The big threat to Uganda’s president is a 37-year-old pop star

His life has been threatened and he’s been charged with treason, but a Ugandan pop-star-turned-politician is on a mission to do what no one else has managed for more than 30 years: topple the president.

Robert Kyagulanyi, known by the stage name Bobi Wine, has emerged as the biggest threat to President Yoweri Museveni as a hugely popular figure among the majority of the nation’s people: the young, a third of whom are either unemployed or not receiving an education. His loose movement of supporters from across the political divide is proving to be a conundrum to Museveni, who’s had little trouble in the past routing traditional opposition parties.

“We know that people power is stronger than the people in power,” Kyagulanyi, 37, said in an interview at his home in the capital, Kampala. “We are not into this for formality. We are into this to change our country.”

After growing up in the slums of Kampala, Kyagulanyi headed to the nation’s premier university, Makerere, to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. He gained prominence as a self-styled “ghetto president” singing about the plight of ordinary people and later won a seat in parliament.

Wearing his signature red beret, Kyagulanyi and his German Shepherd welcome guests into his home, about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from central Kampala. A manicured garden surrounds the house with palm trees along the walk and driveways. Guests including fellow musicians and lawmakers wait in a tent to meet with him.

Opposition Crackdown

Seated in a brown armchair with the words “People Power” emblazoned on the headrest, Kyagulanyi is straight-faced when asked why he thinks he can unseat Museveni, whom he compares to former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and ex-Libyan leader Moammar Al Qaddafi.

“President Idi Amin declared himself life president, he did not die president,” he said. “Qaddafi was seemingly invincible. He did not die a president.”

Museveni seized power in 1986, following years of political upheaval including Amin’s bloody dictatorship, and restored multiparty politics almost 15 years ago. But in recent years, advocacy groups like Amnesty International say he’s presided over a deterioration in the East African nation’s human-rights situation. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye has faced repeated arrest and beatings by the authorities in the run-up to elections over the past two decades.

As Uganda’s 2021 general election approaches, there are signs that Museveni may be preparing to intensify a clampdown on his opponents. The government raised its security budget 75% this year to almost $1 billion, to be spent on equipment and training.

‘Security for All’

State Minister for Internal Affairs Obiga Mario Kania said it’s not true that the government targets its opponents.

“Uganda secures all its citizens,” he said.

The authorities have arrested Kyagulanyi several times in the past year. He’s been charged with treason, after his supporters allegedly threw stones at Museveni’s convoy, inciting violence and disobeying lawful orders. Last year, Kyagulanyi received treatment in the U.S. for injuries he said were sustained while under arrest.

“President Museveni and his regime don’t see their strength in convincing people any more; they see their strength in coercing,” Kyagulanyi said Aug. 13. “Today is a year since the assassination attempt on my life. Since then many people have been arrested. Others have disappeared. Many have been killed.”

Traditionally an agriculture-dependent nation, Uganda is on the cusp of becoming an oil producer from fields owned by companies including Tullow Oil Plc, Total SA and China’s Cnooc Ltd. The start of output has been repeatedly delayed, and a final investment decision that had been expected in 2018 was postponed over different views on taxation between the government and the companies. Kyagulanyi blames Museveni for the hold-ups.

‘Contradictions, Scandals’

“Uganda’s slow move in the oil sector is not slow out of caution; we should have benefited from the oil yesterday,” he said. “The contradictions and scandals emanate from the fact the nation is under the control of one person. Literally it’s not the Ugandans that own Ugandan oil, but Museveni and his cabal.”

Under his rule, Kyagulanyi says he would ensure government institutions are put at the forefront of negotiating and managing the oil industry, along with other strategic national projects. He also envisages the government providing more support for commercial agriculture.

Any prospect of him winning the next election will require more robust policy proposals, along with possible alliances with other opposition leaders like Besigye, said Jared Jeffery, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC Africa Economics.

“Kyagulanyi certainly knows how to put on a show,” Jeffery said. “We have argued previously that he still needs to formalize his People Power movement into a coherent organisation that stands for something more than deposing Mr. Museveni and has a roadmap to attaining it.”

Even if he succeeds in his quest to oust Museveni, Kyagulanyi could return to his artistic roots one day.

“Music is my first love and it will be the last, but this is a calling that I can’t say no to,” he said. “However, it will be more than a pleasure to go back and do what I used to love especially in a free Uganda. So as a former head of state, I will go back to the stage and will fire up the crowd.”

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