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The torture of a pop-star politician roils Uganda

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(Tom Sampson)

Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu planned on a career in music. But since the 36-year-old, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, ran for parliament last year, he has been thrust into the spotlight of the resistance against the longtime president of Uganda — a country that has emerged as a key security partner for the United States.

Experts say Wine, a pop star turned lawmaker, may pose the greatest threat to President Yoweri Museveni’s rule since the former revolutionary took power more than 30 years ago — and Museveni seems to sense that, too.

Wine was campaigning for a parliamentary candidate in northern Uganda last month when protesters allegedly stoned Museveni’s convoy. In the event’s aftermath, Wine said security forces opened fire on his vehicle and killed his driver. He was arrested and accused of inciting violence against the president; he was eventually charged with treason.

Last weekend, while out on bail, Wine managed to leave the country to seek medical treatment in the United States, carrying with him stories of alleged torture at the hands of Ugandan special forces. And his accusations raise uncomfortable questions about Washington’s longtime strategic alliance with Uganda.

The United States considers Uganda a key ally in East Africa and provides some $970 million in development and security assistance to the country each year. Ugandan troops are crucial participants in the African Union Mission in Somalia, where the threat of terrorist group Al Shabaab looms large. But on Thursday, Wine’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, said the U.S. government should “immediately suspend military funding to Uganda.”

“We want the American taxpayer to know that the American taxpayer is funding this,” Amsterdam said at a news conference in Washington. “The military equipment we are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens.”

Human Rights Watch’s Maria Burnett, who runs the organization’s work in East Africa, tweeted that in 2014, the United States gave $12 million in equipment, weapons and vehicles to the Ugandan special operations forces command — the same unit that Wine said tortured him. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether it will reassess assistance to Uganda.

Some in Washington are concerned about what they see as an authoritarian backslide in Uganda. “It’s clear that there’s a worsening trajectory of poor governance and human rights violations in Uganda,” said one congressional staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be able to discuss the issue freely.

One Africa analyst in the U.S. government, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Washington’s dependence on Uganda for security in the region “has created the perception here in Washington that, frankly, the Ugandan government has more leverage over us than we do over them.”

The analyst raised the possibility that Wine’s case could encourage the United States to take another look at its relationship with Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but it is too early to tell whether his case alone would be enough for Washington to make major changes. Nevertheless, Wine will use his time in the capital to share his torture allegations with government officials. On Thursday, he met with officials at the State Department and visited Capitol Hill.

In sub-Saharan Africa, uprisings across the continent over the last few years have sparked questions about whether the region will see its own version of the “Arab Spring.” In recent years, street protests have rocked a number of countries, including Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo and Burundi. Such movements have often started because of presidents’ attempts to solidify their hold on power, including by effectively eliminating term limits, just as Museveni is now.


Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni attends an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 28. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

A number of those uprisings failed to gain enough traction to create long-lasting change, but some have worked. In 2017, longtime Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh stepped down and left the country — a remarkable development after he lost an election and threatened to stay anyway. Longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, now 94, was also forced out of power last year, and his elderly replacement, 75-year-old former spy chief Emmerson Mnangagwa, has also faced some popular anger.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal this week, Nicholas Bariyo wrote that “the standoff between the pop star and the president is the latest episode in a generational battle playing out in several African nations.” And Nicholas Opiyo, another of Wine’s lawyers, said that there is now tremendous pressure on Wine, as a young and highly charismatic politician, to stand up to Museveni’s government.

“The hopes and aspirations of the young generation seem to rest on his shoulder,” Opiyo said. “The question is: Is his shoulder broad enough to carry the hopes of our generation?”

But Wine said he didn’t enter politics to focus on Museveni. “I do what I do looking at the future generation,” he said. “I’ve always told my fellow young people that we are the country, we are the future, and we are the change that we badly need. … We are the people that are going to be in Uganda in the future so it’s upon us to decide what kind of country we want to live in.”

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Credit:Washington Post

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