Can This Pop Star Topple Uganda's Strongman President?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because music and revolution go well together.
By Laura Secorun Palet
We meet in a deserted hotel bar in the hills of Kampala. It’s been raining all morning, so I suggest having a hot cup of tea. Robert Kyagulanyi refuses; he loves tea but says he can’t have any. “I’ve been warned it could be poisoned,” he explains.
This is the price Kyagulanyi pays for being one of Uganda’s most vocal opposition leaders. Best known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, the 36-year-old singer turned politician represents a triple threat to the country’s status quo. He is young, he is wildly famous, and he knows how to fire up a crowd.
Uganda’s ruling elites are no easy target, though. President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 31 years. Opposition leaders accuse him of muffling dissent with violent threats, and Human Rights Watch has documented the government’s use of police to beat up and arrest journalists who try to report on the subject. Recently, the 73-year-old Museveni successfully repealed a bill preventing anyone over the age of 75 from being president, paving the way for him to run again in the 2021 elections. And likely the ones after that.
If I wanted young people to get involved in politics, I had to lead by example.
In June of last year, when Kyagulanyi unexpectedly won a seat in Uganda’s Parliament, the anti-establishment pop star instantly became a political hero to his fans, and a target for the establishment. Police began canceling his concerts without explanation, and the new MP started receiving anonymous death threats.
Then, in October, his home was attacked with hand grenades. Two of them landed inside the room of his 12-year-old son, who had run upstairs after hearing the first explosion in the yard. Kyagulanyi regrets that his family now lives in fear, and claims to know who is coming after them. “I have no doubt the attack was sanctioned by the government,” he says.
Sitting back in his chair, drinking a Sprite, the self-proclaimed “Ghetto President” looks like a hipster revolutionary. His uniform: a green leather jacket with black shoulder pads, skinny dark jeans and very clean sneakers.
Revolution runs in Kyagulanyi’s family. His grandfather fought during Uganda’s civil war and his father was a political activist who often spent time in jail. His mother, however, swore politics was the root of all evils, so young Robert chose to pursue a music degree and channel the country’s social malaise into pop songs.
By the age of 25, he was a celebrity, making bank with his combination of catchy tunes and anti-government lyrics. But after a decade of singing for political change without seeing any evidence of it, Kyagulanyi decided to run for office. “I realized that if I wanted young people to get involved in politics, I had to lead by example,” he says.
It worked. Kyagulanyi won a landslide victory in his home constituency, thanks largely to the youth vote. Almost 80 percent of Uganda’s population is under 30, meaning they were not even born when Museveni was first elected president. According to Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the pro-democracy nonprofit Vanguard Africa, this demographic tension bodes well for Kyagulanyi. “If he’s able to build a campaign structure to effectively channel this energy,” says Smith, “Uganda’s ruling class could be in for a shock.”
But leaving the music festival circuit for the halls of Parliament has also been something of a shock for the star. Kyagulanyi says, “Corruption was so [wide]spread, it was embarrassing.” He took particular offense when someone deposited $8,000 into his bank account during the debate to scrap the presidential age limit. He promptly took to social media to expose and denounce the attempted bribe, receiving no response from Museveni, who had previously called Kyagulanyi “a liar.”
Fellow MPs are not too fond of Kyagulanyi either, with some members of the opposition accusing him of being reckless and unqualified. “I got my education on the streets,” he responds. “I don’t need to go to school to learn what the problems of my people are.”
Granted, it’s been a long time since Kyagulanyi lived like his people do. His fleet of tinted-window rides, a large country house and collection of gold watches set him far apart from the reality of his constituents struggling to access jobs and drinking water.
So far, his supporters don’t seem to mind the dissonance. His celebrity status may actually help him overcome some of the limitations of his office. When the state did not have sufficient funds to purchase hospital supplies, Kyagulanyi threw a concert to raise the money. And when they needed to undertake a road expansion, he personally asked neighbors to donate part of their land for the venture. Everyone said yes.
Still, some suspect that fame and popularity are not enough to sustain political momentum. Especially if the current government generates the kind of economic growth that will appease the unemployed youth. “Bobi Wine needs to do more than say what he’s against. He needs to present a new vision,” argues Ugandan political analyst Angelo Izama.
Kyagulanyi says his current focus is improving the lives of his 200,000 constituents and that he does have a vision for Uganda — starting with profound institutional reforms and much stronger anti-corruption laws. “Power always corrupts,” he says, “so we must limit ourselves.” The singer-slash-legislator says he learned this valuable lesson from his childhood hero, Yoweri Museveni.