Current status: Threatened
The emblem on his red beret states People Power - Our Power. The politician and singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known by his stage name Bobi Wine, wears this beret for many occasions, be it for the shooting of a music video or while giving a speech about social inequalities. And in a testament to his influence as a public figure and activist, Uganda has banned red berets -- and those who wear them could find themselves in jail.
Born in 1982, Bobi Wine began his music career in the early 2000s, using his songs to share political messages. Wine describes himself on Twitter as “one Ghetto child who has something to say through Music.” Not only did his passion for music and justice turn him into a popular music star in East Africa and beyond, but it also gave him the following to build a powerful platform as a politician. As the leader of National Unity Platform, the Ugandan opposition platform, he ran unsuccessfully for president in January, challenging five-term incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. Although he has faced prison and house arrest several times and is considered an “enemy of progress in Uganda,” Wine continues to spread his criticism of the current political system, which he describes as a “military dictatorship.” Wine’s music and politics are always intertwined: he once estimated that he explores political issues in “over 90% of my music.”
Bobi Wine grew up in a slum in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Born to a nurse and a farmer, he first began to produce music at the age of 16 and went on to study music at Makerere University, the oldest institution of higher learning in Uganda. In the coming years, he gained popularity within the African music scene for hits such as Bada (2006), Akagoma (2012), and Funtula (2015). Following his success in the regional music industry, he has received international recognition for his work -- his song Kiwaanyi was even featured in Disney’s movie Queen of Katwe (2016).
In a recent interview, Wine described his artistic and political engagement as fully intertwined: “My music (. . .) is dangerous to the dictatorship. Particularly what makes my music dangerous to the regimes is that it speaks the truth and it cannot be limited.” While using the potential of his music as a call for people to “take responsibility for their country,” he also uses his musical talent to strengthen his political platform and messaging. One month before Bobi Wine was declared leader of the party National Unity Platform, he turned a speech in front of party members into a song about the goal to liberate Uganda by forming one strong opposition to the current president: “United Forces of Change / The all of us must come together as one.”
Bobi Wine started his political career in 2017 when he ran as an independent candidate for the Parliament of Uganda, gaining a seat with a land-slide victory. Looking back, he describes the phase before entering the political sphere as a development “from a level of just being disgusted by the autocracy to a level of speaking out against it, singing against it, to a level of politically acting against it.” In the following legislation period, Bobi Wine was arrested two times. After his second arrest, he left the country and went to the U.S. in order to receive medical treatment for injuries resulting from the “brutal torture” he had experienced in prison. Nevertheless, he returned to Uganda in the same month to continue his political work.
In 2020, Bobi Wine announced his candidacy for the presidential election, challenging Museveni, who has ruled the country since 1986 and oversees a state with persistent “violations of freedom of association, assembly, and expression.” Moments after completing the official nomination process, Bobi Wine was arrested by police, stating that they feared he had “plans of holding illegal processions.” In the same month, he was released and arrested again for having allegedly violated Covid-19 measures (campaigns for the presidential elections were forbidden in certain parts of the country). This resulted in a public outcry and a clash between protesters and security forces, in which more than 50 people have been killed. Once again, Bobi Wine combined his political efforts with his musical work to mobilize people for the upcoming election. He released the song Tulonde, in which he sings: “We are nonviolent / But we are democratic / We are many and if we come out / In large numbers, and vote / We can be able / To redefine the future of our country.”
“It's more dangerous to be silent. (. . .) [N]ot everything that is faced is changed immediately, but nothing is changed without it being faced. (. . .) We know that justice and democracy are not things that we can get easily. But we know that these are things that can be got.”
In January 2021, Yoweri Museveni was announced the winner of the election. Bobi Wine stated that he was not accepting the result and alleged that the election had been marred by electoral fraud and intimidation, a claim supported by international critics including the European Parliament. According to Amnesty International, the election was characterized by numerous human rights violations, including “unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests of opposition leaders and supporters, and attacks on journalists.” Shortly after casting his vote, Bobi Wine was put under house arrest for 11 days, with security forces surrounding his house.
In a recent interview, Bobi Wine criticized the international community for continuing to support the government of Uganda with financial and military assistance. When asked about the possibility of an exchange between opposition and government, he replied: “We believe in dialogue. But we are taught by the great Mandela that it is only free People that discuss, that negotiate. You cannot put your boot on my neck and say: ‘Let us talk.’ Right now, we are imprisoned in our own country.”
Though he remains under threat, Bobi Wine continues to produce music and to advocate for political change -- immediately. As he said in an interview when asked about the Ugandan presidential election in 2026: “We cannot talk about 2026, when we have a president to deal with every day, every year, every month. In fact, every hour that Museveni continues to rule over our country, we continue to sink down the drain. Our liberation is not a matter of 2026, our liberation is a matter of now.”
By Tizian Rupp, December 2021. Tizian Rupp is a second year Masters of International Relations student at Central European University in Vienna, Austria.