Singing truth to power

When Ugandan police imprisoned Bobi Wine in his own home, the singer-turned-lawmaker used the internet, music and multiple languages to craft a call for solidarity between civilians and security forces.

Image Credit Barbie Kyagulanyi via Facebook.

Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s increasingly authoritarian president of 33 years, would like young Ugandans to stop listening to the country’s best known pop star, Bobi Wine. “[Wine] is a singer,” Museveni told a youth gathering in March, “Leadership is not about music.” Of course, those who follow the politics of the region know that it has been quite some time now since Wine (legal name: Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) could be written off as just a singer.

After winning a by-election for the parliamentary seat of his home constituency in April 2017, Wine began a meteoric rise through the ranks of Uganda’s political opposition. He became a leading voice on issues ranging from defense of the country’s constitutional democratic safeguards, to freedom of expression, to government land grabbing. Spearheading a movement of civic engagement and popular resistance that he dubbed People Power, he soon emerged as perhaps the most formidable political threat Museveni has faced in decades.

Though much of his activism took place on the streets of Kampala or on the Parliament floor, a great deal also unfolded on stage. Wine has long used his songs to draw attention to social injustices. In the past two years, though, his lyrics have grown more overtly political, often calling on Ugandans to “come together” to fight for their political freedoms and alter their country’s path.

However dismissively Museveni may speak about music, he is far from ignorant of its power. Starting in October 2017, he began banning Wine’s performances. As political analyst Fredrick Goloba-Mutebi has observed, Wine’s concerts pose a threat to Museveni because they create a political space without expressly violating the prohibitions on early campaigning that Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has historically used to hobble opposition candidates ahead of elections. By blocking them, Museveni has sought to cut off one of Wine’s most vibrant means of political expression. It is a tactic he has doubled down on in recent months, as Wine’s political star has continued to rise.

Last August, security forces seized Wine after a political rally in the northern city of Arua. During a subsequent two-week detention, the musician-turned-lawmaker was so badly brutalized by police and military that he emerged from their custody barely able to walk. He was ultimately allowed to travel for several weeks of treatment abroad. Since his return to Uganda, he has found nearly every one of his performances blocked.

Much to Museveni’s chagrin though, Wine has become increasingly adept at shifting the political space once created by his concerts into the arena of the Internet and social media. In late December, when the government blocked his annual Boxing Day concert (a tradition that predates his parliamentary career), Wine responded by releasing the music video of his latest single, “Tuliyambala Engule” just after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Vividly depicting a future Uganda free of corruption and abuses by the state, the video read as a kind of exuberant policy statement—an outline of the issues Wine hopes to tackle in the years to come. It immediately went viral, and sparked weeks of debate in the country.

Four months later, as Wine clashed with the regime over yet another holiday concert, he would once again turn to the Internet as a means of reaching his fans and political followers. This time, the results would be even more remarkable.

On Good Friday, the government-controlled New Vision newspaper reported that Ugandan police had cleared Bobi Wine to proceed with a concert planned for Easter Monday at his lakeside property, One Love Beach Bussabala. According to the paper, the permission was contingent on a strict agreement between Wine’s team and state authorities. The very letter granting clearance also included a harsh caveat. “Police,” it warned organizers, “will not hesitate to stop any of these functions at any time […] if they breach any of the above guidelines.”

In the interest of accuracy, the letter should perhaps have specified that police would “not hesitate to stop any of these functions” prior to the breach of any guidelines, either. For when Easter Monday rolled around, authorities mobilized to detain Wine before he could even reach his concert venue. After intercepting the singer and his team as they drove to One Love Beach, police clad in riot gear deployed hoses and teargas to scatter Wine’s supporters, then engulfed his car, shielding one another while an officer used his baton to shatter one of the vehicle’s rear windows.

In the ensuing chaos, as police hauled the passengers out on to the road, Wine could be heard protesting that someone was close to breaking his hand. “You are fighting me,” one of the policemen snapped in response. “I’m not fighting you, my brother!” Bobi Wine shouted back over the din, “Why are you grabbing me?” It was a statement of deep exasperation, if not outright anger—and little wonder, coming from a man who has in the past year suffered severe harassment and even torture at the hands of his country’s various security forces.

Although police returned Wine to his family within a few hours, they then proceeded to surround his home. By Tuesday morning, with officers stationed at both of the compound gates, and barricades going up along neighboring roads, it became clear that the singer-cum-legislator was being held under a strict house arrest. Colleagues and friends began to arrive to offer encouragement, and as the day drew to a close, Bobi Wine took to his Facebook page to reach out to the supporters beyond the walls of his house.

He had no prepared statement. Instead, Wine simply invited his nearly one million followers to join him (through a live stream) on the steps of his veranda. “This is how my evening is going, under House Arrest,” read the caption of a video that would be the first of three such posts during the night.

Seated on the front stoop with Wine, strumming a dark teal acoustic guitar, was his friend and longtime musical collaborator known by the stage name Nubian Li. For a few minutes, the two men meandered between song and idle talk, before gradually turning the conversation towards recent events. Wine bent back his wrist and angled his arm to show Nubian how police had wrenched it during his arrest. Although his dismay and resentment were still evident, another sentiment had now also entered the mix.

His own harrowing experiences with Ugandan state forces notwithstanding, Wine has repeatedly written and spoken about the need to recognize the fundamental humanity of his country’s security personnel. Now, held in detention as heavily armed police encircled his own home, Wine reflected, “What you do with those people: you look them in the eyes. […] When you look them in the eyes, you see the real them—not the uniform.” It is through such moments of connection, he explained, that civilians and police officers may eventually begin to see themselves in one another.

Then, gesturing for Nubian to accompany him on the guitar, Wine shared the first lines of a song that was beginning to take shape in his head. “Afande, sipigani nawe,” he sang: Officer, I am not fighting youThe words clearly echoed his own frustrated outburst from the previous day, yet what followed marked a profound shift in tone. “Nakupigania,” Wine went on: I am fighting for you!

On the previous Monday Wine had argued with police in a mixture of English and his native Luganda. Now, however, he sang in Swahili. It was a striking choice, given the fraught standing of this language among his compatriots. Swahili, along with English, is recognized as one of Uganda’s two official languages, and in a country whose population counts several dozen different mother tongues, it has in some areas come to play the role of a basic lingua franca. Few Ugandans speak Swahili natively, though, and the one sector of society to use it as a dominant means of communication has historically been Uganda’s security forces—so much so, that speakers of Luganda sometimes refer to Swahili as Luserikale, or the “language of law enforcement officers.” The officers in question, be they military or police, carry a decades’ long record of staggering brutality against the very population they are nominally tasked to protect. To many Ugandans then, Swahili is, first and foremost, the language of state violence.

And that, Wine and Nubian mused, was precisely why the song would take Swahili as its starting point. Just think, Wine urged, of all the menacing orders Ugandans have had hurled at them in Swahili, “Kaa chini! Toa viatu! Piga huyu!” he rattled off, Get on the ground! Take off your shoes! Beat that one! “Panda gari!” Nubian added, laughing ruefully, “Nipe pesa!” Get in the car! Give me money! So often in Uganda, the sound of Swahili signals impending abuse. Yet by beginning this song in Swahili, the two musicians agreed, Wine could take a language Ugandan state forces have historically used to inflict fear on the population, and re-appropriate it in a call for solidarity between civilians and law enforcement.

After tinkering to fit the words to the tune, Wine and Nubian added a Luganda translation of the message in the next line. “Afande, sirwana naawe, nwanirira ggwe,” they sang, in Uganda’s most widely spoken language. And how would the lyrics sound in Lusoga they wondered? Wine beckoned to someone off-screen and the camera panned to take in one of his many visitors that evening, lawyer and fellow Member of Parliament Asuman Basalirwa, who represents the Lusoga-speaking constituency of Bugiri Municipality. Honourable Basalirwa obliged with a Lusoga translation of the statement, “Officer, I am not fighting you, I am fighting for you,” and Wine and Nubian incorporated his words, gradually adapting them to the song’s existing meter. They had their chorus.

Nearly giddy now with creative energy, the two rushed to dial their producer Sir Dan Magic, putting him on speaker phone so as to sing him the first riffs of the song, and urging him to hurry over with his recording gear. Magic agreed to join them, and Wine smiled up at Nubian and Basalirwa. “I think that this will communicate to the police officers,” he said, moments before the video cut out.

By the time the next live stream was posted an hour and a half later, the gathering had moved indoors. Wine was seated at the dining room table, alternating between chatting with guests and reading aloud from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As Sir Dan Magic set up recording equipment in the background, he shifted back to his music, picking up the guitar and reprising the lines he and Nubian had written out on the veranda. After a moment he began to strum a new fragment of the song, singing along in cheerful gibberish while the actual lyrics percolated in the back of his mind. Wine’s youngest daughter Suubi darted into the shot and barreled into her father with a gleeful squeal. When she reached out to pluck at random strings of the guitar, he led her in a brief rendition of his own “Tuliyambala Engule,” before returning to the song at hand.

The toddler traipsed off to bed, and Wine started to fill in new lyrics in Luganda. Then, because he is conversational but not fluent in Swahili, he turned to his friends to crowd-source an ideal translation into the so-called “language of law enforcement officers.” The lines reemerged in a meld of English and Swahili common in much of East Africa. “Why beati mi, na mimi sina utofauti nawe?” Wine sang. “Why kicki mi, na mimi sina shida nawe?” Why beat me, when there is no difference between us? Why kick me, when I have no problem with you?

Amid discussion and banter, the Swahili lyrics grew. “Kabla ya kuwa afande, unaweza kuwa mwananchi. Kabla ya kuniumiza, sikiliza maneno yangu,” Wine eventually added. Before being an officer, you could be a citizen. Before injuring me, you could listen to my words. Later, with grammatical corrections from Sir Dan Magic, he went on, “Shida ziko kwangu pia nazo ziko kwako.” The problems I face are the same ones you face.

In the third and final video of the evening, as he was beginning to record the song, Wine asked Magic to teach him to say, “Officer, I am not fighting you, I am fighting for you,” in one more language. Magic, who hails from Uganda’s Lango sub-region—far from Kampala, north of the Nile—obliged. “Afande, pe atye alweny kedi,” he dictated in a variant of Luo understood by numerous groups in his part of the country, “atye alweny pidi!” Wine stumbled over the unfamiliar words, yet in the live stream’s comments section, fans from Uganda’s oft-marginalized northern districts rejoiced all the same, elated to see a Luganda-speaker singing in one of the languages of their home region.

In a nation long plagued by ethnic tensions Museveni has perversely, time and again, capitalized on tribal divisions while simultaneously using accusations of tribalism to undermine his political opponents. Yet Wine asserts that Uganda’s youth, who form over 80% of the population, are ready to move past ethnic divides and work together to tackle systemic injustices. On the evening of Tuesday April 23rd, it was hard not to read his Facebook live stream as a metaphor for this vision. Here was a group of friends representing diverse linguistic backgrounds and far-flung parts of Uganda, coming together in song. They sang in English and Luganda, languages familiar to all of them; they sang in their own mother tongues; and they sang in a language none of them was entirely comfortable with, but whose political and historical weight all of them understood. All to convey a message to the men and women of one of their nation’s most feared institutions: to remind them that the abuses of the country’s dictatorial government affect all Ugandans, and to convince them that civilians and law enforcement have the power to stand together and face such injustices as allies.

People Power, Wine reflected toward the end of the last live stream of the evening, has never been opposed to the members of Uganda’s police and military. The movement has always seen them as compatriots and sought to include them in the struggle for democracy. For the most part, however, police officers and military personnel have turned a deaf ear to Wine’s previous statements on this issue. Perhaps, Wine observed, it was time to reach out to them in a different manner. “Maybe when we tell them in words and they don’t understand,” he said, “we [should instead] try to sing.”

Two days later, still under house arrest, Wine released the final cut of “Afande” along with a moving music video (fully subtitled in English) that merged shots of him singing while detained inside his home with footage of prominent opposition figures confronting police at protests and rallies all over the country. Within hours, the song was banned from Ugandan radio for its “controversial and political” subject matter. Yet the video began circulating on WhatsApp almost instantly, was soon shared thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook, and rapidly racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

As the writer Michael Mutyaba has demonstrated, control of the country’s security forces is a key element of Yoweri Museveni’s ever more tenuous grasp on power. While the recent political upheavals in Sudan cannot yet be read as an ideal roadmap to democratic revolution, they must nevertheless be keeping Uganda’s embattled president awake at night. If nothing else, events to the north serve as a potent reminder of what can become of a dictator who loses the loyalty of his military and police.

By setting out to convince Ugandan security personnel that they belong alongside their civilian compatriots in the country’s political struggles, Bobi Wine struck at the very heart of Museveni’s rule. A few days later, the regime struck back.

On Monday, April 29nd, Wine left his house to answer a formal summons for a statement on the events of the previous week. As he traveled to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigations Directorate, Wine was once again apprehended by police. This time, there would be no return to the relative safety of his home.

After a brief detention at Naggalama police post, Wine was brought before a judge and charged with unlawful assembly—not for his attempted concert the previous Monday (which at any rate had received official clearance from police), but for a protest he led in July of 2018. He was immediately remanded to Luzira Maximum Security Prison ahead of a bail hearing on May 2nd. The message was clear. If blocking his concerts did not deprive him of a political platform, the regime would seek out a new way to cut Bobi Wine off from his audience.

Yet Museveni appears to have underestimated the reach of the singer’s voice. Mere hours after his arrest, politicianscivil society leaders, and former heads of state from around the world were calling for Wine’s release. Within Uganda, protests soon broke out in multiple cities. Meanwhile, family and friends reported that inside the walls of Luzira itself, the prison’s 4,000 inmates responded to Wine’s arrival with such overwhelming enthusiasm that guards felt compelled to isolate the singer-parliamentarian in an effort to restore calm to the facility. Undeterred, the prisoners continued their celebrations throughout the following days, singing Wine’s songs loudly enough that he could hear them from his segregated cell.

Apparently frantic to gain control over the narrative, the government lashed out at media, suspending 39 journalists from 13 television and radio stations for their coverage of the events that had unfolded since Easter Monday. So great was the regime’s fear of the outpouring of support Wine might receive if they transported him from Luzira to his court hearing in Kampala, that on May 2nd Bobi Wine became the first defendant in Ugandan history to attend his bail proceedings via a video conference.

Deliberations lasted more than four hours but Wine was ultimately granted bail, with an order to return to court on May 23rd and refrain from any “unlawful assembly” in the meantime. As the ruling came down, the crowd assembled in the courtroom erupted into the opening lines of Wine’s New Year’s hit, “Tuliyambala Engule.” The song soon spread to the streets, as well.

Far from finding a convenient pretext on which to quietly put his opponent behind bars Museveni seems instead to have rallied Wine’s supporters both at home and abroad. As the action on Uganda’s political stage intensifies, the President may yet come to regret his efforts to silence the pop star.

Further Reading