A "Ghetto President?"

It is a half past noon on a bright sunny Saturday in Kampala, Uganda. Robert

Kyagulanyi, a business man, politician, musician and philanthropist is comfortably

seated on a big black leather couch in the living room of his mansion in Kanoni, a

suburb of Kampala. He is wearing a brown zip-front drifter cardigan that leaves a

glimpse of the white far-out shirt beneath it. Today he is assuming his alternate

personality as a politician. Kyagulanyi, aka “Bobi Wine,” has become an important figure

in Ugandan politics as he appears to be leading the opposition to the entrenched

current president of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. Museveni has been power for

the past 32 years, arriving after decades of brutal rule under Idi Amin and Milton Obote

and then a military coup. While many Ugandans were in support of Museveni during his

first 10 years, expecting major reforms in health care, education and job creation, this

support died out when the people of Uganda did not see positive fruits from Museveni’s

regime. As a result, many Ugandans are looking up to people like Wine to save them

and Museveni is starting to feel the heat of Wine’s influence.

At only 36, Wine has been christened with the name “Ghetto President” by the youth of

Uganda, a title which he has proudly embraced. This poses a major threat to the 74-

year-old Museveni since his opponent enjoys popularity among the youth who make up

85 percent of the country’s population. Simple yet sophisticated, easy going yet stern,

Wine seems to embody all the characteristics of a modern-day icon and yet his

nickname comes from his proud identification with the Kamwookya Ghetto, a slum in

Kampala that has existed for over 50 years. “I am a ghetto child, ghetto youth and I

come from the ghetto,” Wine says, despite the fact that he is seated in an exquisite

couch in a home that speaks to the wealth he now possesses. “It humbles me knowing

that the people who brought me up still own me and claim me as their own. For them to

call me their president,” he adds in a more serious yet low tone, “tells me that they

believe that what I’m doing for the country is giving them dignity and they are proud of

me.”

Wine talks about some of the greatest hurdles he has faced ever since he became involved in

politics and tells a story about the midterm by-election in Arua, a Ugandan municipality, to

fill a seat that was previously occupied by the late Ibrahim Abiriga. Wine was ferociously

campaigning for a candidate on the opposition, an action Museveni’s government did

not receive well. This resulted in unforeseen tragic events which included the ambush

and brutal murder of Wine’s driver and close friend, Yasin Kawuma, who had also been

instrumental in mobilizing supporters for the campaign. “Those bullets were supposed to

have killed me. Whoever killed my driver was really after me because it was just a one

off that I had someone else drive my car,” Wine says in what appears to be deep agony.

“Yasin was a really good person and didn’t deserve to die in my place. He has gone

down as one of the heroes that have died in the fight for Uganda’s freedom. I hope that

no one else has to die in my place. It is the worst feeling.”

Kawuma’s tragic death later led to Wine’s arrest and imprisonment by the Ugandan

police with unsubstantiated allegations that Wine possessed unregistered weapons in

his Arua hotel room and that it was he who was behind the killing of Kawuma, not forces

loyal to Museveni. “I was beaten with an iron bar all over my body until I couldn’t move. I

could smell my own blood and the last thing I remember was a huge blow with the metal

to my head.” Even four weeks after Wine was brutally tortured and beaten during his

arrest and later imprisonment he had still not been allowed to face trial for the “crimes”

he is alleged to have committed.

Wine’s imprisonment stirred up a wave of protest among Ugandans living both in and

outside the country which led to creation of a popular hashtag on twitter #FreeBobiWine

The handle drew 6,342 tweets in two days, a number rather high for a country that has

just on-boarded social media. Some Ugandans even went to the streets and started

peaceful demonstrations with banners reading, “Free Bobi Wine.” This combined effort

of the people caused great turmoil in the government since Wine had been arrested on

what many of these people believed to have been false grounds and to them

Museveni’s motive was to silence Wine who was challenging him. The government

faced a lot of pressure to drop charges against Wine, which they later did. Even then,

many Ugandans felt that this was proof of their critique of the government system since

it had clearly concluded that it couldn’t defend what it had done.

This kind of confusion has long been characteristic of the Museveni years, a time when the

country was consumed with corruption, bureaucracy and incompetence. During his regime,

Museveni has removed both term and age limits from the constitution in order for him to solidify

his longevity in power. The country has also gone into so much debt that 0.9% of the country’s

annual budget is spent on paying interest for global loans, all of which are indicators of a

declining economy. Roselyn Makumbi, a Ugandan banker living in Boston seemed to

have found comfort in Wine's ascend to power as she said, “Museveni had gotten away

with so much over such a long period of time,” she said, “that he thought he would get

away with the Arua event too…What he didn’t reckon on was that Bobi Wine is a very

famous person outside of Uganda as well, and that he has a lot of friends and that’s

why this one backfired.”

Bobi Wine who got his stage name through both a tribute to Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae

musician, and a referene to the quality of wine to get better with age, began wearing a red beret

whenever he appeared to public events. And so, his followers paying tribute to him have started

wearing red berets too. He says that the beret has come to signify “… defiance to the

dictatorial regime of Museveni.” Wine offers a verbal challenge to Museveni. “The

president is not used to taking ‘no’ for an answer. Whatever he says goes and if it

doesn’t then he wipes out whoever is in his way. However, I am going to stand in the

gap for Ugandans.”

While seated in his luxurious home, Wine addressed what it was like to be in prison. “It felt very

bad because I wasn’t able to see my wife and children. It felt bad being tortured for no

reason. However, It gives me so much confidence to be in jail not as a robber, not as a

criminal, but a freedom fighter.” As though amidst imaginary music from a heroic movie

scene, Wine, as the protagonist, added “I know so many freedom fighters have been

through the doors of jail, but, again, they walked out free and I know the truth always

wins. I am proud to be persecuted for the truth and I know that a day will come when

history is being written and I’ll be put on the side of those who stood for what is right.”

The enthusiasm among the youth is palpable. George Bukenya, a Ugandan student living in

Kampala is attracted by Wine’s slogan “People Power, Our Power” and began by saying

it during an interview. Bukenya also added, “Bobi Wine gives hope of a better Uganda to

the young people.”

Even with Wine’s new found political awareness it appears that he has not lost touch with

his roots. The guitar safely placed on a wooden rack behind Wine’s couch and the

awards delicately secured behind a glass shelf are hard to ignore. The little black

figurines lying on his coffee table beating drums add to the pronounced musical

presence in Wine’s living room. At the mention of music, Wine, unprompted, bursts into

the chorus of his latest hit single, “Kyarenga,” a purely fun song, absent of any political

message. “I am a musician before anything else,” he says. “Music was my first love and

kept me going as a child while in the ghetto. It is only through music that I was able to

earn an income to go to school and build a life for myself.” An obvious shift in Wine’s

mood is noticed as he seems to feel at home with music since it’s where he claims to

have found solace over the years. It was through music that Wine gained popularity

among the Ugandan youth. Wine’s music also led him to winning the Pearl of Africa

music awards for the years 2005 through 2008 consecutively. His music has always

been characterized with lyrics fully loaded with humor, yet with an extremely strong and

relatable message to daily life situations. This earned him great favor amongst his fans.

Wine’s political activity may be new to his resume, but he has long been concerned

about the problems of his home country, in particular the issues created by outbreaks of

water and food borne diseases like cholera in low income areas including the

Kamwookya slum in which he was raised. In 2007, he used his music to send a strong

message to the people through a song called “Kadingo,” that was geared towards

educating masses about the purpose of sanitation, yet the song was still packed with a

lot of humor. He played a critical role in convincing people to improve their sanitation

which was later followed by eradication of the cholera epidemic from the slums.

Using another song entitled “Carolina,” that talks about a teenage girl who acquired HIV/

AIDs through prostitution as she was trying to raise money for school, Wine

spearheaded a campaign against HIV/AIDS among the youth. These rallies were done

in high schools and universities and Wine was seen to passionately participate in these

and encourage school-going children to abstain from sex, stay focused on school and

build futures for themselves through education as opposed to quick money through

prostitution and cheap thrills. There was also an observed decline in the number of

reported new infections in the country among the youth. “Uganda is my home. I would

like to see a better Uganda for my people and my children,” Wine went on to say as he

explained why he took part in these campaigns.

In 2013, Wine shifted to other pressing matters in the country by singing a song entitled

“Tugambire ku Jennifer” which literally means “talk to Jennifer.” The “Jennifer” of that

song was Jennifer Musisi, a Ugandan government official who had been placing

restrictions on street vendors and levying high taxes on public transport which were only

affecting the lowest status quo. Musisi’s intention was to use the money to renovate the

city, a public good, but the taxes were not affecting the rich. When the song became

popular, the poor people of Uganda were using it to ask Musisi for some changes in

their situation. This song became controversial for its anti-government message and it

was banned on the radio airwaves.

After listening to the thoughts some Ugandans have towards Wine, one wonders what his

future is in relation to the country. Among many people, Wine has seemed to take on a

mythic stature. “Bobi Wine is a modern day legend!” shouted Joshua Isingoma, a Ugandan

student in Kampala. “He inspires us to fight for the change we want to see in our country. He

has done so much and I hope he becomes president someday.” But Wine’s stance on the

topic of presidency remains undetermined., “That would be an issue for the future,” he

says. “But before the future comes, we have a present to sort out where we don’t want

to be anybody’s slaves…Before we talk about the presidency, we need to first talk about

the freedom and right to be heard out.”

Seeming to borrow a line from the American president, Donald Trump, Wine’s opponent,

Museveni said that the narrative of Wine’s injury was “fake news.” Museveni also says that he is

not shaken by Wine since Wine is very inexperienced and is only a young boy that grew up in

the slum.

If Wine is to unseat Museveni it would be a historic shift in Ugandan history, a country

that has been ravaged by authoritarian, ruthless and savage dictators such as Idi Amin

and Milton Obote who killed anyone that opposed their leadership. Whether Wine

pursues the presidency or not, it appears that he has given the youth of the country new

hope.

The Mount