For the past 11 days, Bobi Wine has been a captive in his own home. The army surrounded his estate just outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and seized his mobile phones, cut off his landlines, and suspended his internet connection. The reason: Wine—whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi—has emerged as the first serious democratic challenger to President Yoweri Museveni. Wine was three years old in 1986 when Museveni seized power and promised a “fundamental change in the politics of our country”. Thirty-five years later, Museveni is still the ruler of Uganda.
Wine, born in a slum in Kampala, rose to become a popstar with a devoted following in Africa and beyond. The flood of money and acclaim, far from diluting his fidelity to his origins, prompted him to immerse himself even more deeply in the grievances of the ghetto. He migrated slowly out of music and into politics. In 2017, he was returned to Uganda’s parliament with an overwhelming majority in a by-election. And last year, when he filed nomination papers for Museveni’s job, the response was swift and savage. Covid-19 was cited to break up meetings, dozens of Wine’s young supporters were detained and killed, and Wine was denounced as the puppet of a gay lobby. A series of assassination attempts against Wine followed. The weeks leading to the vote—held on 14 January—were among the most violent in Uganda’s recent history. The official count gave Wine about 35 per cent of the vote. President Museveni got nearly 59 per cent. Wine refused to concede and made allegations of rampant fraud and rigging. The government detained him inside his own home.
Wine pledged to exhaust all legal options before taking the fight to the streets for a non-violent resolution
On Monday, hours after a court ordered the government of Uganda to pull back its troops, Wine spoke to me in an exclusive interview with The Critic. Wine’s house was still sealed off and surrounded by uniformed men. Speaking on a mobile phone smuggled into his house, he pledged to exhaust all legal and constitutional options before taking the fight to the streets for a non-violent resolution. Wine faulted the Americans for financing Uganda’s army and urged the British government, with its “long history of cooperation with Uganda”, to speak for the Ugandan people. When I reminded Wine that he was denied a visa to Britain some years ago for making “homophobic” remarks, he addressed that controversy with candour. Hours after our conversation, the Ugandan government recalled its troops. But helicopters continued to hover above Wine’s house.
The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Kapil Komireddi: Getting through to you has been something of an adventure. You are locked inside your own house. Is Barbara [Wine’s wife] with you? Do you have a phone, computer, internet?
Bobi Wine: Well, Barbie is all right. Thank you. She is strong. Of course, she is stressed, that’s the honest truth. I am stressed, too, but I’m strong and I’m alive. I don’t have internet as it is disrupted by the regime. I have this phone on which I am talking to you. Barbie’s phone and my phone were blocked by the regime. We are stuck in our house. Nobody is allowed to go out and nobody is allowed to come in. It has been 11 days. On the eleventh day, the court, which our legal team had petitioned to secure our freedom, ordered the soldiers and the police to vacate our home but up to now they have still refused to leave our home.
KK: They are defying the court’s orders?
BW: They have defied the court orders, but they have been doing that [for a long time]. The police, the military, and all other state institutions are all overtaken by General Museveni. There’s what we call in Uganda “order from above”. It is only Museveni’s orders that are respected.
KK: Right now, there are soldiers outside your home as we speak?
BW: As we speak soldiers are around our home and we cannot leave our home.
KK: Have the soldiers ever inflicted violence? I heard that they attacked Barbara.
BW: Yes. Barbara and I grow our food. At home, we have a garden. But we were blocked from accessing our garden. She tried to access the garden to pick some food and vegetables, and she was attacked by the soldiers and pushed back and the gate was locked. We cannot even access our own garden.
KK: Can you hold together the movement that you have built up over the years if you are blocked from communicating with your supporters?
‘Museveni is keeping me under confinement in my own house because he doesn’t want me to connect to the people’
BW: Actually, it is not me that is holding the movement together. It is the message that we have been professing, it is the ideology that we have planted in each other—the fact that this is people power, that people power is our power, holding together, and each one of us taking on the leadership, well knowing that General Museveni has a big interest in keeping us apart. Now he is keeping me under confinement in my own house because he doesn’t want me to connect to the people. But we’ve been calling upon the people to take it upon themselves, and they have done just that. Even in the 11 days when I have been confined to my house, we have gone ahead. Besides winning the presidency—which General Museveni ordered the electoral commission and other media houses to announce him the winner—we have gone ahead to win many other positions even without me in the picture. I am confident that the idea that we represent can continue to hold us together. It is the ideology that holds us together—not us that are holding each other together.
KK: President Museveni enjoys support in the rural heartlands. His rule, for all its ills, has given stability. There was violence in the run up to the election—dozens of your supporters were killed—but the voting itself was largely peaceful. By the official count, you got about 35 per cent of the vote. The gap with President Museveni is not small. What is the basis for the claim that Museveni has lost and you have won?
BW: I will tell you that the narrative that General Museveni is popular in the countryside is completely wrong. We won against General Museveni in all the areas. The results that were announced by the Electoral Commission are completely fraudulent, not representative at all. Not for the rural areas, and not for the urban areas. General Museveni gave orders not allowing me to access the rural areas because he feared it would demystify his narrative—the lie that he has support in the rural areas—which is not the truth. It is not true at all that General Museveni enjoys any support anywhere.
I will tell you that this is a different generation. More than 85 per cent of our population is under the age of 35. Therefore, these are young people that are urban minds stuck in rural areas. We have social media everywhere. I am a musician that has been in the people’s households for almost 20 years. So my entry, my emergence, on the political scene completely demystified General Museveni. And that explains why he ordered the military and the police that I should not access the rural areas. It is an absolute lie that General Museveni is popular.
I will also tell you that what they call “peace” on the day of the election was actually pacification. It was the presence of the military and all other state agencies that were intimidating the people. But again, it was my call upon the people of Uganda to go and exercise their democratic right peacefully and calmly. It was not General Museveni’s doing—it was our doing. That explains why unprecedented numbers of voters turned up to vote.
KK: Based on your information-gathering, what do you think the accurate vote tally is? What portion of the vote did you get and what did President Museveni get?
‘According to our tally we must have won a whopping 70 per cent of the vote’
BW: I will tell you that according to our tally—which is still continuing in hidden areas because there is a military and police operation aimed at arresting and confiscating all the declaration of result forms that we have—we must have won a whopping 70 per cent. When we are done tallying in a few days, we are going to be able to present all that. I must also mention that, in whole of western Uganda, very few polling stations were allowed to function. In the rest of the polling stations, people were not allowed to vote for a president—they only voted for MPs because every time they got to the polling stations, the military told them that their vote for a president had already been cast. They found boxes full of stuffed ballot papers. This was done by the police and the military.
KK: You have taken your struggle to the judiciary, and the judiciary has spoken in your favour. They have said President Museveni must call back his troops from outside your house and give you back your liberty. That’s the sign of a robust, functioning judiciary—something you don’t see in a total dictatorship. But if President Museveni does not comply with the judiciary’s orders, what is the recourse for you? Will you take this fight to the streets?
BW: We know that General Museveni has always wanted to provoke us to violence. Even when we have distanced ourselves from violence, he has gone ahead to order the security organs to murder people, just like in November last year. On the 18 and 19 of November, more than a hundred people were shot dead by the police and the military. So that explains why we have trodden cautiously on the idea of calling our people to the streets as yet. However, we are trying to exhaust all legal avenues to ensure we get justice. Of course, I’ll tell you that while the judiciary might pronounce itself—just as they did earlier on in the day, but the military and the police has not complied, it has not respected what the judiciary has said—we’ll take it one step at a time. We want to exhaust all legal and all constitutional avenues.
KK: In a purely legal and constitutional manner, do you think you can prove that this election was rigged and overturn the election using legal means?
‘I didn’t choose this life. It chose me’
BW: For starters, fraudulent elections have not just happened now—although this election is the most fraudulent, in my opinion, in the history of Uganda. In 2011 and in 2016, elections were challenged. And in 2011, the former chief justice of Uganda wrote in his book that indeed it was a fraudulent election but they failed to overturn it because the military took over. We know that General Museveni is the one that appoints the entire bench of the supreme court of Uganda. Therefore, we don’t expect them to rule against him, but because we are non-violent and we are law-abiding citizens, we want to put to test the courts of judicature here in Uganda. We have overwhelming evidence and we are confident that, in a functioning judiciary, the evidence that we have—both qualitative and quantitative—can be enough to overturn an election. We are going to put that to the judiciary and put them to test.
KK: If they fail to satisfy—or if they satisfy and their order is disregarded—how are you going to bring down a government backed by the entire state machinery?
BW: It has always been our belief that people power is stronger than people in power. We know that non-violence can be much more powerful than violence. At least history has proved that. We have seen dictatorships like the one of Omar Al-Bashir, or Hosni Mubarak, or Muammar Gaddafi. Yes, some of them went out violently, but we know that others like the one recently in Sudan went down non-violently. If the legal avenues are not respected, we are going to take it back to the people of Uganda and call upon them to use all non-violent legal means to reclaim their power.
We also call upon the international community. We know that they are responsible for propping up the Museveni dictatorship. The United States of America spends hundreds of millions of dollars on the Ugandan military, which is responsible for torture, mutilation, and murder of innocent citizens. We want to ask these “development partners” to make the observance of the rule of law and human rights a precondition to hold General Museveni accountable. We continue also to petition the United Nations and all other international bodies to come to the aid of the people of Uganda, who are non-violent but are being violently suppressed by the Museveni dictatorship.
KK: President Museveni has fostered good relations with the West. Has anyone in the international community reached out to you? Have representatives of the British government or the new administration in the United States reached out to you? Has anyone stood in solidarity with you?
BW: Apart from seeing strongly worded statements—and we really appreciate them—no international government has reached out to us. We hope they soon will, but again, we look forward to seeing all these strongly worded statements translated into strong actions, because we have a moral obligation to act according to what is morally professed.
KK: What do you say to the British government and to the British people?
‘I am here out of frustration, because I cannot be free when everyone else is not’
BW: The people of Uganda, first of all, appreciate the relationship and the friendship with Britain. But we want you in Britain to act according to your values. We know that we have a long history of cooperation as Britain and Uganda. That cooperation should not be with an individual—Museveni—it should be with the institutions. We know they respect human rights. We know that they are aware of the very many human rights violations at the hands of General Museveni. We hope that they can help hold General Museveni accountable for the human rights abuses, for the disrespect of democracy, for trampling down on the rule of law in Uganda. We hope that they can act upon their statements. Uganda is a nation that depends largely on foreign aid. We hope those giving aid don’t come across as the sponsors of the terror that General Museveni is unleashing on the people of Uganda. We want to be a democracy. We want to be free like them. We want to be proud of our relationship. And we want to know that our partners in development are our partners in human rights, partners in democracy, and partners in real freedom. Museveni has been presiding over this country by the barrel of a gun for the last 35 years.
KK: In 2014, you were denied a visa to the UK for an apparently homophobic remark.
BW: It is indeed true I was denied a visa because of my anti-gay rhetoric then. That was me in my twenties. But the more I grow, I learn that everybody deserves their rights regardless of what they think and regardless of how different they are from me. And under this oppression, I’ve learnt that, as a leader, I should struggle to defend the rights of the people who are different from me. I am for the human rights of all humans.
KK: When you took the phone, you said you’d be lucky to come out of this alive. Do you fear that you might not?
BW: I hate to say it, but yes. So many people have been murdered. I survived three assassination attempts on just the campaign trail. [In one attempt] bullets were fired at my car, and one of them into the windscreen. I have buried so many close friends. My entire campaign team is in prison as we speak right now. Many of my very close friends, including my brother-in-law, have been abducted by the military and have not been seen. So, anything can happen.
KK: Bobi—do you look back on your music career, your successful career, when you were making all that money and could have done anything, and wonder, Why did I choose this?
BW: Man—I didn’t choose this. It chose me. If I was living in a free country, if I was living in a democratic country where I had all my rights, I probably wouldn’t be here. But I am here out of frustration, because I cannot be free when everyone else is not free. I am a musician who is abolished from performing because I have ideas that diverge from the president’s ideas. I am only playing my part. I am here to inspire other people, especially the young people, to play their part. That is why I am here.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe