Kampala, Uganda – Only a few bars of uplifting music play before Bobi Wine’s commanding voice takes over.
“This is a message to the government, expressing what’s exactly on the people’s mind,” he declares defiantly in English, before switching to Luganda.
“We are fed up of those who oppress our lives / and everything that takes away our rights / Uganda seems to be moving backwards / this is almost making us hate our own nation.”
Bobi Wine, the stage name of Ugandan pop star-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, released Freedom late last year to protest against a constitutional amendment that proposed the removal of the presidential age limit of 75, making long-time President Yoweri Museveni eligible to run in 2021.
This is one of the many times in recent years that Kyagulanyi, 36, has used his music to address the country’s political and social issues.
Since his surprise election to parliament as an independent candidate in July 2017, under his popular “People Power” slogan, the self-styled “Ghetto President” has continued using his fame and influence to speak out against the decades-long rule of Museveni, whom he accuses of being a “dictator”.
Political tensions rose further last week when Kyagulanyi was arrested in northern Uganda and his driver shot dead amid clashes between opposition supporters and security forces.
Kyagulanyi – as well as Museveni – was in the town of Arua to campaign for a by-election to select a new legislator after the previous one was shot in June. Kyagulanyi had shown his support for Kassiano Wadri, whose popularity shot up instantly following the charismatic musician’s endorsement.
According to the president’s office, Museveni’s motorcade was pelted with stones, leading to clashes between security forces and protesters.
Kyagulanyi later uploaded an image on Twitter showing his dead driver slumped on his car seat, accompanied with a post reading: “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot at me. My hotel is now coddoned off by police and SFC.”
Kyagulanyi, along with other opposition MPs and dozens of supporters, was whisked off to prison.
Several days later, he was brought before a military court in a closed-door session and charged with illegal possession of firearms. He is set to make another martial court appearance on Thursday.
Apart from his wife, brother and lawyer, no one else – including journalists – have been allowed to see him.
Barbara Kyagulanyi said on her Facebook page that her husband had been tortured and needed urgent medical attention.
“He was carried into the room where we saw him. He was in great pain in the left side ribs and hip. He bled a lot through the ears and through the nose. Blood stains are still visible,” she said. “I could not believe that an innocent man could be taken through all this because he has a different political opinion.”
The government has denied allegations of torture.
Museveni, who took power in 1986 and has since been elected five times, has also refuted claims that Kyagulanyi was unwell. In a statement on social media, he said that army doctors are taking good care of Kyagulanyi and that he has no serious injuries.
Days after the arrests, sporadic protests broke out around the capital, Kampala. Police and military deployed heavily in Kamwokya, a poor suburban area where Kyagulanyi grew up.
Opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who for years was the most visible opponent of Museveni before Kyagulanyi’s rise, called a press conference where he demanded the MP’s immediate release.
He also described the situation as a state of terror that should worry all Ugandans.
“Trumped-up charges are the rule in how NRM [the ruling National Resistance Movement] addresses and criminalises opponents,” he said.
“I have been charged with treason, rape, terrorism, illegal possession of guns … These people have been detained in the context of state-inspired violence. The idea choreographed in the media that people had guns must be dismissed with contempt.”
The European Union expressed “deep concern” over the arrests and unrest that have “caused much suffering to citizens and damaged the image of Uganda”.
“There is no room for repression nor violence in a modern democratic Uganda,” the EU said in an official statement.
The US Embassy in Kampala also called upon authorities to respect human rights and the constitution.
“All those detained have a right to humane treatment, due process, access to lawyers and to their families, and a prompt, fair and transparent trial. Those who need medical attention should be granted immediate access to a doctor of their choice,” it said in a statement.
Nicholas Opio, the executive director of human rights NGO Chapter Four Uganda who has also been working with Kyagulanyi’s lawyers and family, said the MP’s condition was “improving”.
“He is talking and eating,” said Opio, adding that Kyagulanyi’s persecution is no surprise.
“Both Bobi Wine and Barbie knew this would one day happen,” he said, referring to the MP and his wife.
“The response of the state will make him even more popular. People power is a generational call and people are hungry for courage – for someone who can take the beating.
“With the right structures, the hunger and energy of People Power can lead to a change in governance.”