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Uganda's Bobi Wine sharpening generational gap?

Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known as Bobi Wine in Washington, DC, 6 September, 2018
Ugandan MP Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known as Bobi Wine in Washington, DC, 6 September, 2018 © AFP

Ugandan pop star turned opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi returned home Thursday, after receiving treatment in the United States for injuries allegedly sustained during torture in custody last month. The firebrand politician, who rose from the slums to stardom, has become the symbol of the youth's aspirations for change.


Shortly after landing at Entebbe airport on Thursday, Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, was whisked away by security officers, sparking fears of a new arrest.

Those fears were swiftly dispelled by Ugandan spokesman Ofwono Opondo, who in a statement, insisted that Kyagulanyi had been delivered "safely in his home in Magere, Wakiso District."

Yet the heavy presence of the police and army, right from the centre of the Kampala capital to the airport, left many people ill at ease.

"We saw this coming," Norbert Mao, president of the Democratic Party, and a former presidential candidate, told RFI.

"The regime is extremely insecure (...) How can someone who has been abroad for treatment, coming back home, people are happy to receive him and the regime does not want people to jubilate," he says.

The regime for its part insists it wanted to avoid a repeat of last month's clashes that left at least one person dead in Kampala.

"When you come to disorganise the peace of the people, the best they can do, they have to keep you away from the people," says Omodo Omodo, former national youth vice chairperson of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

Kyagulanyi was granted bail last month after being arrested for 'treason.' He claims he was tortured during custody after his supporters were detained for allegedly pelting Museveni’s presidential convoy during a closely fought by-election in Arua, which his candidate won.

"When he was granted bail," continues Omodo, "They gave him instructions that he should not call procession. And now when you are inviting very many people to come and welcome you (...) Oh please. He will be kept, and he will be safe, he will not die," he told RFI.

Yearning for change

Kyagulanyi has risen to prominence in recent weeks, buoyed by a wave of urban, youthful support, which the government of President Yoweri Museveni seems unable to manoeuver.

"Bobi Wine personifies all Ugandans who yearn for change," comments Mao, insisting this desire extends also to MPs in the ruling NRM party.

"People like Bobi Wine, who are calling for reforms, checks and balances, for power to be in the hands of the people, that voice also represents the agony of the people inside the NRM," he says.

Kyagulanyi has long been an outspoken critic of Uganda’s government, well known for using music to exhort Ugandans to play an active role in fighting corruption and injustice in their country.

And his message appeals to the youth. It stretches across "the ghetto youth, the educated, Christians, Muslims, people in the north, south, we are all interested in the idea of Bobi Wine," says Innocent Ayo, secretary for youth and international affairs within the Forum for Democratic Change, (FDC), the main opposition party.

"When the government was trying to respond to the idea of Bobi Wine, we saw the President of the Republic of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, going to the slums, and he took them millions of shillings in a patronage system trying to distribute it to some few youths so that they can try to water down what Bobi Wine is raising," he told RFI.

That system of patronage has reached its limit claims Ayo.

With unemployment at 83%, according to the World Bank, and most of the unemployed under the age of 30, Uganda's youth seem disillusioned after 32 years of Museveni rule.

Past vs. Present

"Uganda has come very far up to this level under President Museveni," insists the NRM's Omodo. "I come from northern Uganda, Lango, and I can tell you people are calm."

That calm has been instilled by Museveni after years of civil war by the Lord's Resistance Army, he reckons.

The problem is that this rhetoric of Museveni restoring peace to Uganda is today falling on deaf ears. Many young people weren't born when those horrors took place and are eager for change, which is what Bobi Wine is calling for.

Wine spoke to RFI on Wednesday and denounced a mockery of democracy in Uganda.

"How was he elected if democracy was a mockery? They would rig his election and he would not be in parliament. How did he make it to parliament?" challenges Omodo.

"There is democracy in Uganda," he insists, "You should not think that when you go to America, or elsewhere, that those people will now lead Uganda, no."

For now though, Wine is testing the government of Museveni, and putting him squarely in front of a dilemma of how to reconcile the elderly of the past with the youth of today.

"We have a problem with Uganda's younger generation," concludes the Democratic Party's Mao, "Museveni doesn't know what to do about that, and the worst thing, he's not listening."

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