On Thursday, the afrobeats artist and Ugandan Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine returned home to Uganda from the United States following medical treatment.
These days the world isn’t a stranger to celebrities swapping the stage for corridors of power. Former President of the United States Ronald Reagan was an actor before embarking on a political career. More notoriously Donald Trump was a reality TV star before swooping into the White House less than two years ago. Luckily that’s where the parallels between Kyagulanyi and the two Republicans end.
Kyagulanyi has proven himself as a strong defender of the voice and rights of the marginalised Ugandan youth ever since his victory in a by-election last June. Kyagulanyi himself dutifully made it clear that he does not see himself as apart of the establishment; telling the media that he is “not a politician” and that is evident in his political style.
For the most part the enigmatic Kyagulanyi has been a campaigner as much as he’s been an MP. He has been at the forefront of a variety of initiatives and campaigns including building 17 boreholes in his local constituency and a protest against a punitive social media tax imposed a few months ago. This particular style of representation has been used as a criticism against Kyagulanyi . Referred to by the youth as ‘The Ghetto President’ his opponents argue that he is an ineffective MP as he has failed to bring forward any bills to Parliament.
But perhaps those critics are missing the point.
It’s clear that Kyagulanyi believes in people power and thus has funnelled his energy into mobilisation. The amount of fear he strikes into the establishment is indicative that he’s doing something right.
Last month the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was campaigning in the Northern town of Gulu, where Kyagulanyi was also campaigning. Here, Museveni’s convoy was pelted by protestors touting rocks. Museveni and the authorities moved to blame Kyagulanyi for the ruckus. That same evening the police flanked Bobi Kyagulanyi’s car and fired shots inside. Kyagulanyi’s driver was killed in the attack but Kyagulanyi maintains that he was the target.
From there, the police arrested Kyagulanyi and two other lawmakers on charges of treason.
The protracted nightmare that has played out in the African and international media started here. Kyagulanyi was reportedly tortured and beaten by the security services and being trialled in front of military court with no witnesses.
Kyagulanyi’s ordeal and that of his fellow prisoners is a tragic indictment of the state of politics in Uganda. The flagrant disregard for democracy and freedom of speech is imbued in the establishment’s DNA. But it also tells us something else. It tells us that Kyagulanyi is onto something.
This wasn’t Kyagulanyi’s first run-in with law enforcement. Last year he had a grenade thrown at his house an incident in which Kyagulanyi, the victim, was arrested by the police.
Previously Kyagulanyi has said of Museveni: “President Museveni is too old to lead the country. The time is ripe for change and it’s the youth who are the majority. It’s upon us to determine our future,” he said in Mbale.
“It’s high time the youth got to stand for their beliefs and fight for them come what may. Nobody will stand with you because it’s a time of God for us all and man for himself,” he said in Mbarara.
Kyagulanyi has received his fair share of criticism, a fellow Ugandan MP Kato Lubwama branded Kyagulanyi a child saying he “acts like a primary one kid and is not qualified to be in parliament”, this was on the back of a brawl that broke out in Parliament over the bill to to extend Museveni’s reign. One could argue that Kyagulanyi wasn’t the only one and that the matter at hand was a matter of passion.
In a country where 65% of the population is under 30, and the 75 year-old President recently won his battle to remove age limits that would have stopped him from serving, Kyagulanyi is tapping into something.
Kyagulanyi is tapping into a reservoir of frustration at the lack of social mobility, economic opportunity and political representation. Frustration has proved to be a powerful motivator in the past. It was in Tunisia as it was in Morocco at the onset of the Arab Spring.
Poor governance isn’t too dissimilar to a poor diet. Eventually it catches up with you and the momentum that Kyagulanyi hass garnered will not disappear. Whether you wish to paint Kyagulanyi as a revolutionary leader or not is down to you. But he has all the trappings of one. A bigger, formidable opponent, a passionate and committed following but most integral is his desire to see a better Uganda.
Kyagulanyi himself may not see it but his actions could reverberate across the continent. Uganda is not a unique case. Cameroon, Burundi and just a few of the countries where President’s are over staying their welcome. This wouldn’t be a problem if prosperity was widespread but in the face of lack a stubborn dictator becomes less and less tolerable each day.
In a recent interview with the BBC Kyagulanyi put it best himself, saying; “I am going to continue the fight for freedom and it is the fight we must either win or die trying”.
Kyagulanyi says he’s ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. This is someone worth following.