Fri, Sep 14, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Pop star vs president: Uganda’s generational battle

AFP, KAMPALA

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, left, addresses the UN General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 19 last year and Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, attends a news conference in Washington on Thursday last week.

Photo: AFP

“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.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has long had police beat the defiance out of his opponents, but a 36-year-old slumboy singer turned lawmaker has energized 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 tires 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.”

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 last year and entered parliament, where his popularity and outspoken opposition to Uganda’s long-time leader shook up the nation’s “Groundhog Day” politics.

In power since 1986, the 74-year-old Museveni is the only president most Ugandans have known: the nation’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,” Kampala-based independent analyst Anna Reuss said.

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,” Katumba said.

The combination of “his age, his background and his story” make Kyagulanyi a challenge unlike any Museveni has faced during his 32-year rule, Ugandan writer and political analyst Rosebell Kagumire said.

She described him as “an outsider who is trying to shake things up.”

However, 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 last month.

Both men traveled 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 lawmaker himself was arrested — he claims he was tortured and badly beaten while in custody — and charged with treason, as were dozens of others.

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