DETAINED IN UGANDA OP-ED
From Johannesburg to Jail – Bobi Wine pleads for action against Museveni as he is arrested at airport
Silence over abuses of human rights and democracy such as those experienced in Uganda and Zimbabwe amounts to consent.
On Wednesday evening, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known by his performing name Bobi Wine, was on stage with me for the launch of my new book, Rich State, Poor State, in Johannesburg.
Rich State, Poor State describes why some countries reform, and keep reforming, while others fail. One critical determinant is the nature of the system that allows competitive conditions to take root, permitting a battle for political ideas and governance as much as in business.
Wine said at the event that he would be returning to Uganda and believed that a mass welcome was being organised. He wondered aloud if he would be arrested once more. Then we sang the song Alone Together, which includes the line “Don’t be a victim, be a solution”.
On Thursday morning, on his arrival at the airport in Kampala, Uganda, he was detained by armed policemen and transported to his house where he was placed under house arrest, the type of harassment he has suffered continually since announcing his intention to enter politics to challenge Uganda’s octogenarian President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
My heart sank as I read his text message: “I was grabbed off the tarmac by the military and driven home. I am now under house arrest.”
He said those who arrested him were not in uniform and wore masks and carried guns. “They dressed like cleaners and airport staff with tags showing their names.”
He was driven to a military base where he was moved to a van and pushed to the floor as they drove him to his house.
Later on, he told me: “I want to make it clear to the world that I am under detention in my own home, which is a gross violation of human rights. My only crime is to stand against President Museveni, and defeat him in an election.”
Ssentamu’s National Unity Platform was officially awarded 35% of the vote in Uganda’s appalling 2021 election which was marred by dozens of killings, voter intimidation and election-rigging. It was widely held that he had won the majority of votes but had been cheated out of victory.
Later on Thursday evening, he said he was still under house arrest with “between 70-100 troops surrounding my property”.
He believes Museveni acted against him because of his well-supported national tour and the promise by organisers that a million Ugandans would meet him on his return. In addition, a documentary, Bobi Wine, the Ghetto President, was set to be released this week on Disney Plus, further angering the regime.
He said that he and veteran opposition leader and former minister in Museveni’s government, Kizza Besigye, were being targeted because of their maintenance of opposition to the regime and their principled stand against co-option.
A plea to the outside world
“We want the outside world to stand with us, and if they cannot, at least to not sponsor Museveni’s oppression. We ask the international community to review its relationship with Uganda and with Museveni on account of gross human rights violations, gross corruption which is everywhere, including in the international community’s loans and grants which are misappropriated.”
The West has been reluctant to act against Museveni because they view him as vital to regional security despite his growing dictatorial approach and his regime’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine. Museveni’s son, Lieutenant-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, tweeted this March that he would send Ugandan troops to defend Moscow in case of an “imperialist” threat.
“Call me +Putinist+ if you want, we Uganda should send soldiers to defend Moscow if ever it was threatened by imperialists,” wrote the man considered most likely to succeed his father. “The West is wasting its time with useless pro-Ukrainian propaganda,” added Kainerugaba, who has already announced his candidacy for the 2026 election.
Kampala has consistently abstained from UN votes on the Ukrainian conflict, including that in February this year on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, which demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
Also at the launch in Johannesburg was veteran opposition leader and former Zimbabwean finance minister during the brief life of the Government of National Unity, Tendai Biti. He reflected to the audience on the recently rigged Zimbabwean election which even usually pusillanimous SADC observers were moved to criticise.
There is a growing crisis of democratic legitimacy in Africa as coups sweep across the Sahel and leaders get away with holding plainly rigged elections which keep them in power for decades.
A low point in regional politics
What is particularly alarming is the careless manner with which the criticisms of the SADC observer mission to Zimbabwe have been ignored. While most regional leaders chose to snub the inauguration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, President Cyril Ramaphosa — supposedly leading the region’s major democracy — was happy to attend and grin his way through back-slapping sessions with his fraudulently elected neighbour.
The absence of any action on the Zimbabwe election represents a low point in regional politics. An extraordinary SADC Troika Summit Plus the Democratic Republic of the Congo was held on 27 September “to discuss the political and security issues in the region”.
The official statement said the following: “The Organ Troika Summit also discussed upcoming elections in the region and reiterated SADC’s support to the Member States holding elections to ensure that the elections are peaceful and credible in line with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021).
“The following SADC Member States are scheduled to hold elections by the end of this year; General Elections in the Kingdom of Eswatini on 29 September 2023; First Round of Presidential Election in Madagascar on 9 November 2023 and possible Second Round, on 20 December 2023; and Presidential, Legislative and Provincial Elections in the DRC on 20 December 2023.”
It is notable that the above statement concerning elections made no mention of the Preliminary Statement of the SADC Electoral Observation Mission on the Zimbabwe election of 23-24 August and it appears that no discussion of this report took place, or, if it did, it warranted no mention in the official statement.
It is time to roll back the tide of authoritarianism and sham-democracy that is being imposed by extractive elites. The vast majority of Africans consistently state — unsurprisingly — that they prefer democracy to other forms of government.
Silence over abuses of human rights and democracy such as those experienced in Uganda and Zimbabwe amounts to consent. It is time to take a stand and demand accountability and — crucially — that there must be consequences for stealing elections and arresting opposition leaders.
Until that happens, leaders such as Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu and Tendai Biti live under the jackboot of governments that are free to do as they please. DM
Dr Greg Mills is the author of Rich State, Poor State, and directs The Brenthurst Foundation. www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org