A Pop Star, a Protest, and a Likely Case of Torture in Uganda

The singer turned legislator Bobi Wine disappeared into government custody more than a week ago. When he reemerged, he could barely stand up.

Bobi Wine walks with several other people supporting him.
Bobi Wine needs help walking into a court hearing in Gulu on August 23. (Stringer / AFP / Getty)
Editor’s Note: The author, a researcher whose work focuses on a range of politically sensitive topics in contemporary Uganda, is remaining anonymous to protect the safety of sources in the country.

It has been more than 10 days since the Twitter account of the Ugandan member of Parliament commonly known as Bobi Wine went silent. The last time the wildly popular Afropop singer turned legislator (whose legal name is Robert Kyagulanyi) tweeted to his followers, it was to post a grim bulletin. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot at me,” he reported last Monday from the town of Arua, where he had traveled to support an opposition candidate in a local parliamentary by-election. “My hotel is now coddoned [sic] off by police and SFC [Special Forces Command].”

The tweet was accompanied by a grisly photograph of a man slumped forward in the front seat of a car, his head lolling against a blood-smeared backrest. Media would soon identify the man as Yasin Kawuma, a 40-year-old chauffeur and father of 11, beloved in his community as the devoted coach of a youth soccer team. Kawuma had indeed been killed, just as his employer reported, and in the hours that followed it would become increasingly unclear if Wine himself was dead or alive.

Bobi Wine has been a household name in Uganda for years. Up until recently, though, he was known almost exclusively for his reggae and dancehall-infused hits. The first signs of his political inclinations came only in 2016, when he refused to collaborate with several other giants of Uganda’s music industry on a campaign song for Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s reelection. While numerous pop stars fell dutifully into line, Wine observed that Museveni, who has maintained an iron grip on the presidency since 1986, had nothing left to offer Uganda.

By mid-2017, Wine would be running a campaign of his own, standing as an independent candidate in a by-election for the parliamentary seat of his home county. His efforts would yield a sweeping victory against both the ruling-party candidate and a more established member of the opposition. And once in office, Wine would not hesitate to plunge into the roiling deep end of Uganda’s politics.

Earlier in the evening that Wine went silent, crowds that had gathered to cheer him on and to confront the convoy of President Museveni—himself drawn to Arua by the parliamentary election in a bid to bolster the prospects of his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. A stone pelted by one of the demonstrators allegedly damaged a car in the president’s entourage, and although Museveni reached his helicopter unscathed, his security forces doubled back into Arua and unleashed a wave of spectacular violence against the opposition politicians assembled in the town.

Amid the ensuing chaos, facts would be hard to come by. By the next morning, though, Ugandans would gradually learn that 35 members of the opposition had been violently arrested and numerous journalists beaten (with at least two jailed overnight). News later spread that an opposition MP named Francis Zaake had been tortured. Photos of his battered face circulated on social media on August 15, and it would eventually emerge that his injuries were so drastic as to land him temporarily on life support.

But at that point, Bobi Wine’s fate remained a desperate mystery. It was not until Thursday that his exact whereabouts would become clear—when despite never having served in the military, Wine was produced before a court martial in the northern town of Gulu. Charged with treason and the possession of illegal firearms (a staple accusation in cases against government critics, and one Wine’s team vehemently denies), he was finally allowed contact with his lawyers. The press, however—and Wine’s entire family—were kept away.

Following a brief interaction in court, Wine’s lawyers reported that their client had been brutalized. His face was swollen; he had sustained multiple fractures; and he had been so badly beaten that he couldn’t sit, stand, or walk. His injuries were so grave, they said, that for much of the hearing he had not even been fully conscious.

In the face of this account, Ugandans at home and abroad are bracing for a new, more drastic sort of political crackdown in their country, where intimidation and harassment of political activists has been the norm for decades. Many are convinced that President Museveni—whose government receives more than $800 million a year in American aid as the U.S.’s foremost military ally on the African continent—wants Wine dead.

When Wine was sworn in to Parliament, in July 2017, a constitutional debate was rapidly escalating in Uganda. It concerned Article 102b of the Ugandan constitution, which required that all presidential candidates be between the ages of 35 and 75. In a turbulent political climate that had long since seen the abolition of term limits, this article stood as the last remaining constitutional barrier to a lifetime presidency for Yoweri Museveni, who will turn 75 in September 2019. And early last year, Museveni’s NRM party began pushing to excise the article from the constitution.

On July 18, 2017, Uganda’s opposition Democratic Party launched a campaign in defense of Article 102b. #Togikwatako, they dubbed their movement—a phrase meaning “Don’t touch it” in Luganda, the most widely spoken of Uganda’s several dozen languages. The slogan, which over time came to be rendered in English with the more colloquial “Hands off!,” was directed at members of the ruling party, admonishing them against any attempt to tamper with the constitution. It took off as a hashtag on social media, spreading before long into numerous other Ugandan languages, and gathering steam as a rallying cry for massive street protests that proliferated throughout the country.

Though not a founder of the #Togikwatako campaign, Bobi Wine soon emerged as one of the movement’s leading voices. In early September 2017, seated just feet away from Museveni at the inauguration of a lecture series honoring Nelson Mandela, Wine stunned the room by publicly suggesting to the president that he should have followed Mandela’s example of stepping down after a single term. Less than two weeks later, when NRM parliamentarians forced a resolution for the full repeal of Article 102b, Wine responded with the release of a scathing 10 and a half minute voice note in which he condemned NRM legislators as traitors, excoriated Museveni for three decades of broken promises to the nation, and called on fellow Ugandans to “defend our constitution before it is too weak to defend us!” Still producing music, Wine turned his concerts into such hotbeds of #Togikwatako activism that by October he was banned from performing altogether.

Ultimately, after deploying repressive tactics that included a full-blown raid on the Parliament (resulting in the hospitalization of numerous #Togikwatako MPs), Museveni and the NRM succeeded in abolishing the presidential age limit in December of last year. The spirit of the #Togikwatako protests, however, has lingered. Wine in particular has extended the fervor of the campaign into Ugandan politics in 2018. His support has been critical in several opposition triumphs in recent by-elections, and in the past few months he has been at the forefront of mass protests against a social-media tax, which imposes a charge of approximately $0.05 a day (in a country where 27 percent of the population subsists on a daily income of $1.25 or less) on anyone accessing Facebook, WhatsApp, or Twitter. It appears designed to curtail political expression and limit the free flow of information among Ugandan citizens.

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world—so young, in fact, that more than 70 percent of the country’s citizens have never known a president other than Museveni. Youthful, brilliant, and charismatic, Wine, who himself hails from an impoverished background, is therefore perhaps the worst nightmare for a septuagenarian dictator whose 32-year stranglehold on the nation has earned him billions while ordinary Ugandans struggle to get by in the third-poorest nation on Earth.

Now, though, Wine’s very life may hang in the balance. There is an eerily high death rate among vocal opponents of the country’s president. As Helen Epstein notes in her book Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror, “More than a dozen of Museveni’s critics [have] perished in mysterious car crashes or after sudden unexplained illnesses in recent years.”

Last Friday, August 17, Wine’s wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi, was at long last permitted to see her husband. Her subsequent description of their encounter was harrowing. In a statement to supporters, she wrote that Wine’s injuries had rendered him almost unrecognizable. Kyagulanyi described her husband being carried into the meeting room, still unable to walk or sit upright. “He has great pain in the left side ribs and hip,” she reported. “He bled a lot through the ears and through the nose. Blood stains are still visible!” She alleged that soldiers had beaten him unconscious and that he received “many injections and has no idea what they were for.”

Kyagulanyi concluded her statement with a desperate appeal. “Our request,” she wrote, “is that he is urgently allowed to access his doctors so that he gets the much needed medical attention. Especially since he highly suspects that he underwent internal bleeding. May God’s angels be with you, Bobi, in that military facility where I am not. May the God of heaven fight this battle for you and for all of us.” Her plea was rendered all the more urgent over the weekend by reports that Wine’s torture has left him with severe kidney damage.

As public outrage has mounted, with protesters thronging Kampala’s streets, the regime is struggling to respond. In a bizarre public statement last weekend, President Museveni invoked Donald Trump to denounce the allegations of Wine’s torture as “fake news,” adding that Francis Zaake had “escaped” police custody—despite extensive video coverage of the latter hospitalized in a nearly immobile state.

On Thursday, news stations broadcasting Wine’s appearance before the general court martial in Gulu captured a man too frail to stand, and able to walk only with the aid of crutches and the physical support of those standing around him. In a turn that took many by surprise, after a short statement to those assembled, the military court ruled to drop all charges. Cameras focused in on Wine as he took in the news, briefly appearing to break into tears. Yet mere minutes later, as he teetered down the courthouse steps, with live-television coverage still streaming under the banner “Court Martial Sets MP Kyagulanyi Free,” Wine received word that he was being arrested again and taken into police custody.

Wine was driven to the police barracks in Gulu, and will remain there until his next court appearance on August 30. Demonstrations erupted on Thursday in response to the rearrest, and youth clashed with police overnight, leaving at least one protester dead by morning.

In November of last year, at the height of the constitutional struggle surrounding the presidential age limit, Bobi Wine released a music video entitled “Freedom.” Intended as an anthem for the #Togikwatako movement, the clip featured Wine’s music set to a mix of staged scenes in which the singer parliamentarian sang in defiant reproach of the ruling party’s dictatorship from within the confines of a prison cell. These fictional shots were interspliced with footage of actual opposition rallies around the country, and genuine state violence against protesters and politicians. The video concluded with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “In the end,” Wine quoted as the music faded out over a shot of him standing behind prison bars, “we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

A year ago, Ugandans were taking to the street to try to prevent their president from securing his power for life, and were met with defiance from the ruling party and silence from much of the world.

But Wine’s detention has not been met with silence. This week, solidarity protests spread not only to neighboring Kenya, but also to Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. As of Wednesday, more than 80 internationally renowned artists, writers, and politicians (including Peter Gabriel, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka) had signed an open letter calling for Wine’s release. Most strikingly perhaps, in the United States, Robert Amsterdam, an American lawyer retained by Wine’s family, has announced his intention to pursue “a Magnitsky-style sanctions schedule” against members of the Ugandan government, “as they need to understand the consequences of this attack on human rights.”

Meanwhile, some of those who turned a blind eye during the #Togikwatako protests are now speaking up in Wine’s defense. “Tomukwatako,” one can almost hear them chanting to the Museveni regime, as they rally across borders for Bobi Wine’s release and safety. “Keep your hands off of him.”