To search out probably the most well-known musician in Uganda, merely punch his title into uber.
For those who comply with instructions to Bobi Wine Residence or Bobi Wine Street, you’ll finally end up on a rutted mud observe that winds by the remnants of an previous banana plantation on the fringes of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. When TIME visits in September 2019, the person himself greets us at his entrance door. He’s sporting boxing gloves.
Out of breath and sweating, Uganda’s impossible presidential candidate proffers a fist bump and apologizes for a coaching session gone lengthy. “I’m preparing for Museveni,” Wine jokes, referring to the nation’s present President. A onetime guerrilla chief, Yoweri Museveni has dominated the nation for greater than three many years by a mix of deft politicking, questionable election practices and a ruthless use of drive. Having performed away with constitutionally mandated time period limits and presidential age caps, the 76-year-old may conceivably rule for the remainder of his life in a rustic the place the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants has recognized no different chief.
Now 38, Wine, an up-from-the-slums reggae sensation and political newcomer, is taking him on within the presidential election as a result of happen on Jan. 14. “The previous man has been in energy lengthy sufficient,” says Wine, who blames the President for the truth that greater than 80% of Ugandans between 15 and 29 work informally, with little to no earnings, and no job safety. “We’re the era that was created by Museveni’s failures,” says Wine, who was three years previous when his rival first took energy. “Poverty, no likelihood for a great training, rising up within the ghettos with no alternatives–that is all as a result of lack of management and funding in our youth. Museveni’s corruption is destroying our nation’s future.”
But irrespective of how correct the analysis, or how nicely acquired his message, Wine’s quixotic marketing campaign for the presidency of Uganda is a protracted shot, says Aili Mari Tripp, a professor of political science on the College of Wisconsin and writer of Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Energy in a Hybrid Regime. “The enjoying discipline is just not degree, making it almost unimaginable for every other candidate to win, irrespective of how fashionable.” If something, the upcoming election is a check of the bounds of populism when stacked towards the entrenched powers of dictatorship, cloaked in a facade of democracy.
As a musician, Wine can and does boast an enormous following–calling him Uganda’s reply to Jay-Z, he says rakishly, “is perhaps understating it”–however as he makes an attempt to translate that pop stardom into political energy, he’s placing himself within the ring with certainly one of Africa’s most wily leaders, in a nation the place opposition politicians routinely danger jail, beatings and the occasional sudden and mysterious dying. Even when Wine succeeds along with his purpose of making a preferred motion robust sufficient to unseat Museveni, he himself might not survive the method. “Museveni isn’t going handy over energy on a silver platter to anybody,” warns Helen Epstein, a professor of human rights at Bard School and the writer of One other Advantageous Mess: America, Uganda and the Warfare on Terror. “Uganda actually is without doubt one of the most repressive nations on the planet.”
Which is why Wine is subjecting himself to a punishing bout of coaching with one of many nation’s finest boxers. As Wine geese and jabs on the driveway of his stately colonnaded dwelling, the coach urges him by “yet another spherical” six extra occasions. Lastly, Wine–wiry, closely tattooed, and clad in black tracksuit pants and a sweat-drenched T-shirt–collapses to the curb. “I don’t intend to beat no one,” he says. “I’m making my physique proof against beating, to verify I don’t get so bruised once I take the blows.”
It’s knowledge born from expertise. In August 2018, Wine was at a parliamentary marketing campaign rally that turned violent. Folks began throwing stones, and authorities safety forces opened hearth, killing his driver. Wine was imprisoned, badly crushed and charged with treason. When TIME met him, Wine predicted issues would worsen because the elections drew close to: “The extra scared the previous man will get, the extra he’ll lash out. Individuals are going to be damage, supporters can be focused, folks can be killed.”
His phrases started to sound much less like paranoia than like prophecy, on Nov. 18. After he was arrested by police for the second time in a month, his supporters arrange a blockade and confronted police on the streets of Kampala. Within the ensuing clashes, a minimum of three folks had been killed and 38 injured. As TIME went to press, Wine was nonetheless in detention, leaving solely a message to followers on his Twitter feed: “The worth of freedom is excessive however we will definitely overcome.”
Born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu to a onetime political household pushed to penury for backing the unsuitable candidate, Wine was raised to keep away from politics. He gravitated to music from a younger age and started recording and performing sold-out concert events whereas an arts scholar at Kampala’s prestigious Makerere College. His stage title is an homage to 2 of his musical idols, Bob Marley and Bobby Brown, and he selected Wine, he says, as a result of “I noticed I used to be solely getting higher with age.” He was 22 on the time.
Whereas his early works had been influenced by the weed and so-called ghetto-life swagger of late-’90s hip-hop (together with virulently homophobic refrains that replicate widespread Ugandan prejudices), by 2010, he had began infusing his rollicking reggae beats with socially aware messaging. In 2014, he was invited to tour within the U.Okay., however his visa was denied after human-rights teams protested his earlier homophobic lyrics. It was, he says, “a humbling second. I understand now I ought to have been extra tolerant and respectful to folks which are completely different from me.” Wine retracted his statements and apologized to Uganda’s LGBT neighborhood, lots of whom now again him. “He actually has remodeled,” says Ambrose Barigye, an LGBT activist who fled Uganda in 2018 however who nonetheless follows the motion carefully from exile. “Now the federal government is utilizing it towards him as propaganda, saying he’s funded by the homosexual West,” says Barigye.
In 2017, a parliamentarian in Wine’s district stood down, and Wine noticed a possibility to amplify his name for social change by operating for the seat. He gained the election with 78% of the vote, even though he had no celebration and knew nothing about campaigning. He has since efficiently campaigned for a number of different opposition candidates, subbing in star energy the place the substantial funds usually wanted to win elections didn’t suffice. However his fame, onstage charisma and infectious songs laced with antigovernment slogans proved too threatening to the nation’s management. The federal government has banned his performances onstage and on air since 2018, depriving him of each a platform and an earnings. Figuring he had nothing left to lose, Wine determined to run towards Museveni. “They weren’t letting me be a musician, so I assumed I’d as nicely turn into a President,” he says.
If elections in Uganda had been primarily based purely on recognition, he may but succeed. Wine’s marketing campaign channels the frustration of the nation’s youth–78% of residents are underneath the age of 30–and of Uganda’s impoverished lessons, who make up greater than one-third of the inhabitants. The COVID-19 pandemic has solely exacerbated the nation’s financial inequalities, with 2020’s GDP progress projected between 0.4% and 1.7%, in contrast with 5.6% in 2019. When Wine first began utilizing his music to name for social justice, Museveni disparaged him as a “ghetto President.” The title caught. Supporters already tackle the singer as President, and ghetto has turn into a badge of pleasure not simply for many who emerged from the identical city slum as Wine, but in addition for the underserved and ignored in a rustic the place political energy is extra more likely to enrich the highly effective than enhance the lives of anybody else. Self-importance plates on Wine’s Cadillac Escalade learn ghetto. Now that the sobriquet has expanded to incorporate most Ugandans, the joke is on Museveni, says Atusingwize Jonan, a younger presenter for the privately owned digital-media firm Ghetto TV. “It is a man who got here from us, so he speaks for us. He is aware of what all of us undergo.”
You solely have to accompany Wine on a drive by the streets of Kampala to see how fervent his supporters are. Native residents holler his title. Outdated girls on the again of motorbike taxis cheer and wave. Shopkeepers elevate clenched fists in solidarity. “Folks energy!” Wine shouts. “Our energy,” they reply, finishing his motion’s title and slogan. Supporters drop 10,000- or 50,000-shilling ($three or $15) notes by his open window, symbolic sums in a rustic the place politicians typically pay that a lot to get residents to attend their rallies or, in some circumstances, vote for them.
Wine’s face is immediately recognizable; so too is his motion’s trademark purple beret, with its brand of a raised black fist. He favors the slim black trousers, batik shirts and dark-framed glasses of the worldwide revolutionary mental. His bookshelves are lined with the biographies and manifestos of the world’s liberation leaders, from Malcolm X to Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. When he speaks, it’s clear he has digested all of them, unconsciously regurgitating quotes from Bishop Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama or Malcolm X, typically in the identical sentence.
The revolutionary rhetoric and pageantry enchantment to a nation determined for change, however they masks his marketing campaign’s hole core. Wine is pushing for transformation, but he has no platform, and bristles when requested about his coverage plans. What he presents as a substitute, he says, is a imaginative and prescient of what Uganda needs to be: “A rustic the place there isn’t any impunity. The place we’re all equal earlier than the regulation. The place all people has alternative no matter their tribe or sect or background. The place establishments are supreme and revered.”
The purpose is just not that Wine needs to be President–he says he doesn’t–however that the present President must go, and to this point, nobody else has been in a position to unseat him. “I have a look at myself as probably the most unqualified individual for the function of President,” Wine tells TIME over a lunch of tripe stew at a Kampala restaurant fashionable with authorities officers. “However God doesn’t take the certified; he qualifies the chosen one. What God has graced me with is the flexibility to rally Ugandans to personal their very own nation. If we will do this, all I might want to do is be a great supervisor.”
There are a number of main obstacles to beat first. Wine nonetheless faces costs of treason courting to the violent rally in August 2018, when his supporters allegedly threw stones at a authorities convoy, and he might be referred to as to court docket at any time. (He denies the cost and says it’s politically motivated.) Final yr, the federal government banned civilian use of the purple beret worn by members of Wine’s Folks Energy motion. In July, Uganda’s Electoral Fee, whereas formally impartial, refused to register Wine’s motion as a political celebration–a vital designation for contesting elections.
Wine circumvented the ruling by aligning with a small established celebration that had already registered. Then the celebration voted to alter its title, and elected him as chief. “As quickly because the President realized I had managed to register a political celebration regardless of his finest efforts, he fired the highest officers of the Electoral Fee,” Wine cackles over the phone in early October. “I ducked his punch, and punched again more durable.” Museveni mentioned on Twitter that the officers had been fired due to “corruption.” (Regardless of a number of requests, Museveni’s workplace declined to talk with TIME on the problem of Wine’s marketing campaign or the upcoming elections.)
And as elections strategy, there are indicators that Museveni could also be getting ready for additional crackdowns. Citing the chance of COVID-19, the Electoral Fee has prohibited public rallies in favor of TV and radio campaigning. But few TV and radio stations will host Wine, for worry of contravening a long-standing ban. When he does handle to make an look, the broadcasting station is normally raided inside moments.
Wine’s largest worry, nevertheless, is an assassination try. In an effort to make sure that his meal of tripe stew wouldn’t be poisoned, Wine had despatched a few staffers to the restaurant to order, whereas he idled in his automotive across the nook. As quickly because the meals arrived, the staffers referred to as him, and solely then did he and his entourage are available to take their locations across the desk. “Museveni will use each trick within the ebook to verify I’m not a menace in the course of the elections,” says Wine. So why does he danger consuming in a pro-government venue? Wine grins mischievously and jerks his chin at a close-by desk, the place a few authorities officers are unexpectedly abandoning a half-completed meal in an effort to keep away from being seen in the identical restaurant as Museveni’s rival. Everybody else clamors for selfies. Wine takes his victories the place he can discover them.
Many Ugandans anticipate that the election can be rigged, however even with out interference, Museveni can be robust to beat. After serving to oust the army despot Idi Amin and overthrowing his successor, Museveni got here to energy in 1986 promising democracy, the elimination of corruption and an finish to inequality. On the time, he was celebrated by the West as a part of a brand new era of African leaders, and he nonetheless enjoys important fashionable assist regardless of his antidemocratic tendencies. He belongs to the extra trendy iteration of strongman, protecting himself in energy (and compensated nicely for it) whereas additionally bringing in simply sufficient reforms and funding to make sure a placid inhabitants. Although most Ugandans agree that it’s time for a change in management, the city elite who’ve managed to construct a steady life regardless of, and even due to, the ruling celebration’s deeply entrenched patronage networks worry disruption. “Museveni is a dictator, and it’s not proper how he’s staying in energy. However I’d slightly have Museveni and be protected and steady than danger the chaos of Bobi Wine,” says 26-year-old inside designer Patricia. (Like most Ugandans terrified of talking towards the President, she requested to make use of solely her first title.)
And whereas corruption is rampant, it has trickled down to this point that nobody entity may be punished on the polls for the nation’s dysfunction. Few politicians are trusted, whether or not in authorities or the opposition. The cynicism is fed by a wildly partisan press that solely will get referred to as to account when it impugns authorities officers. Consequently, most Ugandans have given up any expectation of fine management, says Simon Osborn, a marketing consultant previously of the Nationwide Democratic Institute (NDI), a Washington, D.C.–primarily based NGO.
Largely due to the efforts of organizations just like the NDI, some techniques of electoral manipulation have ended, says Osborn, who’s now a technical adviser to the E.U. delegation in Uganda. That doesn’t imply the vote displays the true will of the folks, he cautions. “The times of ballot-box stuffing and violence on the polls are largely over. The choice is cash. And to this point, that appears to work.”
Ugandans name it the commercialization of politics, the place voting is a transaction, not a alternative. “More and more increasingly more persons are anticipating to be paid to go to rallies, to vote, and to vote accordingly,” says Osborn. “And Bobi doesn’t have the cash to try this.”
Not all of Uganda’s younger voters are satisfied that Wine is as much as the problem of main the nation in a brand new path. Samantha, a 22-year-old college scholar, acknowledges that Wine is a strong voice for Uganda’s deprived youth, “however not all of us are in that class.” Simply because Wine’s music was the soundtrack to her childhood doesn’t imply he can be a great President, she says. “He shaved his dreadlocks, however we nonetheless know him because the reggae musician, the weed smoker. Can we belief him?”
Wine dismisses the criticism as authorities propaganda designed to discredit his marketing campaign among the many nation’s elite and conservative lessons. He’s preventing for accountable management to learn all Ugandans, he says. “That is about all of us, the younger, the professionals, the legal professionals, the medical doctors, my auntie who lives within the village, the younger man that drives a boda boda [motorcycle taxi]. If we unite to avoid wasting the nation, will probably be for all of us.” And regardless of the throngs of supporters who descend upon his automotive at intersections, the proliferation of T-shirts proclaiming In Bobi We Belief and the ecstatic crowds at his political rallies, Wine needs it recognized that the marketing campaign is just not about him; it’s about change. “If we make it about me, Museveni would solely need to get rid of me, imprison me, to deliver the revolution to an finish.”
Wine has all the things he ever dreamed of as a child rising up within the slums of Kampala: an excellent spouse who’s a star in her personal proper, 4 youngsters, riches from his profession in music, fame, respect and the adulation of your complete nation. Why is he risking all of it on a quixotic marketing campaign that already almost took his life? “You imply, why don’t I simply let the unvoiced Ugandans die, why don’t I simply allow them to undergo?” he volleys again, waving his boxing-gloved fist to soak up the manicured garden, the Escalade parked behind him, his new Nikes. “Take a look at the automotive I drive, have a look at the glamour I reside in. I’m all this and extra as a result of Uganda liked me. So I can’t let Ugandans down now. I can’t allow them to undergo in silence when I’ve the loudest voice.” He jumps to his ft and launches into full marketing campaign mode. “It is a marketing campaign to place an finish to dictatorship, and we’re both going to succeed or die attempting.” Pacing and speechifying earlier than an viewers of 1, Wine appears like he’s issuing much less a prediction than a dare. He pulls off his gloves and goes inside to clean up for the battle to come back.
–With reporting by MADELINE ROACHE/LONDON