“We used to be scared,” said Josephine Katumba, a 30-year-old hairdresser in Kamwokya, a poor suburb of Uganda’s capital Kampala. “We don’t have fear anymore.”
President Yoweri Museveni has long had police beat the defiance out of his opponents, but a 36-year-old slumboy singer turned MP has energised and emboldened Uganda’s youth, worrying the government.
Black scorch marks on the potholed road outside Katumba’s tiny salon mark where residents have routinely burnt tyres to protest the arrest of Bobi Wine, a local boy done good, charismatic pop star and unlikely opposition firebrand.
There is “Free Bobi Wine” graffiti everywhere.
“People have wanted change for a long time,” said Katumba, nimbly braiding a customer’s hair. “The difference now is that Bobi is young and he speaks for the youth.”
– ‘Ghetto President’ –
As a pop star Bobi Wine blended lyrics on social justice and poverty with catchy Afrobeat rhythms, earning him committed fans among Uganda’s often poor urban youth.
He took on the nickname of “His Excellency the Ghetto President”.
Under his real name Robert Kyagulanyi he won a by-election in 2017 and entered parliament, where his popularity and outspoken opposition to Uganda’s long-time leader shook up the country’s “Groundhog Day” politics.
In power since 1986, the 74-year-old Museveni is the only president most Ugandans have known: the country’s median age is less than 16.
Museveni has had the constitution amended twice, to remove term and then age limits, clearing him to run for a sixth term in 2021.
The opposition has for two decades been similarly dominated by 62-year-old Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s former friend and personal physician, who has lost four successive elections.
Besigye “has become part of an entrenched political system in which change feels impossible without fresh leadership,” said Kampala-based independent analyst Anna Reuss.
Kyagulanyi has swiped the opposition mantel from Besigye and provided a voice for a youthful population fed up with old men telling them what to do.
“Besigye is there to help, but he’s not from the ghetto. Bobi can come and talk to us on the streets,” said Katumba.
– Charged with treason –
The combination of “his age, his background and his story” make Kyagulanyi a challenge unlike any Museveni has faced during his 32-year rule, said Ugandan writer and political analyst Rosebell Kagumire.
She described him as “an outsider who is trying to shake things up”.
But in Uganda, shaking things up is risky.
Kyagulanyi rode into parliament on a wave of urban, youthful support. He quickly spearheaded resistance to the ruling party initiative removing age limits that cleared the way for Museveni to rule for life, and led protests earlier this year against a new social media tax.
The image of Kyagulanyi, in his signature red beret, leading a crowd of supporters through the streets became ubiquitous.
And as candidates he backed won a string of by-elections, Kyagulanyi was even harder to ignore.
He and Museveni went head-to-head in August. Both men travelled to the northwestern town of Arua to canvass for rival candidates on the eve of a by-election and a proxy confrontation ensued.
An opposition crowd allegedly stoned Museveni’s motorcade, breaking a car window. Police responded with bullets and Kyagulanyi’s driver was shot dead.
The MP himself was arrested — he claims he was tortured and badly beaten while in custody — and charged with treason, as were dozens of others.
Kyagulanyi’s candidate, Kassiano Wadri, won the election.
– Torture and protest –
The torture allegations resonated, riling up Kyagulanyi’s supporters.
“We were angry and wanted to see that Bobi was fine,” Katumba said, recalling the eruption of street protests that followed.
Granted bail, Kyagulanyi has travelled to the US to seek medical treatment and has ramped up his criticism of Museveni’s regime from afar.
For his part, the president seems unable to adapt to the shifting challenge.
The arbitrary arrest and beating of opposition leaders is an old tactic that was deployed against Besigye for years, but young Ugandans are less cowed by such brutal displays of state strength.
Even Museveni’s trademark rhetoric, a form of didactic bonhomie mixed with folksy metaphor, is increasingly tone-deaf: in a recent speech on the state of the nation he patronised much of his audience by addressing them as “bazukulu”, meaning grandchildren.
Kyagulanyi’s expected return to Uganda will test Museveni further.
Reuss said that while he is “unlikely to unseat Museveni”, the continual use of force “further delegitimises Museveni and opposition grows further”.
Back in Kamwokya, the slum Kyagulanyi still calls home, one of Katumba’s employees looks south for a solution to his country’s tenacious old leader: “We want Museveni to be like Robert Mugabe: accept and go,” he said.