Bobi Wine, the 41-year-old musician and leader of the Ugandan National Unity Platform, can’t recall how many times he’s been arrested since he first became the voice and then the face of the movement to remove President Yoweri Museveni from office in his home country. Yet as the film documenting his plight, Bobi Wine: The People’s President (formerly titled Bobi Wine: Ghetto President), received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature on Jan. 23, Wine was living out a harsh reality of his political activism and a reminder of its necessity.
“On the day when the Oscar nominations were announced, we were under house arrest, my wife and I,” Wine tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s only the other day that the military withdrew from our home.”
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Wine, born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, grew up in a slum in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. He rose to prominence as a musical artist whose songs often carried socially conscious messages over afrobeat, reggae and dancehall rhythms. In 2017, he became a member of parliament, representing the Kyadondo County East constituency, just ahead of Museveni’s successful introduction of a constitutional amendment bill that removed the presidential age-limit cap, effectively allowing the military official who first took office in 1986 to remain in power for life. In a song Wine wrote at the time, he sang:
What is the purpose of the constitution
When the government disrespect the constitution
It was Wine’s music career that initially attracted the attention of filmmakers Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, who wrote and directed the National Geographic documentary. When Wine formally announced his bid to run for president against Museveni in Uganda’s 2021 general election, however, the project took on a much larger tale.
“It was an opportunity to invite the world into our struggle,” says Wine of allowing Sharp and Bwayo to document his journey. “Initially, it was a story about how we inspire the young people of a political transformation in Uganda, but the more we went on, the more unbelievable scenarios unfolded, and it turned out to be the film that it is now.”
Here, Wine speaks with THR about the documentary and his continued efforts to bring true democracy to Uganda.
It’s been almost a year and a half since the documentary had its world premiere on Sept. 1, 2022. Where are you in your journey now?
Ever since the documentary was released, it has created more awareness about the situation back home. For us, it is continued protection. The more the world knows about the situation back home, the safer we feel because then we know that at least the world is following. And now, it’s even more overwhelming that the film has been nominated for an Oscar. It is much, much more than we ever imagined.
The film starts in 2014 when you were already using your music as a vessel for political change. When did you first get the spark to take up this charge?
It developed over time, but one moment that I remember was at the height of my music career, around 2005, when I was a young man of about 23 or 24 years, I bought the latest Cadillac Escalade with 24-inch spinning wheels, the first of its kind in East Africa, and I parked it outside the nightclub. Of course, all the girls were looking at me as the boy of the moment. That offended one of the security operatives who came and slapped the hell out of me. And when I asked why he was beating me, he asked me why I was showing off as if I did not know that the country had owners. He beat me some more before he ordered I drive off. Of course, I was humiliated, especially before the girls. But it spoke to me and reminded me that regardless of my music or financial success, I was not any different from the ordinary Ugandans whose rights were constantly abused by the same people that I hub-nubbed with, because I was friends with most of those people, including General Museveni’s son and his brother. So it was at that time that I decided that I will use my music to sing and address injustices.
For more than 10 years, I was just singing about those things. However, it continued evolving and growing in me until 2016 when the presidential election was rigged, when all human rights violations were rampant. I said, I’ve been singing about these things, but nothing is changing. It was high time for me to go and find an official platform to address these things. And I said, as it’s been famously quoted, “Since the Parliament refused to come to the ghetto, the ghetto will go to the Parliament.” So, I ran, boom, won the parliamentary election with 80 percent of the vote. From then, the race is history. One thing led to another, but when I went to Parliament, I realized firsthand that all institutions had been captured and the only way we could free our nation and institutions from state capture is by removing General Museveni. And the only way we could remove him is to challenge him officially and democratically. Having been established and made my intentions clear through my music all those years, it was not new when I came to the young people of Uganda and told them, “Yo, I want to be your president.” Here I am talking to a population which is 85 percent under the age of 35. Eighty-five percent has never seen another president because General Museveni has been in power for 38 years now. So I was preaching to the converted.
Upon your release from the military barracks in 2018, you told the press, “I am going to fight on. We shall get our freedom, or we shall die trying to get our freedom.” How do you maintain such strong conviction in the face of constant threats from the government’s military regime?
I honestly cannot give you a formula. I think it’s stubbornness. We also have so many lessons. For example, the great Nelson Mandela teaches us that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to overcome it. We get scared. And every now and then, when they beat me today, I don’t want to go back tomorrow. But I hope that, ultimately, the lessons that we get from history will get through to them. The massive support and solidarity that we get from the population back home encourages us to keep going. The encouragement that we get even from those that work for our oppressors, many soldiers, police officers reach out to us privately, even in our jail cells. A high-ranking police officer will come to you with a mean face only to whisper to you, “Hey, don’t give up, so many people are with you.” Those little things keep us going.
How do you find space for your musical artistry amid your political pursuit?
Music is part of me. When I’m sad, I sing. When I’m excited, I sing. When I’m scared, I sing. And when I’m confident, I sing. Every time I get personal time, I express myself musically. When my heart is heavy, I offload it in the studio.
Afrobeats is increasingly growing in popularity globally. Have you had conversations with any of the artists at the forefront of this movement about what you’re doing?
In the past, I’ve had conversations with fellow artists like Davido and Burna Boy and others. We hope to continue to have such voices not just speaking up for me or speaking up for the situation in Uganda alone, but speaking out about injustice and oppression from all corners of the world, especially in Africa because now the most moral voices and the most influential voices are the voices of art.
Your wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi, is featured very prominently in the documentary. Talk about her importance in the movement.
First, my wife and I are very close friends and we have been living our life in complementarity. When she is shown in our struggle, I believe it communicates to all women how much of a driving force they can be to their husbands, how much of a pillar of strength and confidence they can be to their partners. Barbie’s role speaks of the importance of the women of Uganda in our struggle. They are the majority, they outnumber us. So it’s not just the power and confidence and drive that she gives me, but also the depiction and representation of women and their role in all of our struggle for freedom.
We also see the tough choices you’ve both had to make to protect your children. How do they handle the realities of your activism?
My children have had to grow up much faster than their age. Initially, my wife and I had decided to keep all this mess away from the children, but we failed because even when they went to school, the news would find them there, and the news would reach them in more disturbing and unfiltered ways. So we decided that whatever they get to know, they know it from us. We decided to tell them the truth right from our youngest daughter up so that when they hear that their dad is arrested or is in prison, they at least know that their dad is not in prison for committing a crime or for any immoral thing, but for the right thing and that has helped us. They have now been less traumatized. They’ve learned to look at the challenges and the stress they go through as a process and as a badge of honor.
In the film, you expressed your desire to have a conversation with General Museveni as you discussed how hard it is to be at odds with someone who was once your favorite politician. Has that conversation happened?
The conversation has not happened. Probably because the conversation is such a challenge to General Museveni. I wouldn’t want to have that conversation in privacy because all the people that have criticized General Museveni and resisted him, but later had conversations with him, it has only ended in co-optation. His kind of talk has always been, how much money do you want or what position do you want? I want my conversation to be, what changes do we effect and when do you leave power? It must not be between me and him, it must be between him and the people of Uganda. I don’t mind representing that, but I can only be sure that I’m representing the people of Uganda if the conversation is public and transparent.
What do make of the remarks General Museveni made in the documentary?
Well, that is General Museveni. All the comments that he made, that’s him. He speaks with so much confidence because he’s so powerful and I’m sure he’s convinced that, ultimately, he is all powerful. That’s why he has the confidence to speak with that, for lack of a better word, arrogance and dismissiveness. He’s very different from the man that we all love. He’s very different from the man that my father and my grandfather and my elder brother joined in a war that took half a million of our people. He’s very different from the man he was when he was my age.
Should you not succeed in removing the current president from office in future elections, what will happen when he dies?
Well, I cannot be sure, but from what we see, he’s trying to build a monarch. He has promoted his son to the highest rank in the military. He is running a parallel army, the elite army, which is in charge of guarding General Museveni and he’s the most funded and most equipped. So we think that if General Museveni dies in power, then it will be just like the same precedent that has been set by other African dictators like Ali Bongo, who was succeeded by his son, Omar Bongo, in Gabon, and in Chad, and in many other countries.
What keeps your hope up in this fight?
The belief in good over evil and the belief that oppressed people cannot be oppressed all the time. The solidarity and support that we get from millions of people everywhere we go, including those working within the regime, supporting asylum. The majority of the people, both in Uganda and internationally, agree with us and confirm to us that this is a just fight. That keeps me going knowing that everything is worth it, including my life.
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