25 September 2017

Uganda: Inside Bobi Wine's Campaign to Rally the Ugandan Youth

Photo: BobiWineLive/Facebook
Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu aka Bobi Wine on the campaign trail.

After several attempts, I finally catch up with Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, alias Bobi Wine, at One Love Beach in Busabala, a Kampala suburb.

Seated under a mango tree, he asks me to join him at his table. The musician-turned-politician is now quite different from what he looked like when we met during the campaigns; he is more contemplative, calculative and seems more reserved.

Since being elected to Parliament, the Kyadondo East representative has cut an image of a national figure. In his updates to his close to 600,000 Facebook followers, he posts pictures of himself receiving pan-African awards, hosting musicians to discuss the future of Uganda's music, receiving or visiting religious leaders and addressing university students.

And most recently, he now weighs in on every national topic through long pieces of writing and audio messages that make rounds on social media.

The transition

Kyagulanyi says he dedicates two days each week to attend to his constituents. "On Sundays, I get to office from morning to up to 3pm and then go to the beach to spend time with my family. Mondays, I am at office in the constituency and I get to listen to my people before I go to the studios in Kamwokya," he says.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday he attends to his private work up to midday then heads to Parliament.

Our visit to the "Ghetto President" comes after a series of outings to the countryside recently. With Parliament going into recess, Kyagulanyi had a different constituency to visit. He embarked on a tour that saw him visit different corners of the country.

A visit to his Facebook wall will reveal a well-documented journey one can easily mistake for a political campaign. His timeline in August is filled with photos of Mr Kyagulanyi atop a vehicle, waving to crowds as his convoy snakes through crowds in many busy town centres.

Most times, his convoy is led by boda bodas, at times carrying placards in praise of the MP, with some posters reading "our president 2021".

The trips

Just when many thought he had abandoned his T-shirts and jeans for neatly pressed suits, in August he put aside the formal wear and tapped into his funky clothes and went way beyond Kyadondo East.

On Friday August 4, for instance, Mr Kyagulanyi got a hero's welcome as throngs of people waited to catch a glimpse of him entering Gulu Municipality. Many trailed him as others waved the Ugandan flag amid ululations.

That evening Mr Kyagulanyi entertained thousands of fans at Smilling Panda Bar and Restaurant where he staged a one and half hour music show. The fans, mainly the youth, sang along enthusiastically. After the concert, it was time to preach to the 'ghetto youth'.

He encouraged them to join politics so that the campaign of the youth changing the world would come to pass.

The same scenes played out in Mbale and Mbarara. And just as had become the norm, he was ushered in the town as he greeted and talked to crowds.

Just like in Gulu, fans in their hundreds would wait for him on the outskirts of the town to receive him. They chorused in endless chants of "our saviour", "our president," "our voice" as a band of honking motorcycle riders paralysed the towns.

After the concerts, he spent some time talking about the political situation of Uganda.

Among the subjects he touched on was the proposed amendment of Article 102(b) of the Constitution to scrap the age limit of 75 years for presidential candidates to allow President Museveni contest again in 2021.

"President Museveni is too old to lead the country. The time is ripe for change and it's the youth who are the majority. It's upon us to determine our future," he said in Mbale.

"It's high time the youth got to stand for their beliefs and fight for them come what may.

Nobody will stand with you because it's a time of God for us all and man for himself," he said in Mbarara.

Since being elected to Parliament in June, the political novice seems to ride on his popularity to spread his influence way beyond Kyadondo East.

During his recent nationwide tour, the Independent MP would interact with the everyday people and also attend church services the morning after his concerts.

But the debates that follow his posts on social media clearly portray how his tours, on the heels of his resounding Kyadondo East victory, have been interpreted.

"Kyagulanyi is funny, after mobilising in different regions he thinks that he can be a president, God forbid. Mbabazi, Sebaggala, Lukyamuzi, Besigye, Mao all pulled mammoth crowds and they had dreams of being president," comments a one Shafique Ssebunya on Bobi Wine's posts, adding that: "Bobi you haven't done anything as an MP and you dreaming of presidency."

Mr Johnson Sentamu, Bobi Wine's manager and brother, insists that the tours are purely musical.

"Various events promoters book shows for Bobi to perform. They pay us and we go but along the way, many people wait for Bobi Wine and sing along his songs and tell him, 'tubuzeeko' (greet us)," says the manager.

But after close to three months of serving as MP, Mr Kyagulanyi seems focused on expanding his appeal beyond Kyadondo East.

"There are many people in this country who think like me. They share the same plight and views. People see a new ray of hope in me. I am did not go to talk for Kyadondo East alone. I am a national leader," Kyagulanyi says during our conversation in Busabala.

Asked what his response is to those carrying placards reading "our president 2021," Kyagulanyi says: "We have always had a one-horse run, no respect for the Constitution and I am happy to see that there are people who believe in me, I will not disappoint them," he says.

"My heart is filled with a mixture of feelings; fear and determination because I know what happens to people who stand in the way of [President] Museveni."

Much as some political pundits have hailed his way of engaging the youth on crucial issues in the communities, they also warn him of the hurdles he is likely to face.

Prof Sabiti Makara, a political scientist from Makerere University, says no doubt Mr Kyagulanyi has stood out.

"Bobi Wine has made a political statement. Rallying the youth, the group that is most disadvantaged in this country has and is to make him achieve greatly in the country. His oratory prowess and the musical background in his message are bound to win more crowds," Prof Makara says.

"But we are also aware that the State is definitely going to fight him and try to bring him down. The question though is whether he will remain focused or he will succumb to the State's pressure."

To this, Mr Kyagulanyi says he is not out to fight the State, he wants the State to join him as they talk to the youths about their rights.

"I am not here to be at loggerheads with anyone or the State. In fact, the State must be happy with what I am doing to inspire the youth on their fundamental rights. I hope I inspire the youth positively and not instigate any kind of violence," Mr Kyagulanyi says.

Achievements so far

In the last two months as MP, Kyagulanyi says he has built 17 boreholes and is focused on the health of his constituents.

"We are improving the maternity wing and I am putting up a concert to buy at least 30 beds because we have only 10 beds. We are also equipping the youth with more skills in communication and photography, the youth have started small Saccos," he says.

But Mr Apollo Kantinti, the former Kyadondo East MP and his competitor in the recent by-election, says: "He was elected and I respect what the people said, but he is just running around ranting not doing anything. His priority should have been Kyadondo East, he should get things right. He is a little boy being thrown into a nursery school and that is what he is."

"He needs to put Kyadondo East before he becomes a national leader.

I think he needs to emulate better MPs, but not just going around shouting to everyone."

But Kyagulanyi's political mentor, Mr Fred Nyanzi aka Chairman Nyanzi, says his brother has and will always be a leader.

"Bobi has all it takes to be a leader and a national leader for that matter... He is a good leader and certainly people love him," said Mr Nyanzi.

But in trying to spread what he calls "a new kind of leadership" a clash with the powers that be is inevitable. At the time of filing this story on Friday, Kyagulanyi was behind bars because of his audio message that was circulated on social media condemning the lifting the presidential age limit.

The ghetto president has moved around the country, inspiring the youth and winning new followers. To his ardent followers, they see a new political 'messiah", and to his critics he is an opportunist punching above his weight.

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