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Bobi Wine: From pop idol to candidate in Uganda

Martina Schwikowski
December 31, 2020

Uganda votes for a new president in January. Popular musician and challenger Bobi Wine wants to build a united coalition. In his way is President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled with an iron fist for over three decades.

Uganda Bobi Wine
Image: Sumy Sadurni/Getty Images/AFP

Bobi Wine has always been a popular figure among Ugandans. Over the past few years, though, he has become a thorn in the side of Uganda's government. The 38-year-old will take on the country's longtime president in the January 14 election.

Wine — one of President Yoweri Museveni's biggest critics — became famous as a reggae and pop musician. His albums and singles have made him a household name across East Africa for over 15 years. Among other honors, he has won an MTV Music Award.

Picture combination of Ugandans Yoweri Museveni und Bobi Wine
President Museveni, in power for 34 years, faces a significant challenge from Bobi Wine

But, since 2017, Wine has been a prominent member of the opposition in Uganda's Parliament. In November, Wine, whose given name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was named the presidential candidate of the National Unity Platform (NUP) opposition party.

Wine has predicted a difficult fight to free Uganda from Museveni's 34-year rule in his nomination speech: "Today, we close the book of lamentation and open the Book of Acts."

The 'ghetto president'

With this statement, the pop star signal led his intention to end Museveni's grip on power. This is a serious threat for Uganda's political elite, and, directly following his presidential nomination, Wine was detained for a few hours by police. Wine later said he was harassed and abused. 

The election campaigns in Uganda have been fraught with violence, especially for the opposition. In November, the government said dozens of people were killed in campaign-related violence. In December, one of Wine's aides suffered serious injuries from rubber bullets during a confrontation between security forces and opposition supporters.

Just three weeks before the presidential vote in Uganda, the death of Wine's bodyguard threw a spotlight on the violence in the run-up to the poll. Wine said his aide was purposefully run over by a military police vehicle, which the military denied.  

A singer's ascent

The music star, who was raised in a poor neighborhood of Kampala, embraces his background as the "ghetto president," and says he fights for his vision of a democratic Uganda. 

"I want to live in a free Uganda. But as an ideology, we are people who want to feel that we matter in our country," he told DW in 2018.

No obstacle seems too big for the charismatic singer. Torture, abuse and accusations of high treason from the government have so far not been able to deter his campaign.

Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, behind bars
Presidential candidate Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times by security forcesImage: REUTERS

"I must also say that I am presidential material," Wine told DW in August. "I'm well educated and well researched and well traveled. But most importantly, if we are to compare with a president that has presided over our country for more than 34 years, he is not as educated as I am. He was not as credible as I am."

A united Uganda?

Wine has outlined five key goals for his potential presidency. He wants to establish law and order and respect for human rights. He promises improvements to the health sector, education system and agriculture sector. Land ownership should return to the people. He also wants to unite Uganda's ethnically diverse society. 

Will young voters decide Uganda's election?

To achieve his goals, Wine believes he must use both sides of his personality: "The different characters have different roles to play. As Kyagulanyi, I walk into Parliament and articulate issues. As Bobi Wine the musician, I also use the microphone to make sure that the message goes as far as possible. I think they just complement each other."

Wine speaks to the frustrations of younger Ugandan voters, who make up a considerable portion of the population.

Museveni — who has led Uganda since 1986 — once held this role. But today, many of the younger generation are critical of corruption and ineffective governance. Wine demands change — with the help of a peaceful revolution.

Crowd of Ugandans cheer at an election rally
Wine has support from youth in a country where 70% of people are under the age of 30Image: Sumy Sadurni/Getty Images/AFP

"The People Power Revolution is actually an initiative that seeks first and foremost to create or to unite all change-seeking forces in Uganda. After that, then we can proceed and change our country. It is a belief in the sovereignty of the people, as indeed provided for in our constitution right at the beginning. That old power belongs to the people. So, we are reminding people about their power, but most importantly, about the ability to make use of that power that they have," Wine told DW.

Wine said Uganda's 2016 election was a key moment for him in deciding to run for office. Museveni officially won by a landslide, but the vote was not seen as transparent or fair.

When he saw, as many saw, there was no chance a peaceful transition of power through elections, Bobi Wine decided that his candidacy would "bring back the hope and confidence in the people and make them realize that we can change our destiny."

This article was adapted from the German by Cai Nebe.