World Politics

Pop star Bobi Wine seeks to unseat five-term president in landmark Ugandan election

Key Points
  • Uganda has never seen a peaceful transition of power, and the election campaign has been fraught with violence and intimidation.
  • President Yoweri Museveni is Africa's third-longest serving head of state, having seized power as the rebel leader of the National Resistance Army in 1986.
  • Bobi Wine, a singer-turned-lawmaker whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, claimed on Twitter on Tuesday that the army had raided his home and arrested a campaign surrogate.
Bobi Wine parades through crowds of people in Kayunga District on December 01, 2020 in Jinja, Uganda. Presidential candidates are campaigning in Uganda ahead of the elections scheduled for the 14 January 2021.
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Ugandans head to the polls on Thursday as singer-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine looks to deny incumbent President Yoweri Museveni a sixth term.

On Tuesday, Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, claimed on Twitter that the army had raided his home and arrested his security guards. The event marked the latest in a series of arrests and violent attacks on Wine himself as well as his supporters, journalists and election officials in recent months.

"Such acts of impunity are all kicks of a dying horse," the 38-year-old said, before imploring Museveni to explain the arrests of his campaign team, assistants and supporters.

He also posted a video purporting to show a campaign surrogate being arrested in a hotel, alleging that the military had killed another supporter and that private security had been ordered to withdraw from his home. CNBC has contacted the Government of Uganda for comment but has yet to receive a response.

In November, 54 people were killed over two days of anti-government protests, drawing international condemnation and scrutiny on Museveni's National Resistance Movement government to ensure a free and fair election. More than 18 million Ugandans have registered to vote, according to the Uganda electoral commission.

In December, Wine's vehicle was struck by a bullet at a police and military checkpoint, which authorities claimed was erected to enforce Covid-19 containment measures.

Bobi Wine takes an injured supporter into a medical center on December 01, 2020 in Jinja, Uganda.
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Wine, known to supporters as the "ghetto president" having made his name in informal settlements around the capital, Kampala, and his National Unity Platform party are running on a grassroots platform focused on improving public access to education, justice, health care and clean water.

He has branded Museveni a "dictator" and blamed government corruption for stifling the country's youth, having gained a substantial following through a music career which often focused on the social issues faced by poorer Ugandans. His music, which he has described as "edutainment," blends reggae and Afrobeat genres.

Museveni is Africa's third-longest serving head of state, having seized power as the rebel leader of the National Resistance Army in 1986. A lifelong opponent of previous dictatorial regimes, Museveni was involved in the rebel movements that toppled both Idi Amin and Milton Obote prior to ascending to power himself.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni delivers his state of the nation address in Kampala, Uganda, on June 6, 2018.
Nicholas Bamulanzeki | AFP | Getty Images

Now 76 years old, he is seeking a sixth presidential term, with critics alleging that the fusion of party and state power during his tenure has rendered any realistic electoral challenge nigh on impossible over the past 35 years.

Uganda has never seen a peaceful transition of power. In a tweet on Monday, Museveni urged NRM supporters to get out and vote.

"We shall put to shame all those who are unhappy with Uganda's progress and therefore think they can use this election to set us back," he added.

Museveni's early years were accompanied by an economic boom and emergence from the oppressive shadows of the likes of Amin and Obote. But despite running this campaign under the slogan "securing your future," economic opportunities are increasingly scarce for Uganda's ever-younger and more educated population.

According to the World Bank, only 75,000 new jobs are created annually for the 700,000 young people that reach working age.

In recent interviews, Museveni has lashed out at Wine as being supported by "foreigners" and "homosexuals."

Posters of the two most popular candidates for Uganda's Presidential election, incumbent President Yoweri Museveni (yellow) and Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the pop star-turned-opposition leader, are seen along a street in Kampala, Uganda, on January 6, 2021.
SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Facebook announced that it had shut down a network of government-linked fake and duplicate social media accounts intended to boost the popularity of certain content.

The following day, allegations surfaced that the government had ordered internet service providers to block social media platforms, messaging apps and select content in the run-up to the election. Tibor Nagy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, tweeted late on Tuesday that these restrictions "undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Though Wine's campaign has garnered a fervent youth following, global attention and a strong social media presence, Museveni's popularity remains intact across large swathes of the country and among older and rural voters, Pangea-Risk CEO Robert Besseling told CNBC on Tuesday.

"In September 2020, the NRM leadership was reshuffled to include younger leaders and earlier last year the NRM ruling party overwhelmingly won elections for representatives of special interest groups, such as the youth, at village level," Besseling said.

"These local elections were a resounding affirmation of the NRM's national grassroots electoral infrastructure, which the opposition lacks."

He added that the prospect of a harsh security response targeting the opposition, state patronage, promises of oil wealth, and Museveni's own strong support base in rural areas will "almost certainly see him re-elected."