Uganda’s ‘Ghetto President’ reggae star becomes real life MP
For the last decade Ugandans have known two presidents: Yoweri Museveni, the country’s long-time ruler, and musician Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a. Bobi Wine, a.k.a. His Excellency the Ghetto President.
But in a surprising turn the 35-year-old reggae star — who was just three when Museveni took power at the head of a rebel army — on Thursday won a landslide victory in a city by-election to become the country’s newest lawmaker. Wine is a spectacularly popular Ugandan entertainer.
For many, he embodies the struggles, frustrations and hopes of the young, poor and marginalised in a youthful nation whose often elderly rulers can seem dismissive of their plight.
The by-election in the teeming capital Kampala was called due to voting irregularities during last year’s general election.
Standing as an independent, Wine defeated established candidates from both Museveni’s ruling NRM and the main opposition FDC parties.
His election marks a remarkable personal journey for the charismatic reggae star from brash, dreadlock-wearing, slum-dwelling youth to a sharp-suited and savvy political operator.
Wine rose to prominence about a decade ago with catchy, upbeat tunes in African reggae style with lyrics that often touched on issues of poverty and social justice.
Growing up in Kamwokya, one of Kampala’s poorest slums, Wine worked as a backing singer before making it to university where he studied music and drama before launching his solo career.
The party-loving popster grew dreads and dubbed the swampy slum of his youth ‘Uganja’.
He could be seen cruising the capital in his ostentatious Cadillac Escalade, a marijuana leaf symbol adorning the personalised numberplate.
‘He understands our situation’
Wine quickly became a tabloid sensation, his love life a source of endless, lurid speculation, and his somewhat trumped-up beefs with fellow musicians Jose Chameleon and Bebe Cool a mainstay of the gossip columns.
But Wine gradually removed himself from such frivolity, styling himself a champion of ordinary Ugandans and a crusader against the social status quo.
When other Ugandan stars took money to sing for Museveni’s 2016 election campaign, Wine refused the cash and withstood the pressure.
Instead he released a song ‘Dembe’ (meaning Freedom in the local Luganda language) calling for non-violence in a country where elections are a time of teargas, gunfire and heavy-handed police.
On Friday morning, after his by-election win, ‘Dembe’ blasted from the speakers of a bootleg DVD shack in Kamwokya market, about 10 kilometres (six miles) from Bobi’s new constituency, Kyadondo East.
People thronged the dank, narrow alleyways where corrugated iron sheets shut out most of the strong sunlight while, under-foot, rotting hessian sacks were laid over slime-covered pathways.
“Bobi grew up here, he’s been on the ground and understands our situation,” said Hamidu Mubiru, a market trader.
“I feel as if I know him somehow and I appreciate the things he has done for us. He’s been singing about the dictatorship and their brutality,” says the 27-year old, describing Museveni’s rule in terms that, as a shrewd public figure, Wine would be unlikely to claim.
But as the singer makes his move from ‘Ghetto President’ to real-life MP he will have to work hard not to disappoint the impoverished, urban youth who look to him for hope and change.