It is a frequently told story on the African continent. Elderly man holds onto power for decades using rigged elections, military cooperation and violence against the opposition and his own people. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of toppling these dictators, musicians across the region are finding their political voice and using pop culture to propel themselves to power. Drastic reforms and the end of corruption form the irresistable chorus to their songs of change.
Music is the answer, to our problems…
‘Even when songs have no overt political message, they are viewed as subversive by governments using conservative values to keep a country in check. Tanzania’s highest selling artist, Diamond Platnumz, had two of his songs banned earlier this year and was detained a month later for a social media post deemed indecent by the country’s authorities. As Tanzania enacts an internet crackdown, arresting the country’s biggest musician sends a clear message to ordinary young Tanzanians.’ (qz.com, 25.08.18)
Nigerian rapper, Falz, released a song criticising his country’s government which was silenced by an embarrassed state.
Ugandan Afrobeat star Bobi Wine’s political career has moved on further than his counterparts, with Uganda’s incumbent dictator, Yoweri Museveni, clearly rattled by the considerably younger, cooler man taking aim at the demographic Museveni wants to win over himself in the upcoming Presidential election scheduled for Thursday 14th January .
Since making his political ambitions known, Bobi Wine has been imprisoned, beaten, as well as several attempts made on his life.
‘Mr Wine has good reason to be afraid in the run-up to January’s presidential contest. Two years ago, his driver was shot dead in what he alleges was a botched attempt on his own life. And last month, as his supporters came out to cheer him, scores were gunned down by security forces.’ (Financial Times, 23.12.20)
Growing up in a Kampala slum, Bobi Wine coronated himself the ‘Ghetto King’ representing a voice from the streets. He may not have much in the way of a manifesto, but he speaks for the enraged, underemployed, urban youth. “Young Ugandans feel like they are first-world brains trapped in a third-world country,” Mr Wine told CNN this month. “They want to live their full potential.”
Irresistable Force (Met the Immovable Object)
President Museveni came to power in 1986 after toppling the previous dictator. Since Buganda became Uganda and Britain signed an agreement to give it autonomy in 1900, the country has seen dictator after dictator grab power deposed only by another dictator hand-in-hand with the military. Installed by the National Resistance Army, Museveni continued the trend, imprisoning opposition candidates after the country voted overwhelmingly in the 2005 referendum to return to multi-party politics. With a net worth of $13 billion (a figure he refutes), Museveni surely has no intention of letting Mr Wine come close to seperating him from the source of his wealth and power.
But, the Ghetto King is influential:
‘Wine has had a knack for being a kingmaker, with four candidates he backed in the last year winning seats in by-elections. Following his detention, his fans and supporters came out to protest, causing chaos in the capital and nearby towns.’ (qz.com, 25.08.18)
Young hearts run free
African governments have been less reliant on Western donors, as money poured in from the Gulf and Middle East. For the past twenty years, China has been the biggest lender of all, even lending Huawei technicians to aid Museveni’s government in spying on Bobi Wine as Uganda’s intelligence officers struggled to contain this threat to the thirty-three year old regime.
‘Uganda is a key Chinese ally in East Africa. The government of Yoweri Museveni is pro-China and was one of the first African governments to explicitly claim its economic reforms as inspired by the Chinese model. It is also signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, and various large-scale infrastructure projects have already been funded through that partnership.’ (The Diplomat, 10.01.20)
China announced in 2019, that ninety-nine scholarships to study at Chinese universities would be made available to Ugandan students. With Uganda’s higher education severly lacking due to insufficient funding and lack of space and instructors, the opportunity to study abroad is attractive, with China providing an affordable option.
‘In the words of the Chinese Ministry of Education, the role of international graduates is to “tell China’s story well and spread China’s voice.”’ (The Diplomat, 10.01.20)
However, this plan has been marred by systemic racism in China. Ugandan and other foreign students report overt discrimination and in the extreme case of Guangzhou, the US consulate advised African-Americans to avoid the city after African migrants were kicked out of homes and banned from shops in the city, with police rounding them up in the streets and restaurants displaying notes stating “black people not allowed to enter”.
Bobi Wine, so distressed by the videos of black people being forced to sleep in the streets, rallied his wealthy contacts with private jets to help fly the victims back to Africa and America. Wine observed that there were more than a million Chinese people in Africa, “who are in most cases treated better than Africans”’ (The Times, 16.04.20).
The opposition candidate’s understanding and support of young people in his home country stands in stark contrast to its seventy-six year old president, who personally devised a social media tax initiative after complaining that young people spend too much time on Whatsapp and other platforms spreading disinformation. Now before they send a message they have to agree to pay the tax via mobile money transfer.
The BBC has fact-checked social media posts from both pro-opposition and pro-government accounts, finding both guilty of spreading fake news. Bobi Wine supporters falsely claimed the musician has been endorsed by both Joe Biden and Barack Obama, while Museveni’s team shared posts questioning Wine’s political record using a doctored interview transcript.
A Little Respect
Whilst Wine may appear progressive because of his youth, his opinions on homosexuality have been widely publicised. The artist was denied a visa to the UK after gay rights campaigners accused him of inciting homophobic attacks in his lyrics.
The Guardian writes:
‘A change.org petition said: “Ugandan artist Bobi Wine writes songs with blatant homophobic lyrics and calls for gay people to be attacked, or killed… allowing such an artist to appear in public is clearly going to raise tensions”
The petition also questioned the use of the lyrics such as: “Burn all the batty man. All Ugandans get behind me and fight the batty man.”’ (13.08.14)
Wine defended his position in Ugandan newpaper, The Daily Monitor:
“I am personally not out to threaten the life of any individual based on their sexual orientation, I just do not agree with them [homosexuals]”, he said. “This is my opinion and happens to be that of 99 per cent of Ugandans”, he claimed.’
With Wine having built his image as a champion for Uganda’s impoverished youth, will his anti-gay agenda damage his presidential ambitions or make him more popular in his home country? We shall find out shortly.
Sources and further reading:
Democracy in Africa is in retreat
Will young voters decide Uganda’s presidential election?
Uganda Halts Vote Campaigning in Some Areas, Opposition Cries Foul
Uganda election: False claims about Joe Biden and others
Uganda profile – Timeline
A new generation of African musicians are taking on politics, and gaining young fans
Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine ‘denied UK visa over homophobic stance’
Foreign Students and China’s Soft Power: The Case of Uganda
Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments Spy on Political Opponents
Coronavirus: Bobi Wine plans airlift for Africans hit by racism in China
‘No blacks’: African migrants kicked out of homes and banned from shops in Guangzhou, China
Uganda: One year of social media tax
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I really enjoyed reading this article, Samantha.
I can relate to it as a Ugandan seeking change for my country and get ride of the old dictators.