Pop Star Bobi Wine Poses Biggest Threat to Ugandan Strongman

(Bloomberg) -- Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has seen off electoral challenges, street protests and vicious rebellions during his three decades in power. His latest nemesis is a pop star known as Bobi Wine.

Robert Kyagulanyi, 36, is posing the most serious threat yet to Museveni, 74, who’s ruled since 1986. Elected to parliament last year, the reggae star and self-styled “ghetto president” has kept up a steady stream of criticisms and protests. It’s a stance that culminated this month with his arrest, alleged beating and a charge of treason.

While railroading the opposition is nothing new in Uganda, the detention of Kyagulanyi is galvanizing Uganda’s youth, some of whom joined protests in the capital, Kampala, and other towns. Age may be a pressure point in the East African nation that has the world’s second-youngest population, yet one of the continent’s oldest and longest-serving leaders.

“The issue of age will be inescapable for Museveni in the next election,” said Jared Jeffery, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC African Economics. “His image is definitely hamstrung on this key issue in such a young country.”

Burnishing Credentials

Museveni, a key U.S. ally in the region, has already approved the scrapping of an age limit for presidential candidates, crucial so he can run in the 2021 vote. And while his security forces crack down on opponents, he’s burnishing his credentials as both a wise old man -- calling the youth his “grandchildren” -- and as a fighter. His daughter this year produced ‘27 Guns,’ a film recreating his days as a guerrilla leader.

Following the removal of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe last year, in sub-Saharan Africa only Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and Cameroon’s Paul Biya have held power for periods comparable to Museveni’s.

“We know you fought a bush war, but imagine a child who was unborn when you came has also long become a parent,” Bobi Wine sang in his 2017 track, ‘Freedom.’ “Someone help us tell this old man that it’s wrong that he’s insisting” to stay on as leader, he said.

‘Intent to Do Harm’

Kyagulanyi and other opposition politicians were arrested mid-August in northwest Uganda after supporters of a candidate they backed in a by-election allegedly threw stones at a convoy carrying Museveni. He was initially charged in a military court with illegal weapons possession.

That charge was dropped, but Kyagulanyi -- whose lawyer says he was tortured in custody -- was then charged with treason by another court on Aug. 23 for an alleged “intent to do harm” to Museveni. His lawyers describe the case as politically motivated and rights groups have urged Uganda to drop the charges. He was released on bail on Monday.

Amid all the drama, the candidate Kyagulanyi backed in the local by-election won. It was the fourth electoral victory for a politician the musician had rallied the youth to support -- signaling his growing appeal. Four people have died in protests related to his arrest, according to advocacy group Chapter Four Uganda.

Museveni himself has also used music to charm citizens. In 2010 he released a rap song, ‘U Want Another Rap,’ that he performed at rallies for the next year’s election and that became an improbable local hit. He did a similar trick before the 2016 vote.

Stifling Dissent

While Museveni, who’s often photographed in military fatigues, accuses Kyagulanyi of fomenting chaos, the musician says the president is detached from the youth. Uganda’s most recent census showed that 68 percent of the population -- now estimated at 40 million -- was under 24, according to the United Nations.

Uganda in July introduced a tax equal to a few U.S. cents a day on social media including Facebook and Twitter, a step the government said would bring in much-needed revenue and curb gossip and immorality. Rights campaigners criticized it as an attempt to choke off an affordable outlet for free political expression.

The violent response to protests may expose some state officials to U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, DaMina Advisors LLP said in an emailed note. The legislation allows the U.S. government to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in corruption or human-rights abuses.

Quashing Demonstrations

Museveni has plenty of experience warding off opposition. In 2011, security forces quashed demonstrations after the arrest of Kizza Besigye, a Museveni ally-turned-opposition leader who’s run for the presidency four times.

The president has also quelled his opponents by using patronage, coercion and intimidation, according to Godber Tumushabe, executive director at the Kampala-based Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies.

Still, while Museveni’s won five successive votes, simmering dissent means the next contest may not be so easy.

“The years to 2021’s elections are going to be the toughest faced by the aging president since he came to power,” Jeffery said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.