to press him on this issue and brushes them off. “We don’t have institutions here; we have Museveni, his family, and his hangers-on,” he says. “In a country where institutions are empowered and allowed to work, solutions will be there.

“Telling people that are enslaved in their own country, asking them for their policy alternatives is like asking a person that has not had a meal for a week whether they’ll have their eggs scrambled or otherwise,” he says. “All they want is to eat. And for starters all we want to be is free. We want to matter. We want our voice to count.”

That’s as much of a policy statement as Timothy Ssimbwa needs to hear.

A 26-year-old who teaches middle school history and religion, Mr. Ssimbwa has taken time off from marking exams to turn out today as a member of Mr. Wine’s motorcycle escort. Resplendent in bright red overalls and green beret, he explains that he likes Mr. Wine simply “because he’s my hope. He’s a youth like me.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mr. Wine’s SUV bears the vanity plate GHETTO, which is a nod to the rapper’s upbringing in the slums of Kampala.

“He’s ordinary; he grew up in the ghetto,” Mr. Ssimbwa says, as he waits patiently in the shade of a garden awning for Mr. Wine to finish a series of press interviews. “Since he’s ordinary, he’d be a good leader.”

Mr. Wine’s appeal is not unlike Mr. Museveni’s in the days when he was leading a bush rebellion against Uganda’s then-President Milton Obote, suggests Aili Tripp, who teaches African politics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s all centered on an individual,” Professor Tripp says, and carries a strong populist message. “That’s hard to escape without a stronger tradition of democratic institutions.”

Yet in order for Mr. Ssimbwa and other members of the youth movement to translate their passion into power, they will have to remain unified and persevere in challenging authorities. Young Africans “haven’t had the organizational capacity or ideological connectedness; they are still scattered,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of history at Makerere University in Kampala. “They are aware, but not conscious,” he says, drawing a distinction noted by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. “Aware of being young people with unmet needs, but not conscious enough to take action.”

Still, Mr. Wine could be crucial in helping Uganda’s youth find their voice. While most young people are simply frustrated but don’t know more than to say they are unhappy with their situation, “Bobi Wine and other younger politicians who are willing to say ‘we don’t agree’ are creating a coherence in what people say” beyond just their desire for jobs, according to the Western diplomat.

That kind of direction will be particularly important given the pervasive power of the government. “Turning anger into consistent mobilization and demonstrations will take a high level of leadership” in the face of official hostility, says Perry Aritua, who runs the Ugandan branch of the Women’s Democracy Network, a nongovernmental organization encouraging young women to run for political office. “In Uganda we’ve yet to see the level of resilience needed to organize civic action.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Politicians don’t listen to young people. We are just seen as pawns during election campaigns.” – Julius Kateregga, president of the Makerere University Students Guild, who ran for election as a People Power candidate

A lot is at stake, should leadership falter. “Youth has not always been on the side of good things here,” says Mahmood Mamdani, head of the Makerere Institute of Social Research. “They’ve provided the storm troopers for warlords and for government youth wings.” The nature of any new youth wave “will depend on what kind of leadership emerges,” Professor Mamdani says.

Mr. Wine’s leadership of a national organization has yet to be tested, but he has proved he can be adaptable. Five years ago, the rap star was denied a visa to enter Britain, where he was due to play two concerts, because some of his song lyrics were violently homophobic – matching the prevailing culture in socially conservative Uganda.

Today, in his songs and public statements, Mr. Wine expresses greater tolerance. “He’s a genuinely curious person who wants to learn,” says Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, an NGO promoting democracy in Africa, who has hosted Mr. Wine in Washington. “I was skeptical about him; I expected another brash guy who was all talk, but in fact he was here to listen and learn.” While some young African populist political stars, such as Julius Malema in South Africa, have been accused of playing on divisions and fear, “Bobi Wine is all about bringing disparate voices to the table,” Mr. Smith says.

Mr. Malema is not the only young African leader whom Mr. Wine sees as a kindred spirit. He mentions the names of Nelson Chamisa, the opposition leader in Zimbabwe, Saulos Chilima – currently challenging the results of last May’s elections in Malawi – and jailed South Sudanese human rights activist Peter Biar Ajak.

There is little sign, though, that such disparate rising figures could lead a continentwide movement such as the Pan-African wave that swept post-colonial Africa. “There is a concerted effort in different countries to talk to the youth, but the ideological approach of these young leaders, what’s driving them, is not clear,” says Yona Kanyomozi, a former Ugandan government minister. “That makes it difficult for them to work together.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“Bobi Wine started in music; that can really make youth engage in something productive.” – Agili Prisca, a first-year student at Makerere University (center), who sits with students Esther Adeke (left) and Asiimwe Dhurufah

There is certainly a huge potential following for such leaders: 78% of Uganda’s population is under age 30. At current growth rates, those under 24 across Africa will rise by more than 50%, to 945 million, by 2050.

“There is a big structural change in population across the continent,” says Mr. Shepherd of Chatham House. “Young people have very different outlooks and aspirations from their parents – they are globally connected and they do not want to be farmers.

“I see turbulence ahead,” he adds. “The big dynamic of the next two decades is how transformative this will be, whether the old guard will be able to absorb the momentum of this wave of change.”

Riding that wave, and trying to control it, will require different skills than merely stirring young people to action. “Bobi and other young politicians understand that they have to show that they can be disciplined leaders when they may not have all the skills needed to be disciplined leaders,” says the senior Western diplomat.

Mr. Wine says he is working on it. As he readies himself for his Muslim driver’s memorial service, slipping into a white caftan over his jeans and T-shirt, he reflects on his fate. He is not reveling in the moment, he says. How could he enjoy the concert ban, the beatings, and the endless court cases to which he has been subjected?

“But because this is the predicament, this is the destiny, I am trying to learn to enjoy the struggle,” he says. “Because the struggle has become the way of life I’ve had to adjust to. Life is the way it is. Because this is it.”

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