To survive as an opposition politician in Uganda, you have to hit the campaign trail wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet. You must be ready for war. Ugandan musician turned opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, discovered this when he decided to challenge incumbent Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s 34-year stranglehold on power at elections scheduled for 14 January. On the first day Kyagulanyi stepped out to campaign, he wore his vest over red overalls that made him look like a prisoner.
“I do not dress like this because I want to. I dress like this because there are people after my life. They think that by killing me, they will have it better. They do not know that if I die, it will only get worse,” he told the crowd outside his house.
The fervency of his message drowned the awkwardness of his costume as Ugandans realised just how terrifying the political climate has become. Only weeks earlier, a number of people died during Uganda’s worst unrest in years. Many of these were young people who had come out to protest at yet another arrest of their candidate, Kyagulanyi. Others were roadside vendors reportedly run over by a vehicle draped in yellow, the colour of the ruling party. Police sprayed teargas and shot live bullets that killed even bystanders.
Kyagulanyi was right when he told Christiane Amanpour on CNN last week, when asked why he continues to risk his life for the nearly impossible feat of unseating Museveni, that no one is safe in Uganda.
Museveni came into power after a five-year guerrilla war. He embarked on economic and political reforms, castigating older regimes for rigging elections and staying too long in power, and bringing a semblance of stability to the east African nation. He likes to remind us that we can now sleep all night because of him.
I was born in 1986, the year Museveni came into power. My mother tells of a long and difficult pregnancy during the war. She remembers one evening when rebel soldiers came home from fighting. Just after sunset, as my mother and her sisters-in-law were getting ready to serve dinner, they heard gunshots. It was a familiar sound, their cue to flee to the bush. My mother, heavily pregnant with me, fell numerous times over shrubs and trees as they ran into the dark. Soldiers often raided homes, where they took food, grabbed money, and raped women.
To my mother and her contemporaries, anything is better than those old days of strife.
While I am thankful I have never slept in the bush, other than by choice when I go camping, the tradition of electoral violence that I have seen in every election since I was born makes me wonder if my parents can see the very real new “bushes” sprouting around us – the ghettos that house the new generation challenging the power of a malign state.
Do they see the hunger and desperation in the eyes of Kyagulanyi’s supporters? Kyagulanyi grew up in Uganda’s slums, experiencing poverty and deprivation first hand, and used his musical talent to escape. His most ardent supporters are desperate youth from these same ghettos. They emerge to attend his rallies on empty stomachs, jumping over rivers of sewage to catch a glimpse of the man who is their only hope.
When they lie down to sleep in their one-roomed home after their only meal of the day, they dream of a Uganda where they have jobs and their children have better education, instead of the half-baked lessons they get now from purportedly free government schools where teachers are often absent and classes are overcrowded. They travel to the future Uganda, where they have better houses, good roads and women do not die giving birth on the floors of overcrowded hospitals.
To the people who support Kyagulanyi, Museveni’s campaign refrain, “Securing your future”, sounds empty after so many years of promises of development that have never translated into a better life. And while Museveni’s supporters will quickly point at the impressive economic growth rates over the years, it is hard to ignore the gaping inequality.
For Ugandans aged under 35 like me, who form over 80% of the population, the possibility of a ghetto president who holds concerts on the lake with his Rastafarian friends, plays songs of freedom before every official address, and surrounds himself with advisers he openly consults and gives space to speak, would be a refreshing departure from the unquestionable “order from above” system and the intimidating political environment that has come to dominate our country.