People power: the 'ghetto president' challenging Uganda's elite 3

People power: the ‘ghetto president’ challenging Uganda’s elite

In October 2018, a man emerged on stage at a beach near Lake Victoria in Uganda.

As hundreds of soldiers, armed police and presidential guards looked on, thousands of Ugandans in red berets and t-shirts began chanting the words, “People power, Our power” as many more poured onto a field next to the lake.

They were followers of a movement that would gain international media attention – the biggest political storm in Uganda, rallying against President Yoweri Museveni.

Their leader, Bobi Wine, claims he was tortured by the Ugandan authorities in August 2018 after his supporters stoned the President’s convoy. He fled to America where he sought legal advice and medical care, after an ordeal that resulted in the death of his driver and sparked a movement that has altered the course of Ugandan politics.

Two months after his arrest and torture, Bobi Wine was back on stage, inspiring a feeling of rebellion in the hearts and minds of young Ugandans.

This story is how the art and music world of Uganda is making a stand. How over the last year, opposition politicians have united with rappers, DJs and singers against a president who has held a tight grip on power in the country for more than 30 years, and how music sparked a chance to topple a dictator who has ruled the country since replacing the brutal regime of Idi Amin, aka “The Last King of Scotland”.

Second Blood

On the July 21 2019, a 28-year-old DJ from Uganda went missing. A week later, Allinda Michael, better known by his stage name , Ziggy Wyne, was dumped in Mulago National Hospital near downtown Kampala. His injuries included two missing fingers and one of his eyes had been gouged out.

He died on 5 August.

Ziggy wasn’t just a musician. He was a part of Bobi Wine’s Firebase Crew music label, a part of the People Power movement against President Yoweri Museveni’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement.

Witnesses came forward describing Wyne’s capture and torture by Ugandan authorities, while many believe the attack was politically motivated.

Bobi Wine himself told The Ferret that Wyne told his family he had been tortured.

“As a citizen I just know that my friend went missing and his family reported to the police and looked around, but no one could trace him. Days later, he showed up in the hospital.

“We were informed by his family that Ziggy could still speak, saying he was beaten and tortured. He told his family that the clothes he disappeared with are not the clothes he showed up with again.”

Official accounts of Ziggy Wyne’s death have not quelled the suspicion. After initially launching a probe into the kidnapping, police claimed the musician had been fatally injured in a motorbike crash.

Adding to the confusion, a fake twitter post published on the account of a People Power spokesperson claimed that the movement accepted the official account of Ziggy Wyne’s death.

The spokesperson in question, Joel Ssenyoni later denied the letter was from him or the People Power movement.

“This fake letter has been making rounds on social media”, he said.

“Please ignore it and treat it with the contempt it deserves. This obviously shows the guilt of those who are behind Ziggy’s death, they are so desperate to hoodwink everyone. We continue to demand for justice for Ziggy Wyne”

Bobi Wine is not convinced by the Ugandan authorities’ explanation.

“First of all, the police confirmed it was indeed murder, but later on the police came to tell the nation that Ziggy had an accident. What kind of accident? They could not justify,” he said.

Uganda’s Next President?

Bobi Wine is the stage name of 37-year-old Robert Kyagulanyi. Raised in the slums of Kampala, he spent nearly two decades as a musician before entering politics, winning a by-election in 2017.

As an independent candidate  he used his music to criticise both Museveni and the opposition party. His humble beginnings and connection to Ugandan culture saw him dubbed the ‘Ghetto President’.

“I did not join politics, politics joined me,” he said.

“Politics found me in my ghetto and oppressed me from there. Politics found me on my musical stage and blocked me from exercising my rights of enjoying and benefiting from my talent while I serve my country. Politics found me in my pocket and drained me of all my money. Politics found me in my home and took away my freedom, so politics joined me.”

Wine has become the figurehead and chief spokesman for Uganda’s increasingly disenchanted youth to speak out against the alleged excesses and corruption of the country’s ruling classes.

This generation never experienced the brutal hand of Idi Amin and his ruthless regime of torture and genocide, but want more freedom and democracy. Uganda’s young people are not as afraid to make their voices heard as their parents and grandparents were.

The musician donned a red beret and his fans followed. As Wine appeared to gain mass support, the Ugandan politics was closing in. People rarely criticise President Yoweri Museveni and emerge unscathed.

Social Media Tax: the dawn of revolution

In summer 2018, as the threat of Ebola crept in from the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Museveni announced a ‘social media tax‘, immediately ending social media access for Ugandans unless they paid a levy – cutting thousands off from communicating with loved ones and running their businesses.

Kampala erupted into protests and Wine was vocal among those on the streets. His followers, chanting the refrain “people power, our power”, began building tyre fires bellowing black smoke across the capital and blocking roads. The government retaliated with gunfire, wounding some protesters – but for many a revolution had begun.

Later that month, Museveni travelled to Arua in the north-west. Supporters of Wine, infuriated with the social media tax and the president’s grasp on power, began pelting his convoy with stones. Museveni’s guards opened fire, killing Wine’s driver Yasin Kawuma. Wine himself was arrested for inciting the violence, which sparked significant growth in the People Power movement, with more and more politicians and musicians joining forces.

Currently 24 MPs in Uganda are part of the campaign but Wine has been criticised for a supposed lack of clear policies as Uganda gears up for its 2021 election.

“My ambition is to see a better country, a free country, a country that provides equal opportunities for all its citizens,” he said.

“That’s my dream that’s my desire and I’m convinced we shall achieve it in our lifetime. Now, if I had the opportunity to be president there is so much we must do, including an end to this brutal dictatorship and an end to the impunity and corruption.”

Political commentator, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, has argued that many politicians may be using Wine to boost their popularity. Writing in Ugandan newspaper, The Independent, he suggested that many MPs will jump ship when the 2021 election campaign begins, abandoning him at the polls.

Wine’s views have also caused controversy abroad. He was denied a visa to visit the UK in 2014 after homophobic lyrics in his song were highlighted.

In a 2014 interview with Ugandan newspaper The Daily Monitor, Wine said: “I am personally not out to threaten the life of any individual based on their sexual orientation, I just do not agree with them ”.

“This is my opinion and happens to be that of 99 per cent of Ugandans,” he claimed.

Uganda has one of the world’s worst records on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, the country nearly lost its international aid after the government passed a bill making homosexuality a crime punishable by life-imprisonment.

The bill was eventually repealed but LGBTQ rights are still fiercely threatened by both government and society.

Wine is clearly seen as a threat to the ruling party of Uganda. The Wall Street Journal uncovered collusion between the Ugandan Government and the Chinese technology giant, Huawei, after they were exposed for spying on political opponents, including Wine.

“I wouldn’t personally put a hand on a certain technology company”, Wine said.

“But I certainly know that the regime in Uganda has been and continues to spy on me and their opponents. They always hear my calls and even in Arua I was informed by insiders of the regime that it was my phone that was used to trace me and finally arrest me.”

Whatever the outcome of the 2021 election, it appears the musician and activist will play a significant role, however his ‘People Power’ movement is not a registered political party.

“He doesn’t believe in structured politics,” said one commentator.

“He knows his followers don’t subscribe to a particular political philosophy. All they want is change, good or bad, directed or not.”

In photos: life after war for Uganda’s former child soldiers

But while Wine may not have a clear policy platform, to many he represents political change. His movement may threaten President Museveni more than any opponent to date in his 30-year rule.

Uganda’s history is littered with conflict, from Idi Amin to the child soldiers of Joseph Kony.

The military stability of Museveni’s reign is no longer enough for the growing population of youths who can now vote in the country. A musician in a red beret has done enough to engage the public and energise political discourse in the country, one without the fear of war or bloodshed.

But in one year, Uganda’s People Power movement has seen its fair share of blood spilled – and the death of Ziggy Wyne may not be the last.

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