The Pop Singers Threatening Uganda’s Strongman Leader

Ugandan musician–turned–politician Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known as Bobi Wine, onstage in Busabala, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda.

Source ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Yoweri Museveni has ruled for 33 years. Now, inspired by one rapper, musical artists are jumping into politics and challenging the government.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, chose a meeting with youth at his official residence to mock his principal political rival, rap musician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. “Politics isn’t singing,” the 74-year-old leader said.

Four months later, the joke might well be on Museveni, one of the world’s longest-serving rulers who’s been in power since 1986. Politics isn’t singing, but in Uganda, those two worlds are converging unlike ever before, offering an unlikely challenge to the country’s autocratic leader and his party, who have successfully fended off, coerced or co-opted traditional political opponents for 33 years.

Inspired by Wine’s quick rise from a political nobody to the Ugandan opposition’s strongest bet against Museveni, a wave of music artists is joining politics in the country, seeking election to positions ranging from the presidency to legislators, and mayors to district and village leadership. In a country with the world’s second-youngest population — only Niger’s median age is lower than Uganda’s nearly 16 years — they’re replacing mainstream politicians as torchbearers of hope for youth against Museveni’s government.

Bobi’s Wine’s success … is influencing many artists to also join politics.

Timothy Mugabi, People Power movement  

Arguably Uganda’s most popular musician, Joseph Mayanja — popularly known as Jose Chameleone — announced in July that he plans to stand for the post of mayor of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Also in July, another popular artist, Katongole Omutongole, jumped into the electoral fray, declaring plans to contest in the country’s parliamentary elections in 2021 from central Uganda’s Kayunga district.

Over just the past three months, singers Dr Hilderman, Ronald Mayinja and rapper Aga Naga have also announced candidacy for seats in Uganda’s Parliament. Naka Pakyo, a radio presenter in eastern Uganda, has said she plans to contest for the Buikwe Parliamentary seat in central Uganda. Godfrey Lutaya, another singer, has said he will contest for the mayor’s office in one of Uganda’s main cities — though he so far hasn’t announced where.

 

And Wine himself formally announced in March that he would contest for the presidency against Museveni. In all, at least 42 other musicians have declared plans to run for political office since Wine first launched his People Power movement last year. In a region home to some of the world’s youngest populations ruled by old, authoritarian leaders, the musician politicians of Uganda are being tested about more than their country’s future: Can they also show an unlikely route to successful democratic transition that others can emulate?

“The youth, who [make up] more than half of the country’s population, revere the musicians and regard them as their role models,” says Bob Isabirye, a history lecturer at Busoga University in eastern Uganda. “That has given some artists confidence to stand for various political positions.”

To be sure, not all musicians entering politics are joining the opposition. Singers Bebe Cool and Catherine Kusasira and promoter Balamu are among a handful of artists who have made clear that they stand with Museveni. “I will continue supporting President Museveni because he has done a lot for this country,” says Cool. But while these artists bring charisma and color to Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, the vast majority of their peers who are joining politics are teaming up with Wine and other opposition parties.

“Bobi’s Wine’s success as a politician as well as an artist is influencing many artists to also join politics,” says Timothy Mugabi, a mobilizer in Wine’s People Power movement.

On the surface, Museveni and his team continue to try and exude confidence. Asked by OZY about the unprecedented political rise of musicians who are taking on Museveni, Uganda government spokesman Ofwono Opondo throws them a challenge. “In Uganda, musicians think that they can carry along their fans to support them in politics,” he says. “Let us wait and see.”

But increasingly, experts say it’s becoming evident that Museveni’s party can ignore Wine and Uganda’s new opposition only at their own peril. “I and many other young people are supporting Bobi Wine and his People Power organization because we want the old people out of power,” says 25-year-old Chris Obo. “They have stolen enough. They should go.’’

 

In July 2018, Wine’s candidates won a third of all village-level elections across the country, even though their movement was less than a year old. Those wins also demonstrated that the campaign he is leading to unseat Museveni is finding resonance not just in urban Uganda, which mostly listens to pop music, but in the country’s rural hinterland too. In Tororo district, 125 miles from Kampala, there has traditionally been little opposition to Museveni, says social worker Ronald Okot. “You nowadays find youth there wearing People Power red berets, singing songs praising Bobi Wine and People Power,” he says, referring to the movement’s uniform.

The musicians who have only recently turned political are already speaking with the sophistry of veterans. Mayinja has made a name for himself with anti-government songs. Mary Flavia Namulindwa, a music artist and TV presenter, is contesting from central Uganda’s Gomba district. She says she is inspired by Wine and his movement. “We are nothing without people,” she says. “That is why People Power is stronger than the people in power.”

That rhetoric is fine, but Wine and the musicians leading the charge against Museveni still need to convince many skeptical older voters. “Uganda needs mature politicians to lead it so that it does not go back to chaos like in the past,” says 70-year-old William Musoke. Some older voters think that the fact that politics in Uganda is among the most stable, well-paying professions in the country makes it attractive for political outsiders including musicians. The country has a per capita income of $400 a year. Yet members of Parliament — who set their own salaries — receive $8,000 a month. “Fat salaries and allowances for MPs and other politicians have enticed many artists to join politics,” says Abraham Otti, a senior citizen in northern Uganda. And for Museveni to be defeated, the mainstream opposition and the upstart musician politicians will need to work together — a fact Wine has emphasized publicly.

But some older citizens too are turning away from Museveni and traditional opposition parties, such as the Forum for Democratic Change, and toward Wine. “Bobi Wine and other artists have brought new life in Uganda’s politics, and that is why some of us have abandoned the old political parties and joined People Power,” says 60-year-old Benon Mutale.

That threat of a real challenge might be behind Museveni’s bluster in March, when he attempted to belittle Wine publicly. The president has also accused Wine and his supporters of employing violent means in their protests — a charge People Power denies.

To Wine and the growing tribe of musicians challenging Museveni, these slights and accusations demonstrate that the president is taking them seriously. Wine has been banned from holding rallies and music shows, but he’s still composing songs. In 2019, he released the protest song “Tuliyambala Engule,” which became an anthem for his supporters. The song’s title translates to “We will soon wear the crown.” Don’t bet against it.

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