Bobi Wine: ‘I will walk you round my ghetto’
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“Welcome to the ghetto.” Rarely if ever can a Lunch with the FT, whose encounters more often take place in a Manhattan bistro or Mayfair grill, have begun with such words. But today I’m lunching in a Kampala slum with Bobi Wine, the self-styled “ghetto president” and bête noire of Uganda’s political establishment.
At 37, Wine has built on his fame as a rapper and musical activist to win a seat in parliament and put himself in a position to mount a credible — if as yet undeclared — presidential bid in 2021. In the process, he has been arrested multiple times, nearly beaten to death and become an icon of resistance not only for the young and dispossessed of Uganda but for youth across Africa.
The restaurant is a tiny construction of slatted clapboard, crude plasterwork, dirt floor and a corrugated iron roof propped up by poles. One side has no wall, leaving an entrance like a horses’ stable. We are seated at the only table, knocked together from scrap wood. On either side is a wooden pew, each of which can accommodate three people if they mind their elbows. Across from us is a young man energetically forking food from plate to mouth.
“We used to have our lunch and breakfast here, and this lady used to even give us credit,” says Wine, pointing to an elegant middle-aged woman in a blue dress hunched over giant metal pots bubbling on a charcoal stove.
Wine is wearing dark-rimmed spectacles and his trademark red beret. He has the hint of a goatee and moustache, and is dressed in a white cotton trouser suit with red embroidery that has an Elvis Presley flamboyance about it. Christened Robert Kyagulanyi, he soon adopted Bobi (pronounced “Bobby”) — “because it’s cooler” — and later Wine since, he says, wine improves with age.
Wine’s elevation to a symbol of Africa’s rising generation is no small responsibility in a continent where the median age is 19, and where urban youth engender both a sense of optimism for an Africa on the move and impending catastrophe as they seek jobs and political agency in a region dominated by out-of-touch autocrats.
Already this year, disenchanted youth in Algeria and Sudan have led uprisings that have forced ageing despots from office. All over Africa, young people — online, savvy, ambitious and frustrated — are becoming a potent political force.
“This generation is so highly connected,” says Wine. “They are so open-eyed to the fact that they deserve, and indeed can achieve, better.”
In Uganda, the rise of Wine, the “ghetto president”, has severely rattled the real president, Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled for more than three decades and turns 75 this year. Museveni was once a darling of the international community, bringing stability after years of civil war, posing as a new kind of democrat and doing much to halt the spread of Aids. But he gradually ossified into a despot, overseeing a thuggish state in which the space for corruption grew as room for dissent dwindled.
Last August, after an incident in which stones were allegedly thrown at the presidential convoy, Wine was arrested and beaten so severely he could barely walk. His driver was shot and killed in what he believes was an attempt on his own life.
Soldiers found Wine in a hotel room where he had taken refuge. “This guy was holding an iron bar, a long one, and he started hitting me with it. He hit me so bad,” he says. He lost consciousness.
He re-enacts, in unnerving slow-motion, his confusion at waking up in the back of a police vehicle with a soldier yanking at his ears and then testicles with a pair of pliers. “All the beatings sounded like I’m in some other world — dong, dong, dong,” he says, making out like a cartoon cat being hit by a frying pan-wielding mouse.
Eventually, still concussed, he was taken to court, where he was subsequently charged with treason, an offence that carries the death penalty. Only an uproar in Uganda and an international petition signed by artists such as Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate, and Peter Gabriel, the former Genesis lead singer, secured his release.
For Museveni, it was a miscalculation. Wine had been transformed from minor irritation to international cause célèbre.
The first thing to be said about our modest restaurant is that the food is really good. At £1.08 for both of us, excluding the bottle of beer and soft drink that we ordered in separately from another vendor, it must be the cheapest ever Lunch with the FT by some margin. It is also delicious. I’m having beans and beef served in a white plastic bowl. I had spotted someone else busily devouring the same dish and, since no menu was available, had ordered it too. The large, fluffy pinto beans have a pleasing bite. The meat is tender and perfectly seasoned.
On a separate plate, I have a mound of matoke (a mashed plantain that is a Ugandan staple), some starchy white rice and a large avocado of such creamy texture and delicate taste it would have the denizens of Hampstead Heath storming their local Waitrose.
There is also a little heap of small-leafed greens. “We call them dodo,” says Wine. A subsequent internet search turns up amaranth — “a protein-rich, gluten-free pseudo grain (like quinoa) and a distant relation to Swiss chard and spinach”.
My guest is having the same sides, with the addition of some fleshy white yam. His main is nyama, a beef stew.
When Wine was dining here on credit, he was working odd jobs as a bricklayer, street hawker and car washer. “You could spend the whole day not washing a single car. But you’re not going to negotiate with biology. Your stomach will have to be fed,” he says with a grin.
A man walks by, one of many to call out to my lunch companion.
“Oh my president,” he shouts.
“Yeah, man,” replies Wine, punching the air.
“People power,” the man shouts back.
“Our power,” says Wine.
When he is not sing-songing with supporters, Wine’s voice is soft and nasal, his words carefully enunciated. He has the timbre of an older man, with an almost Yoda-like quality.
“Some people call me ‘Mzee’, which literally means ‘old man’,” he says, adding that others refer to him as “Papi” or “Father”. It is, he says, a sign of respect rather than of his advancing years.
Before lunch, Wine had given me a tour of Kamwokya — pronounced “Kam-wo-cha” — the densely packed informal settlement where he grew up. “Come on, I will walk you round my ghetto,” he had said.
Kamwokya is often referred to as a slum and it is true that there are dirt roads and cramped higgledy-piggledy houses with blankets for doors. There’s no running water, save for a communal pump, no proper sewerage system and no electricity.
Yet Kamwokya is also a vibrant place, full of music and fun, with a strong sense of community and constant banter back-and-forth across the narrow, muddy alleyways. Of course, there is crime. But Wine says the inhabitants are more frightened of the police than of each other.
Wine is the local boy made good on whose shoulders the hopes of the poor rest, particularly if he challenges Museveni for the presidency. He is also the local MP, due back in parliament at 2.30pm.
Not a single person who passes fails to recognise him. Many approach shouting slogans, clenching their fist, shaking hands, requesting help or posing for selfies. At one point, a crowd hoists him in the air, bouncing him through the streets like an Indian godhead. At another, a young man prostrates himself on the ground, to Wine’s evident embarrassment.
“People expect me to answer every question, but I am just one of them. Ultimately, I have to convince these people that it is upon each and every one of them, not me alone.”
We cross an open sewer, bobbing with garbage, and another part of the slum where, Wine says, the rich have started to evict people and build gated mansions in an unlikely act of gentrification. We drop by his studio, which is also under threat of demolition, just one of the many ways the authorities are seeking to silence him. Wine’s concerts are routinely broken up and, even in the weeks since we met, he has been hauled in and out of prison.
He leads me into a back room where a studio manager is working on a track. “He’s called ‘King Roots’,” he says, greeting the man with a fist bump. “He is called ‘Inspector’. That boy is called ‘Perfume’.”
I am David, I say, beginning to find my own name a tad mundane.
Back in the restaurant, he explains that his family once had money and standing but ended up in Kamwokya because of political entanglements. His grandfather had been active in the independence struggle and his father had got involved in politics too, making enemies and losing money. “My mother always told us that we must keep away from politics, always reminded us that we are in the ghetto because of politics, that we would lose everything, including life, if we indulged in politics,” he says. “Mothers give the best advice.”
As well as giving sage counsel, his mother enrolled him in a “school up on the hill” where wealthier children were educated. “I was among the very few children that came from across the road to go there,” he says, referring to the tarmac street dividing Kamwokya from nicer neighbourhoods. Later, he went on to Kampala’s Makerere University.
“I was a ghetto child, but my character was uptown.”
I’ve made a serious dent in the food despite the generous helping. The greens are crunchy and salty. The matoke is the same texture as parsnip but sweeter.
I wonder if Wine would join me in a Tusker beer? He politely declines, saying he’s given up drinking. “I’ll drink in future, when we’ve won the victor’s crown,” he says with a wink.
One of Wine’s handlers sends someone to fetch a beer and, after a few minutes, he returns clutching a Tusker and a Sprite. I later realise I had made a faux pas. Tusker is a Kenyan import. I should have ordered the local Nile Special.
Wine started playing music at a young age and drifted into ragga, a style incorporating both rap and reggae. “By the time I did my first song, within here I was already known,” he says, referring to Kamwokya. “It was called ‘Akagoma’, drum. It was a dance song.”
Later, he moved out of Kamwokya, buying a plot outside the city. He married Barbie, a social worker and female rights activist who helped him realise there was more to life than being a swaggering pop star and contributed to his political awakening.
“When I was growing up, it was cool to be the attraction of all ladies, to have five girls running after you and everything. Now, it is going to actually seem cool to be committed to one person. Many of those ghetto youth look at us as a template of life, and they want to do exactly what we do,” he says, mashing his matoke with his fork before taking a bite.
Together he and Barbie have four children, aged between 13 and four. “I’m done. I was lucky to get two boys, two girls. I have all my children with one wife, which is something to celebrate, especially considering the kind of person that I was in the past,” he says.
Despite his mother’s admonitions, Wine’s songs became more political, including direct attacks on Museveni. At first, he says, he thought he could influence events through his music but slowly came to the conclusion he had to become directly involved in politics to represent the interests of the ghetto.
It was not until Wine was elected to parliament in 2017, winning by a landslide, that Museveni began to take his challenge seriously. Wine had run as an independent with a door-to-door walking campaign that emphasised the lack of political machinery behind him. “If parliament cannot come to the ghetto,” Wine said, “the ghetto will come to parliament.”
As an MP, Wine opposed internet censorship and a government crackdown on social media. He campaigned unsuccessfully against a change to the constitution that removed the 75-year-old age limit for presidential candidates, effectively clearing the way for Museveni to become president-for-life.
Then came the treason charge. “I know Museveni can order the judges to do anything,” he says, polishing off the last of his stew and taking a swig of Sprite. Assassination remains a threat. “We can be seated here, somebody will come and fire at me — and I’ll be dead.”
Assuming Wine is alive by 2021, I wonder how he can possibly prevail in an electoral system where intimidation and rigging have been rife. His answer is to get millions of young people to register so that, he hopes, victory will be so decisive Museveni’s resolve will crumble. Recent opinion polls show Wine mounting a serious challenge, especially in Kampala.
He is encouraged by events in places such as Ukraine, where Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no political pedigree, recently won the presidency. “We have a funny saying: ‘If they did it, then we can did it’,” he says, grinning. “So if those people in Ukraine did it, then we also can did it.”
It’s one thing to topple Museveni, but what is Wine’s programme if he wins?
“The first thing is the abolishment of stupid laws,” he says, referring to statutes curbing freedom of expression and association. “I’m sorry for my French, but yes, stupid laws.” I tell the bad boy of Uganda that I think we can get the word “stupid” past the FT censors.
Besides that, he says, he is committed to a competent government, a mixed economy and zero tolerance for corruption. Wine would be the first to admit that he does not have all the answers or a fully fleshed-out programme, beyond making life easier for the country’s downtrodden.
If he runs as an “anti-politician”, he is also aware that he will have to surround himself with technocrats, many of whom he says have been driven abroad by years of despotism.
We’ve both finished our food. Almost unprompted, Wine starts talking about the similarities between himself and Museveni. As a 41-year-old guerrilla leader in 1986, Museveni too had promised clean government and an end to authoritarianism. “He was very articulate. He was very popular. A young Museveni didn’t sound unlike a young Bobi Wine,” he says, adding, “But Museveni got drunk on power. He got lost in the illusion that he is a demigod.”
It’s strange, I say, as we get up to leave, that a “raggamuffin rapper” — his phrase — from the ghetto should have become the president’s nemesis.
“I’m not Museveni’s nemesis,” Wine says softly. “He is his own nemesis.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor
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