When a Ugandan tells you “I have allowed,” it means they have given up and accepted the status quo. In 2016, when Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the presidency, again, after thirty years on Uganda’s political throne, Ugandans flashed their teeth in a we-have-allowed smirk.
Presidential contender Amama Mbabazi petitioned to annul Museveni’s victory, but his claims of voter disenfranchisement, underage voting, ballot stuffing, and irregular tallying were dismissed. Perhaps Amama should have taken a cue from Dr. Kizza Besigye, who has tried four times to dislodge the president. In 2001, Besigye ran to the courts alleging that the results had been falsified, but the court disagreed: the extent of irregularities didn’t alter the final outcome of the polls, they said. He tried his luck and was rejected again in 2006, but when he stood and lost against Museveni again in 2011 and 2016, he didn’t bother to go to court. For Ugandans, his four electoral losses mutated from something painful to something to “allow.”
What Ugandans haven’t allowed is the endorsement of President Museveni by the country’s top musicians.
It began in 2015. A group of musicians—including Bebe Cool (Moses Ssali), King Saha (Ssemanda Mansur), Jose Chameleone (Joseph Mayanja), Juliana Kanyomozi, Radio (Moses Ssekibogo), Weasel (Douglas Mayanja), Iryn Namubiru, Pastor Wilson Bugembe, Rema Namakula, Judith Babirye, and Haruna Mubiru—all helped produce the soundtrack to Museveni’s re-election, a song called “Tubonga Naawe.”
Loosely translated as “we are with you”—or as Uganda’s songbird Juliana Kanyomozi put it, “a fist bump”—the song hit the airwaves as the musicians began working up the crowds at campaign rallies. Their pockets were blessed with Shs400 million; as a special reward, the president personally attended Bebe Cool’s “Golden Heart” concert on August 3.
The backlash was swift, however. In the aftermath of the election, the opposition party urged a boycott of these musicians, and their shows began to flop. Some tried to downplay their involvement— Radio and Weasel called it “just a job”—while others apologized; Pastor Bugembe wrote in a Facebook post that “God helped [me] realize that I had to apologize to you all for my Tubonga Naawe involvement. I know I hurt many.” Others were shaken, if not repentant; Chameleone, for example, begged fans to call off the boycott. But Bebe dismissed the call as “cheap politics.”
The real drama, however, has been between Bebe Cool and Robert Kyagulanyi, or “Bobi Wine,” also known as “Ghetto President.” Raised in the slum of Kamwokya, in Kampala, Bobi Wine was known in his early career for smoking weed and drinking alcohol, for his signature dreadlocks and “bad man” looks. Bebe Cool, on the other hand, was the son of a politician who served for fifteen years as minister in Museveni’s government: life, one could say, was softer for Bebe Cool than for Bobi Wine. And in his staunch support for the president’s party, he has lived up his reputation: in 2011, he had raised eyebrows by supporting the president over his own father, Jaberi Bidandi Ssali.
And so, when Bebe Cool led the musical endorsement of President Museveni, Bobi Wine seized the moment, not only to release his own songs but to establish his own message. In a rebuttal to Tubonga Naawe, he launched “Dembe,” a song that not only took aim at election violence but blamed the president for staying in power too long. “How do our neighbors do it?” he asked “Who change power without fighting wars. Leaders who overstay in power are the reason why Uganda is rumbling.”
Rumors swirled that the song would be banned for its lyrics, but then, Bobi’s songs have always had a political edge; in “Ebibuuzo,” he sang about school fires that were raging at the time, the high cost of living, and corruption; in “Time Bomb,” he attacked corrupt officials; and, after the election, he released “Situuka,” telling Ugandans who supported losing candidates to pick themselves up and keep moving forward. Most recently, his song Freedom called on Ugandans to speak out, calling silence “treason.”
It is, however, “Uganda Zukuka” that best exemplifies Bobi Wine’s political trajectory and demographic niche: singing to the grandchildren of the independence generation, he calls on the youth to see that they already wield more power than those in power. In the video, we see a glassy-eyed old man watching TV images of Uganda’s independence, oblivious, as youths carry away first his TV and then the chair he is sitting on, leaving him to drowse quietly outside. As a clock winds down to 2021, we see Bobi Wine and his collaborator, Nubian Li, take a seat inside the house and stare evenly at the camera.
The narrative is clear: Bobi’s generation is fed up with the old guards, grandfathers who are holding Uganda hostage on the strength of past exploits; the liberation struggle, after all, occurred while the Bobi generation could not yet pronounce the liberation. More than 70% of the population is below thirty years old, a generation that feels left out and patronized by the deliverers of “change” who have delivered unchanging rule. The Bobi generation wants food and water and jobs, even as their government is busy wooing foreign investors, craning their necks to see which wetland to erect a shopping mall on, or which budget line to dip their hands in.
“We are the leaders of the future and the future is today,” Bobi sings, and whether or not he runs for president in 2021, he is already a political force in Uganda. In a 2017 by-election, he was elected the representative for Kyadondo East Constituency; as “His Excellency” Bobi Wine, he has become one of Museveni’s most persistent critics. At the same time, Bebe Cool has continued to serve as the president’s surrogate. Urging the youth to work hard and better themselves—instead of supporting the already-wealthy Bobi Wine—Bebe Cool has insisted that Bobi only went into politics because he failed to keep his spot at the top, music-wise. And when Bobi Wine spoke out against the government’s Social Media Tax, helping to rally street protests in June, Bebe Cool went in the opposite direction in an interview with Daily Monitor’s sQoop magazine:
“The tax is going to help us curb the use of social media. People have been using it for the wrong reasons, tarnishing people’s names…I didn’t join my brothers [in the street protests] because they were just acting like a nuisance..”
After his election as MP, Bobi was banned from performing publicly by the police on the grounds that “he uttered words that are incitful to the public” [sic]. Of course, Bebe Cool gets police security to sing in support of the regime, as Bobi has observed; “You can perform ‘Tubonga Naawe’ anywhere, any day without restriction.” In a blistering Facebook post, Bobi called it “a sign of a regime on its knees”:
“Several offers have been made to turn me into one of their puppets. But I rejected them flat…I shall never use my voice to sing for a dictatorship that is running our country to hell. I shall never sing to console the enemies of the people.”
In Museveni’s Uganda, however, the regime doesn’t allow anyone to pose a threat to the status quo; your claws will get clipped, with pliers if needed. Bobi Wine learned this the hard way in August.
It began in June, when the Arua Municipality MP Ibrahim Abiriga, a regime loyalist, was abruptly killed; a special election was scheduled for August 15th, and Bobi joined other opposition legislators in rallying behind Independent (and opposition FDC party-leaning) candidate Kassiano Wadri, a former MP whose support base in northern Uganda still simmers.
To keep the seat in the hands of the ruling party, President Museveni himself descended upon Arua, as did Besigye, and the contest of crowds was destined to be hot. But with Bobi in the mix, the battle was no longer a tackle between Museveni and Besigye; instead, it became an uncomfortable political threesome with generational overtones. Local TV showed Bobi Wine with a crowd of people trooping past the venue where Besigye was campaigning, forcing the latter to pause to allow Bobi’s chanting young people to pass. What could be more representative of the leave-us-the-stage call that young people are sending the older generation?
But as the sun set on the last day of the campaign, chaos erupted. Mr Wadri’s supporters were reportedly marching ahead of NRM’s Nusura Tiperu’s group when security forces fired bullets at the Wadri crowd, who retaliated by throwing stones. In the fracas that ensued, Bobi Wine’s driver, Yasin Kawuma, was shot dead.
Though Bobi Wine was not in the car, he tweeted a photo of Yasin’s lifeless body, and as social media worked itself up with speculation, journalists doing live coverage were whisked off camera and detained, their whereabouts to be unknown until the following day. That night, Bobi Wine was taken by the army from the Pacific Hotel. As reports of thirty-three arrests began trickling out—Bobi, Wadri, several MPs, and others—it was rumored that Bobi and the others had been tortured or killed.
As news (and speculation) spread, protests broke out in downtown Kampala; tires and logs were burned in the middle of streets to the tune of “People Power Our Power” chants. Calendars with photos of Bobi Wine and his slain driver were printed and sold on the streets. The police and army responded with an iron hand, however, attacking journalists and evacuating the central business district; shopping arcades were closed and food stalls quickly dismantled as everyone was ordered to leave with their hands in the air. In Bobi’s Kamwokya, protests continued, but as people were pushed off the streets, it spread outside Uganda, to Nairobi, Europe, and America. The #FreeBobiWine hashtag trended for days, followed by #Arua33.
When the president attempted to clear the air on August 19th, however, he made matters worse by addressing Ugandans as “bazukulu,” or grandchildren. The reference was immediately turned on its head, and Ugandans called him a “grandpa” who should be home taking care of the young. He nevertheless denied the charges of torture; in a lengthy Facebook post, the president accused the “the fake news generators” of misleading people. “Bobi Wine had already been seen by doctors in Arua, Gulu or Kampala,” he insisted; “He has no head or chest injuries or bone fractures.” Yet why was the President’s media team so swift to share pictures of the car allegedly stoned by Bobi Wine’s supporters, rather that photos of the MP himself?
Bobi would eventually be charged with two counts of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, in a closed-door session at Makindye Military Barracks in Kampala; on August 23, he was flown from Kampala to Gulu, more than 300 kilometers from the capital, no doubt to thwart protests. There, the charges of illegal possession were dropped but he was re-arrested by the police and charged, this time, with treason. He was, however, allowed to post bail, and flew to the United States for medical treatment.
While Ugandans were typing their fingers numb against the Bobi’s continued detention, Bebe Cool took up the president’s side of the argument, demanding at a concert on August 24th that Ugandans “start working instead of protesting.” He was chased off stage for his efforts. On the 31st, crowds took the punishment up a notch: other local artists had performed before him without incident at a concert by the Jamaican artist Tarrus Riley, but Bebe was welcomed to the stage with chants of “go away” and “People Power Our Power.” “You all said Bobi Wine was brutally tortured by the state but he came out only after one week without a single scar on his face,” he shouted; ” Can a wound heal within a week?” But the bottles began to fly, and Bebe Cool fled the stage.
On September 3, Bobi recounted his ordeal in a lengthy, tear-inducing Facebook post, describing how he was punched and kicked by the arresting officers, beaten with an iron bar, wrapped in a thick piece of cloth, and bundled into a vehicle.
“Those guys did to me unspeakable things in that vehicle! They pulled my manhood and squeezed my testicles while punching me with objects I didn’t see. They pulled off my shoes and took my wallet, phone and the money I had. As soon as the shoes were off, they started hitting my ankles with pistol butts. I groaned in pain and they ordered me to stop making noise for them. They used something like pliers to pull my ears. Some guy unwrapped me and instead tied the thick cloth around my head. They forced my head below the car seat so as to stop me from shouting. Then they hit my back and continued to hit my genitals with objects. The marks on my back, ankles, elbows, legs and head are still visible. I continued to groan in pain and the last I heard was someone hit me at the back of the head with an object – I think a gun butt or something. That was the last time I knew what was going on.”
Last December, Museveni (who turned 74 last week) made it known that he has no intention to leave. But even with the law on his side, a parliament in his pockets, and the state apparatus at his call, the Bobi Wine generation must be unsettling; Besigye has been Museveni’s political headache since 1999, but Bobi Wine represents the generation that has known only one president, and as Bebe Cool’s “punishment” demonstrates, Uganda’s long-docile young people have started taking matters into their own hands. Some have made light of the “bottle attack” on Bebe Cool—suggesting the crowd had mistaken the musician for a microphone thief—but the atmosphere is changing. There is a new boldness in the air, especially on social media, where parodies and all manner of dissident voices proliferate. No wonder the government slapped a tax on social media in July; Facebook and Twitter are where the real press conferences happen, where mobilization starts, and where the ball get rolling.
If the Museveni generation stands at the goal line with their legs and arms apart, with the we-are-by-your-side contingent and the where-were-you-when-we-were-in-the-bush-fighting-for-peace cheerleaders at their side, that time is passing. The bottle revolution is already mutating into something different. Something new.
Today is the day of Bobi Wine’s return from the US, and soldiers patrol the city’s streets; security forces set up command posts at both ends of Entebbe town and Kasangati as security forces prepared for the “crisis” of his return by banning rallies and assemblies. Police say they “had received intelligence of a countrywide mobilization,” according to New Vision, and they wouldn’t take any chances: only selected close family members were cleared to receive the MP at Entebbe airport, who was to be driven by security to his home in Magere, Wakiso District.
And then, just a few hours before his landing, Bobi’s brother Eddi Yawe was arrested on his way to pick up the MP, along with journalists covering his return and fellow artists. But he is home, now, and a new verse begins. The song continues.