When Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda in 1986, he promised to end political murders and restore democracy after decades of dictatorship. “This is not a mere change of guards. I think this is a fundamental change in the politics of our government,” he promised in his first speech as president.
But the only change was for the worse. Museveni’s North Korea-trained military has committed crimes even more heinous than those that occurred under his infamous predecessors, Idi Amin and Milton Obote. His security forces have looted billions of dollars from the Ugandan Treasury, sparked wars in neighboring countries, probably assassinated potential rivals, and tortured countless politicians and nonviolent political activists, including, most recently, the massively popular 36-year-old Afrobeat musician and parliamentarian Bobi Wine, whose songs lament Uganda’s poverty and call upon listeners to reclaim their country.
On August 13, Wine, along with four other MPs and dozens of others were arrested and beaten while campaigning for the opposition in Arua, a town near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. During the operation, security forces shot and killed Wine’s driver. Museveni was also in Arua that day, stumping for the ruling-party candidate. After the campaigns ended, the president’s convoy collided with a procession of opposition supporters on a main road, and, according to witnesses, ran some of them into the ditch by the side of the road. The police claim that members of the angry crowd began shouting and throwing rocks, one of which broke the window of one of Museveni’s vehicles. On social media, many have questioned this claim, since pictures showed the window in question to have been cleanly removed, with no hanging shards of glass, and in any case, presidential vehicles are normally armored, bulletproof, and impervious to stones.
The convoy delivered Museveni to his waiting helicopter, and then unleashed terror, arresting and torturing Wine and the others. The detainees, who included members of the opposition campaign team as well as bystanders who happened to be on the scene, have all been charged with treason. When they emerged from a police bus for a bail hearing on August 27, several, including Wine, were on crutches and had to be carried down the steps. Wine and several others are scheduled to be flown out of the country for specialized treatment in the coming days.
After the arrests, anti-Museveni demonstrations broke out in London, Nairobi, Stockholm, Melbourne, Washington, Boston, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, and other cities around the world. Wine’s family has retained a high-powered Washington legal firm, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Uganda to investigate the torture of the detainees and other acts of police violence. More than 80 prominent musicians and artists—including Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and Chrissie Hynde—signed a letter supporting Wine and the other Ugandan detainees. Lawmakers in the United States, the UK, Kenya, and elsewhere have expressed shock at Museveni’s brutality.
This response is remarkable, because Museveni has skillfully avoided such censure for decades. Unlike Amin, who ruled in the 1970s, and Obote, who ran the country in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, Museveni is a master of public relations. He’s employed such firms as Scribe, the Whitaker Group, and even Ronald Reagan’s son-in-law Dennis Revell to prevent the world from knowing about his crimes. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all praised his leadership qualities. When Birmingham University political scientist Jonathan Fisher was conducting research on Museveni during the 2000s, diplomats described the Ugandan tyrant as “jovial,” “intelligent,” “thoughtful,” and “smart.” Meetings with Museveni were like “opening a bottle of champagne” said one.
As a result, Museveni has enjoyed enormous international donor support, including at least $25 billion in foreign aid—almost $1 billion last year from the United States alone. Since 2012, his repressive regime has also benefited from at least $300 million in military assistance from the Pentagon, with which his army partners in Somalia, Iraq, and other theaters of war.
But this isn’t the only reason Museveni has survived in power for nearly 33 years. He’s also managed to manipulate his own people into fighting each other, instead of uniting against him. This is why Museveni finds Wine’s music and his magisterial speeches so threatening: They seem to be pulling Uganda’s battered, divided people together, and Wine’s People Power movement has, if anything, only been strengthened by this latest crackdown.
Uganda is the most ethnically diverse nation on earth. Its people speak roughly 40 languages, some as distinct as English and Chinese. During the 1890s, the British roped them all into one country, arming different groups to subdue the others. Historian Michael Twaddle described the scale of a British-backed tribal massacre during this period: “Such was the enormity of the slaughter that not only were sections of Lake Victoria ‘all blood,’ there were so many dead bodies bobbing up and down in the water that their heads resembled a multitude of upturned cooking pots.”
Uganda was granted independence in 1962, but the scars of Britain’s divide-and-rule strategy remained. The nation’s first prime minister, Obote, was a Langi who persecuted the Baganda, Uganda’s largest and most powerful ethnic group. In 1966, his army raided the palace of the Kabaka—Buganda’s king—killing tens, perhaps hundreds of people. In 1971, Obote was toppled by Idi Amin, a Kakwa closely related to the Nubians of Sudan. He primarily persecuted the Acholi of northern Uganda. Then Obote returned to power in 1980 and resumed tormenting the Baganda and others.
When Museveni took over, he too marginalized the Baganda—even though they’d helped him seize power, and also began demonizing the Acholi and other ethnic groups from northern and eastern Uganda. In speeches in English—for the consumption of donors and diplomats—Museveni called for unity and condemned tribalism, but when speaking to his own people in local languages, he referred to northern peoples as “uncivilized, backward, biological substances, insects, swine, evil, terrorists,” and so on, according to historian Ogenga Otunnu. In one speech, Museveni said he was “determined to put the Acholi in in a calabash like grasshoppers, and let them bite themselves to death.”
As detailed in the harrowing documentary A Brilliant Genocide, Museveni’s army then carried out ruthless operations against suspected Acholi rebels. The indiscriminate killing, rape, and looting sparked the rise of notorious warlord Joseph Kony. While no death toll has ever been calculated, it’s assumed that hundreds of thousands of Acholi, at least, died in the ensuing 22-year war.
Elsewhere in Uganda, Museveni has worsened tribal divisions with the skill of a malevolent anthropologist. When Baganda leaders gained a following by criticizing government land policies in the early 2000s, Museveni identified a small minority subgroup known as the Banyala, who had long lived peacefully among the Baganda. He appointed one of his soldiers to be their leader, equal in stature to Buganda’s Kabaka, and then began lavishing Banyala youths with coveted scholarships, grants, and other gifts. Finally, he recognized Banyala sovereignty over territory the Baganda maintained was theirs. Then he sat back and watched scores of people get killed in the resulting ethnic conflict. Museveni has since employed similar tactics to create mayhem among other groups around the country.
A nation is not only a list of laws, a treasury, a road network, and an army. It’s a shared identity and feeling. This is what the British and other colonial powers failed to create, not only in Uganda, but across Africa. And this is what all of Uganda’s leaders have exploited to maintain their grip on power. As University of Connecticut political scientist Amii Omara Otunnu has pointed out, when Obote went after the Baganda, the people of northern Uganda were silent; when Amin killed Acholi leaders, few outside of Acholiland expressed sympathy; when the Acholi and Teso were being massacred by Museveni’s army in the 1990s, most southern Ugandans ignored it. When Museveni stoked tensions within the Baganda and other ethnic groups, many other Ugandans looked the other way. Bureaucrats at the World Bank, Whitehall, and the US State Department know little to nothing about Uganda’s internecine politics. Naturally, they’ve taken Museveni at his word when he’s warned that the country would descend into chaos without him. Thus, donor funds and weapons have continued to flow.
But slowly, over many years, a force of change has been growing in Uganda, led by a new generation of politicians who don’t fall for Museveni’s lies. In recent years, the opposition has been winning by-elections across the country, energized in part by Wine’s exuberant, rock-concert style of campaigning. This is why Museveni finds Wine so threatening. He embodies that binding patriotic spirit upon which Uganda’s future depends. People identify with Wine not only because of his clarion voice and good looks, but because he speaks frankly and bravely about the suffering that all groups share.
But Museveni also commands one of Africa’s strongest armies, and many of us who watch the country closely have had our hearts in our throats for a while. So far, his strategy has been to portray Wine and other decent Ugandan politicians as violent, in order to justify his own crackdowns. Museveni’s officials have claimed Wine was hoarding guns in his hotel room when he was arrested—but presented no credible evidence—and accused Wine of leading a lawless gang bent on creating chaos. Other popular opposition figures, including Kizza Besigye and Betty Nambooze, have faced similar false accusations.
But this time Museveni’s ruse failed. Not only have Ugandans of all ethnicities joined hands to condemn the arrest of Wine and the others, but the international community has also woken up to Museveni’s ghastliness. The president’s responses to this unexpected criticism have seemed increasingly addled. A week after Wine’s arrest, he issued a bizarre statement denying that the lawmaker-musician had been injured and claiming that Francis Zaake, another tortured MP shown a few days earlier in a YouTube clip lying on a hospital bed wearing a respirator, had somehow escaped from police custody. The president has also praised his forces for their “bravery” in confronting the unarmed detainees. Last week, videos and Facebook posts surfaced seeking to link Wine to a CIA plot to spread homosexuality and take over Uganda’s oil reserves. If Museveni’s PR machinery is behind this, it seems an act of desperation.
Meanwhile, inside Uganda, people who’d long stood on the sidelines are joining Wine’s struggle. It’s like Christmas, a friend told me. People are listening to Wine’s songs all day and comparing him to Nelson Mandela. Some of those quietly rooting for Wine are said to be in the security forces themselves. After all, they have to return to their communities and face their extended families, virtually all of whom know someone who has been hurt by Museveni’s brutality. In the 2016 elections, polling stations around army and police barracks voted overwhelmingly for the opposition. As long as the people keep singing, those soldiers may one day bend to moral pressure, and lay down their guns.
Editor’s note: The crackdown inside Uganda is worsening. On Wednesday night, Ugandan security forces blocked MP Francis Zaake, who is bedridden from being tortured along with Wine and the others, from traveling to India for urgent treatment.