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Uganda: Bobi Wine threatens Museveni's three decades rule

Susan Houlton
May 1, 2019

Ugandan singer turned politician Bobi Wine has been detained on charges arising from a demonstration in 2018. Wine is increasingly becoming the voice of the country's opposition and has a large following among the youth.

Close up of Bobi Wine in court
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Bamulanzeki

Security forces were deployed throughout the Ugandan capital Kampala to quell riots after the arrest on Monday of pop star and opposition politician Bobi Wine. The 37-year-old, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was detained for leading a demonstration against a social media tax in July 2018. A police spokesman said the protest had taken place without prior authorization.

If Wine is found guilty, he could be jailed for up to one year. He is currently being held in Kampala's Luzira Maximum Security Prison.

In protest against his arrest, groups of youths set car tires alight in Kamwokya where Wine owns a music studio. Others were arrested as they attempted to set fire to a fuel station near Luzira prison. In all, hundreds of Bobi Wine supporters were arrested, with the army and police remaining deployed overnight in and around Kampala in case more protesters were on their way.

Bobi Wine, handcuffed to another prisoner, raises his arm to greet supporters
Bobi Wine greets supporters on his way to prisonImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Bamulanzeki

Wind of change

Wine's arrest was condemned by many Ugandans, including other opposition politicians such as General Mugisha Muntu who previously served as commander of the Ugandan army under President Yoweri Museveni from 1989 to 1998. He was president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), an opposition political party, from 2012 to 2017. Muntu described the arrest as "very unfortunate," adding: "The situation keeps on deteriorating, even at a time when one would have hoped that the regime would have noticed what is happening on this continent. There is a wind of change. When time for change comes, you can't stop it."

Bobi Wine's growing popularity at home and abroad is increasingly a source of irritation to the regime. Wine has called on the youth to take over leadership in Uganda and in an interview with DW in early April he spoke of his intention to run for the presidency in 2021. Incumbent Museveni, 74, can now seek reelection in 2021 after parliament passed a clause in the constitution that had previously prevented people aged over 75 from holding the office of president.

Read more: Uganda's Bobi Wine confirms intention to run for president

Bobi Wine to challenge Museveni for Ugandan presidency

One reason for Wine's popularity, especially with young Ugandans, is his attempt in 2017 to halt efforts to prolong Museveni's rule. Shortly before, Wine had been elected to parliament to represent Kyaddondo East constituency in Uganda's Central Region.

Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, told DW: "In the eyes of President Museveni and the security apparatus around him, I think they rightly view Bobi Wine as a threat to their power and legitimacy.  He's resonating particularly with Uganda's majority youth population." Vanguard is a nonprofit organization that partners with African leaders and democracy activists to consolidate democratic gains and advocate for free and fair elections in Africa.

Smith sees Wine as "a transformational, ethical leader who brings a new type of vision to a country that desperately needs it and is yearning for it as well." 

Read more: Bobi Wine: The changing face of Ugandan politics

Uganda lawmakers during a debate in parliament
Ugandan lawmakers during a debate to change the constitution to remove the presidential age limitationImage: Reuters/J.Akena

Support and warnings

It is Wine's 'notoriety' which is the main reason he is still alive today, Smith said.  "Congressmen and senators [in the US] and global leaders are talking about him online and in public spaces and are generating interest internationally about his plight."

A DW correspondent in Uganda asked residents of Kampala how they felt about Bobi Wine's arrest. One young man said he thought the police and authorities were over-reacting. "Once they arrest, they raise his profile, yet it is something the people would have forgotten immediately. My advice would be, they should just ignore him. Of course his popularity will fizzle out but I also advise him that he should abide by the laws of the country."

The majority of followers on DW Africa's Facebook page support Bobi Wine and say they hope he will emerge from prison unscathed. Comments include: "Free Bobi Wine and down with all African dictators." "This is Uganda. Anything can happen, but we believe we are strong and we shall overcome." " His incarceration will bring down dictator Museveni."

Read more: Opinion: Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, from liberator to dictator

A burning campaign poster of President Museveni in 2016
Opposition supporters burned a poster of President Museveni during the 2016 election campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurkowa

However, Ugandan human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi says the singer-politician and the entire opposition in Uganda should expect the worst. "Museveni has never been kind to any one he considers to be a problem. He treated Besigye like that, he treated Mbabazi like that, now he is treating Bobi Wine (the same way). There is nothing new, that's how Museveni treats his opponents because Museveni has a morbid fear of people who have support." Rwakafuzi  even suggested that Bobi Wine should write his will "because in this thing he could lose his life."

Opposition politician Kizza Besigye ran for president in 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016, losing each time to Yoweri Museveni. He has been arrested several times. Amama Mbabazi served as prime minister from 2011 to 2014. He fell out with Museveni when he decided to run for the presidency in 2016. Besigye has condemned the arrest of Wine.

Bobi Wine is expected to reappear in court on Thursday when an application for bail will be made.

Alex Gitta contributed to this report.