From the Ghetto to Parliament: A Conversation with Bobi Wine

Featured image: Bobi Wine (center, wearing red beret) and audience members after the talk. Photo by Shayaan Subzwari.

By Shayaan Subzwari

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[dropcap]B[/dropcap]obi Wine is no stranger to the spotlight. A pop singer from Uganda, Wine first entered the public eye twenty years ago with the release of his first rap single and then spent the greater part of the next decade establishing himself as a revolutionary figure in the East African music scene. However, Wine’s revolutionary tendencies found a new calling in 2017 when he entered the race for the Ugandan Parliament. With his youthfulness, constant calls for “revolution”, and successful election to Parliament, Wine has been perceived as a threat by Uganda’s current regime—one that has been ruled by autocrat Yoweri Museveni for more than 30 years. 

It was this same comfort with the spotlight that explained Bobi Wine’s entrance to the African-American Cultural Center. Flanked by a convoy of men in red berets and matching suits, Wine slowly passed through the applauding crowd before taking his place across from moderator Harry Thomas, the former US ambassador to Zimbabwe. 

The talk began with the presentation of a documentary titled From the Ghetto to Parliament, which provided background on Uganda and Bobi Wine. Embracing his portrayal as the “Ghetto President,” the video claimed that “ghetto is in his blood… he challenged everyone by saying that you can come from the ghetto and be somebody because he is also from the ghetto.” Describing Uganda as the youngest country in the world with more than 80% of its population under 35, the video’s focus on Wine’s portrayal as a young politician seemed to support his image as a representative of the Ugandan people. The documentary seemed to repeatedly play on this concept; scenes constantly switched between testimonials and commendations by Wine’s supporters and videos of huge masses of people at Bobi Wine rallies and concerts. 

 

Wine (left) and moderator Harry Thomas answer questions from the audience. Photo by Shayaan Subzwari.

Following the video, Ambassador Thomas asked Wine to present his vision. Inspired by artists such as Bob Marley and Buju Banton, Wine explained that as he has always been an activist, his musical tendencies naturally steered him towards singing about social justice. Wine claimed, “My vision for Uganda and the world is to help my people know that they can be influential in their own trade – whether it is in sports, music, or culture. Maybe Bob Marley could have done much more than just sing.” 

Ambassador Thomas then opened up the conversation to the audience. In response to a question concerning how people in the Ugandan diaspora can help in the struggle against Museveni’s government, Wine addressed the role that the United States and Uganda’s other development partners play in Uganda’s domestic politics. “People in the U.S. can ask the administration here to hold their partners in Uganda responsible and ensure human rights and the rule of law are preconditions for working with them,” he said. 

Despite these initial questions about supporting Wine’s resistance movement, wary skepticism and demands of reassurance quickly followed. One audience member originally from Uganda asked Wine to explain the lack of coordination within the opposition groups and in the electoral system, and then asked if Wine could truly create a Uganda that he could return to, “be proud of, and flourish in.” In response, Wine admitted that the opposition groups initially had little coordination, but assured that over the past months, his movement has “unveiled coordinators at not only the village level but at the house level as well,” and that they have launched full-fledged student and women’s movements. He claimed that by the time of the elections, the opposition groups would see harmonic coordination across the country. Wine’s charm and humor flared up on the topic of the audience member’s return to Uganda and announced that he would “pay [him] well and support [him].” Wine added, “Ultimately, our vision is to repatriate all of our people and educated nationals to help build a country we can all be proud of.”

At one point in the conversation, an audience member originally from Kenya asked Wine what his message was to young people across the African continent. Almost instinctively, Wine burst into song, capturing the room in a spell as he crooned, “We are the youngest population in the world, we stand a chance, we are the leaders of the future, if we only come together, we can change our destiny…” Again, he claimed his role as the representative of Africa’s youth: “We are going to seek 21st-century solutions to 21st-century problems for 21st-century people—who are ourselves.”

Wine humbly admitted that he is not a technocrat and does not have the ability to explain all the specific policies that he has developed alongside university professors. However, he did detail that he envisions developing three “A’s” in education—academics, arts, and athletics—and that each would receive equal attention. He also stated that he hopes to increase the portion of the budget that goes to healthcare and is confident that Uganda has the potential to become the breadbasket of the East Africa region.

Another audience member asked Wine to assure that once he gains power, he would not become an autocrat like Museveni down the line. Wine responded, “I don’t think it will be me who gives the assurance.” He explained that the people, rather than Wine himself, would liberate Uganda, and that “once people liberate themselves, they will have the ability to kick anyone else out.”

Following the conclusion of the conversation, Wine stood by his self-portrayal as the people’s representative, spending more than half an hour shaking hands, taking pictures, and conversing with audience members. In a final exclamation before he left the building, Wine chanted “People’s Power!” and received a roaring response of “Our Power!” from the crowd. With the Ugandan presidential election just two years away, Uganda will see if the “Ghetto President” and the country’s youth will finally take their power to the polls and usher in promised change to their nation. 

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Shayaan Subzwari is a first year in Silliman College. You can contact him at shayaan.subzwari@yale.edu.