Uganda’s Bobi Wine embodies the rise of African youth

Popular Kampala singer challenges his country’s ageing leader in song and parliament

The singer and politician Bobi Wine was tortured so badly by President Yoweri Museveni’s

security forces that he was unable to walk

They call him the Ghetto President. The Ugandan singer and activist Bobi Wine, born in a Kampala slum and now a member of parliament, is facing charges of treason. The accusation stems from an incident in which protesters allegedly threw stones at the motorcade of the actual president, Yoweri Museveni.

But Mr Wine’s real crime is more simple: at 36 and in touch with Uganda’s youthful population, he is half the age and twice as popular as his 74-year-old nemesis. There are Bobi Wines all over Africa. Rapid urbanisation and the spread of social media have enabled a generation of young people to express their frustrations and cross-fertilise ideas. Whether they are bloggers or rappers or human rights activists, their concerns are similar.

Young people are complaining about lack of jobs, about government corruption and about out-of-touch leaders.

Mr Wine, whose legal name is Robert Kyagulanyi, has been a growing irritant to the Ugandan president.

First it was his scathing lyrics and then, since his election to parliament last year, his legislative activity.

In song, he dared to spoof Mr Museveni, a former bush-war hero who toppled a dictator 32 years ago, only to become one himself. In parliament, Mr Wine fought against a clampdown on social media and an amendment to the constitution to lift a 75-year-old age limit on presidential candidates.

The amendment, which was eventually passed, effectively installs Mr Museveni as president for life. Mr Wine has paid dearly for his popularity.

After being arrested nearly two weeks ago, he was tortured so badly by Mr Museveni’s security forces — including beatings with a metal rod — he was unable to walk. He has now been released on bail. The case has received international attention.

ast week, 88 African and international celebrities, including Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka and the British singer Peter Gabriel and music producer Brian Eno, signed a petition.

Across the continent, Mr Wine’s spreading fame has put leaders on notice that they face a youthful rebellion.

Africa has the youngest population in the world, with a median age of 19.5. Uganda’s is just 16.

But the continent has the world’s oldest leaders, with an average age of 62. Incumbents are clinging on well past their sell-by date. Take Paul Biya. Please. The 85-year-old president of Cameroon has been in power for 35 years.

Although he spends much of his time in a five-star hotel in Geneva and presides over a country spiralling into near civil war, like Mr Museveni he harbours delusions of his own popularity. In elections in October, he will be seeking yet another term.

Given the powers of incumbency, you would not bet against him.In 1986, Mr Museveni was celebrated as a new kind of leader.

“The government should not be the master, but the servant of the people,” he said in his inaugural speech. His idea of a servant, it turns out, is someone who hangs around for life.

Those who know Mr Museveni say he genuinely believes he alone can lead the country. Like the general in his labyrinth, surrounded with hangers-on and flatterers, he is convinced he is loved. That is why Mr Wine is so dangerous. With the mockery of a well-honed lyric, he pierces the armoury of presidential vanity.

“What used to be democracy has now become hypocrisy,” he sings.Mr Wine has kept his recording studio in the slum where he grew up. He is more in touch with the average Ugandan than Mr Museveni can ever be.

Though his leadership skills are untested, his ability to voice the frustrations of a dispossessed generation are not.

A typical post online beneath one of his songs reads: “We are . . . the grandchildren of the independence generation and the grandparents of the future generation. We must within ourselves find solutions.”

The picture is slowly shifting. Particularly in west Africa, two-term limits are now the norm. Ageing, unpopular leaders, from South Africa’s Jacob Zuma to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, have been shoved aside.

In Liberia, the electorate has gambled on George Weah, a 51-year-old former football star, as their president.

Most exciting of all is Ethiopia, where Abiy Ahmed, just 42, was elected prime minister in April. He is turning things upside down.

These are early days, but so far he has concluded a peace deal with Eritrea, released thousands of political prisoners and shaken up parts of the economy that needed it. Africa is a vast and varied continent.

As is said of India, whatever is true of Africa, the opposite is also true. Just as the wind of youthful change is real, so too is the recalcitrance of age and power. Youth will not always be right. But it will have its day.

david.pilling@ft.com

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Source: FT

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