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Museveni is losing the battle against free speech in Uganda thanks to the Free Bobi Wine movement

International attention from journalists and artists like Femi Kuti is putting pressure on the president of Uganda to stop persecuting people for speaking the truth

Kemigisa Jacky
Sunday 26 August 2018 14:08 BST
More than 20 artists from around the world, including Chris Martin, Angélique Kidjo and Femi Kuti signed a letter condemning the imprisonment of Bobi Wine
More than 20 artists from around the world, including Chris Martin, Angélique Kidjo and Femi Kuti signed a letter condemning the imprisonment of Bobi Wine (AP)

As I write this, Ugandan musician-turned member of parliament Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known by his stage name Bobi Wine – has been arrested for the second time in weeks, and freshly charged with treason. He is to appear before civil court on 30 August. In the meantime he is being remanded in a civilian prison in Gulu district, northern Uganda.

His supporters, now more than ever, at a level unseen for some time under president Yoweri Museveni’s oppressive rule, are rallying behind him.

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The “people power” wave in Uganda started with Wine’s election victory. In June he overwhelmingly won the Kyadondo East seat with a 78 per cent victory, despite being a first timer in elective politics.

His slogan was “people power”, with the tagline “Situka Uganda”, loosely translated as “wake up Uganda”. His campaign slowly lit a fire amongst Uganda’s massive young population, with equal intensity for educated and uneducated, making him an immediate darling of the people.

The outpouring of love for Wine translated into five victories in parliamentary by-elections for candidates he supported, the latest victory the Arua district by-election. The aftermath saw the musician’s arrest – along with more than 33 opposition supporters – and the murder of his driver on 13 August.

The arrest was carried out by the military and Wine was charged for illegal possession of firearms before a court martial, despite being a civilian. This sparked various online campaigns for his release, notably under the hashtags #FreeBobiWine and #Arua33, with images of him beaten and bruised shared online. The charge was dropped after Wine spent 11 days in a military detention facility in Makindye barracks.

On 20 August 2018, protests broke out in different part of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, with protestors demanding the government free Wine.

What followed was the beating and arrest of several of the journalists covering the #FreeBobiWine protests. Pictures and video made by a Twitter user however, alerted the public to the crackdown. Many of the journalists detained were forced to delete footage and had equipment confiscated. Their crime was telling the truth, and capturing the brutality of the Ugandan army.

A popular image online, for example, shows Reuters photojournalist Jimmy Akena being beaten by a soldier while on his knees. Akena later shared on his Facebook page images of him in a hospital bed with a bruised head and broken finger.

Because someone had taken a picture and posted it online, the story exploded; social media provided a ripple effect demanding justice, threatening a Ugandan government that has for a long time clamped down on the media.

Not long after the story gained traction, a Ugandan army spokesperson issued a statement condemning the beating of journalists, and promised arrests of the officers responsible.

This, of course, doesn’t mean social media usage is entirely safe. During the 2016 elections for example, social media platforms were shut down. And this year the government introduced a social media tax of 200 Ugandan shillings (4p) per day. Both were politically motivated measures to stifle free speech.

It is not new for President Museveni’s regime to arrest politicians and journalists covering protests. What is new, with the arrest of Wine, however, is a clear resistance from citizens who would normally identify as apolitical, and who have started using the hashtag #FreeBobiWine to criticise the government and put pressure on it to release the opposition politician.

A press freely covering protests is a thorn in Museveni’s side, as it pokes a hole into his claims of citizen support.

What the National Resistance Movement government, its supporters and sympathisers have failed to understand, is Wine represents a generation of young Ugandans tired of the entitlement of the Museveni generation, and who have no direct access to resources and power.

The #FreeBobiWine movement has highlighted what many are now calling the new, digital “pan Africanism”. Kenya has shown huge support with a concert organised by famous political activist Boniface Mwangi and South Africans and Ghanaians have shared their support online through Twitter videos.

More than 20 artists from around the world, including Chris Martin, Angélique Kidjo and Femi Kuti have signed a letter condemning the imprisonment of Wine.

The protest movement and the international attention has finally put pressure on President Museveni, who now appears to be a professional blogger as his media team churns out posts in an attempt to counter the movement.

Journalism, to me, matters as a form of truth telling. As a young Ugandan born under Museveni, the only form of governance I know is tainted by harassment of the media and stifling of freedom of expression.

If anything, the online movement has clearly shown the disconnect between Museveni and my generation; he normally, condescendingly refers to us as his grandchildren, with more than 70 per cent of the population under 35.

Museveni, with more than 30 years in power, has made his feelings about the media clear. In public addresses, for example, he never fails to ridicule the press, labelling independent media outlets “fake news” and journalists “rumour-mongers”.

Media houses have routinely been shut down, with the most recent the Red Pepper publication, whose editors were remanded in Luzira, a maximum security prison.

The president’s approach gives the lie to the popular hashtag #JournalismIsNotACrime in Uganda.

Although no legislation clearly criminalises the profession, members of the press experience punishments which can include a beating from the army or police, the breaking and confiscation of equipment and, in the worst case scenarios, kidnapping.

In the current political environment, freedom of the press is urgently needed, as the Ugandan government is determined to ensure the brutalisation of its citizens and politicians is not publicised.

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