January 9, 2021 was the first birthday for Sankara Ali, the son of Bukeni Ali, alias Nubian Li, a long-time associate of musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi. The day went like any other amid a dark cloud of anxiety hoovering over the country, four days to the presidential polls, with heavy deployment of commando units previously fighting al-Shabab militias in Somalia and ADF rebels in neighbouring DR Congo, which government justified as defence against any “planned chaos.”
Except, little Sankara’s father was in jail. The day before, Nubian Li and 47 others had been charged with unlawful possession of an AK-47 gun before the Makindye-based Court Martial.
The 48, including Kyagulanyi’s entourage and supporters, were part of the group of 126 that was rounded up on the campaign trail in Kalangala on December 30. Some were arraigned before the Masaka and Kalangala Chief Magistrate’s Courts, respectively, on among other charges assaulting police officers, incitement of violence, malicious damage, doing a negligent act likely to spread an infectious disease, and inconsiderate use of a public road. They were granted bail in subsequent weeks.
Nubian Li’s group was transferred to the Court Martial and slapped with additional charges of unlawful possession of four bullets of an AK-47, the prosecution claimed. During one of the court appearances, some in the group claimed to have been tortured and others were limping.
The court prosecutor, Capt Ambrose Guma, was quoted in the media as having told the court chairperson that they had instructions not to oppose bail for 12 suspects. The other 35 were sent back on remand.
On Monday, February 15, the 35 were denied bail by the Court Martial for fear of instigating riots.
“This court finds that if released on bail, the accused will continue acts of violence. Bail is, therefore, denied,” ruled Lt Gen Andrew Gutti, the court chairperson. In 2006, the Constitutional Court ruled that military prosecutions of civilians were unlawful. In January 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling on appeal.
But the government has continued to try civilians in the military court where the rules of evidence are blurred. Unlawful possession of arms, usually fabricated, is the commonest charge.
In mid-2018, Mr Kyagulanyi and 33 others were arrested following chaotic by-election, and being accused of pelting President Museveni’s convoy with stones, and later charged before the General Court Martial in Gulu with unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition. The charges were dropped days later.
Not much is known about Nubian Li’s political crusading, previously, but for a long time, since around 2007, he was another run-of-the-mill song composer under Kyagulanyi’s FireBase Crew based in the Kamwokya slum, a Kampala suburb. Together they collaborated on a few protest songs, speaking up against the status quo.
Today, he is a political prisoner in every sense. In a Facebook post on January 9, Kyagulanyi wrote: “Nubian was not born when (President) Museveni took over our country but now, he is in prison trying to free his country from the dictatorship to ensure a better future for his son.”
Nubian Li’s wife Gloria Mutoni says while her husband was not interested in any political seat, he was conscious about the goings-on on the political scene.
“He was those silent people; he was with Bobi all this while doing that through music. He has always been a person who supports change,” Ms Mutoni said.
“He voted in 2016 and 2011 because he has something he believes in,” she adds.
Two weeks to what would have been a third time casting a vote in a General Election, Nubian Li was incarcerated, and chances are his ordeal is likely to drag on for a while.
Since the early 2000s — when the Opposition took shape in the hands of President Museveni’s former physician during the 1980-86 rebellion, Dr Kizza Besigye who broke ranks with the regime after authoring paper detailing how his former master had steadily betrayed ideals that inspired them to go to the bush —Kyagulanyi was making music and entertainment news — fighting in bars and trading insults.
In 2017, Kyagulanyi made it to the front pages when he threw his hat into the Kyaddondo County East by-elections ring. Having secured a seat for himself in Parliament, Kyagulanyi then played a role in influencing MP election victories for Asuman Basalirwa in the Bugiri Municipality by-election, Paul Mwiru in Jinja Municiplaity East, and Kasiano Wadri in Arua Municipality. In mid-2019, he declared intentions to run for presidency.
Along the way, there have been hundreds of Nubian Lis, who have been battered by police, detained, jailed, harassed, maimed, and scores killed. This week, Kyagulanyi posted on his Facebook page the names of about 241 people (his supporters) whom he claims have been kidnapped by state organs.
Initially, the regime pundits wrote Kyagulanyi off as merely an embodiment of Buganda ethno-nationalism. By the time he was cleared on November 2 by the Justice Simon Byabakama-led Electoral Commission to run for the presidency, it was evident the odds were stacked against him. He and his group appeared unstoppable but still, many cast their doubts on how far he would go. Pollsters put the incumbent in the lead with wide margins.
This attitude, according to Dr Frederick Golooba Mutebi, a political researcher, “had to do with something that has become a political culture in this country. We believe that for you to remotely even stand a chance to lead this country you must have a political or military background.”
“Bobi was just a musician, we kept telling ourselves. What does he know about politics? For (President) Museveni, this was his sixth (under the 1995 Constitution) so he has every experience at it,” Dr Golooba said.
“Nobody thought Bobi would have the stamina to go through what Dr Besigye went through for the four times he contested; moreover Besigye had a military background and had more experience. That is why people underestimated Bobi Wine,” he added.
On January 16, Justice Byabakama declared President Museveni winner of the presidential polls with 58 per cent of the total 9.9 million votes casts, his lowest win since 1996, while Mr Kyagulanyi, who had been placed under house arrest after the vote, came in second place with 35 per cent.
The siege on Kyagulanyi’s home, which the army claimed was for his own safety, was merely an extension of the trials he endured over two months of the campaigns. Police, the army and a gang of unidentified security personnel disrupted his rallies, teargassed, and routinely disrupted his rallies.
Protests broke out in different parts of the country on November 18 and 19 when he was arrested in Luuka District for reportedly violating Covid-19 regulations. In the ensuing running battles, security personnel killed more than 50 people, injured dozens, while hundreds were rounded up and are in detention and yet to be arraigned in courts three months later.
..the unknown quantity
At 39 years old, several commentators argued that Kyagulanyi represented a large percentage of the country’s population that were either toddlers or unborn when President Museveni took power 35 years ago after fighting a bush war that edged out Tito Okello’s regime.
Tito Okello had toppled the Obote II government in 1985. It was the dispute over the 1980 elections that propelled the then young Marxist-leaning Museveni to wage a rebellion against the Obote government.
Throughout his campaigns, Mr Kyagulanyi mostly drew crowds of youths who were seemingly enchanted by his persona and rags-to-riches story, not necessarily the message. The NUP’s 47-page manifesto appeared put together hurriedly and was short on substance compared to the NRM’s voluminous 288-page document.
The President and his ruling party, perhaps aware that there was a growing groundswell of resentment, especially among the young population, allegedly threw money at them, like they have always done anyway in campaigns, in an attempt to contain the Bobi Wine effect.
Some wily individuals even pitched ideas for cash to the President that could help him woo over “ghetto youths”, including in Kyagulanyi’s backward in Kamwokya, Kampala. Almost weekly, a stash was being thrown at some youth group, and others were reportedly ‘denouncing violence’ and crossing over to NRM. The President’s media team was keen on propagating such photos on social media and other platforms.
Late in November, a week after the deadly protests and the ensuing bad public relations, the government released Shs20b as emyooga funds for some 660 Saccos under the Microfinance support Centre. The President launched the Shs260b emyooga initiative in August 2019, a month after Mr Kyagulanyi’s presidential declaration, for wealth and job creation “to transform 68 per cent of Ugandans.”
In the run-up to the 2011 General Election, government came up with similar youth venture capital fund in 2010 through which it partnered with three local commercial banks to provide the youth with access to low-interest credit at 15 per cent interest, lower than the market rate above 20 per cent.
Three years later, in August 2013, in the run-up to the 2016 General Election at a chaotic National Youth Council meeting held in Mukono District, the then Ministry of Gender permanent secretary, Pius Bigirimana, announced a new youth unemployment strategy called the Youth Livelihood Programme in which government would funnel Shs256b. This has since been pushed to the back banners.
This newspaper followed up on the emyooga cash distribution in the districts of Kasese, Bukomansimbi, and Masaka in December but the scheme appeared rudderless. The few youths in the selected groups talked to indicated they had “no intention of voting the NRM but were glad to eat the money.”
In Kampala, for instance, which had 2001 overwhelmingly voted for Dr Besigye, a significant amount of money was spent on youth groups, starting in 2019 in attempt to woo the youths but the bet failed. In the run-up to polling day, unknown people pinned posters of Kyagulanyi smoking “pot” (an illegal substance) all over town, including on the wall fence of the Electoral Commission with twenty four hour security in an attempt to disrepute him.
His party also went on to clinch more than 61 seats in Parliament, 41 seats in the KCCA council, and several others in the local government elections.
What analysts say
Political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba says even with the minimal organisation for the new party—NUP— and Kyagulanyi’s inexperience in politics “they still put up a good fight.”
“I was struck by how they managed to capture the imagination and elicit emotions, especially in the central region. I didn’t think that in a place such as Luweero, which the NRM party has regarded as its Mecca for ages could vote the way it voted,” Mr Ssengoba said. “Breaking into those barriers is something that really surprised me.”
Dr Golooba said the emergence of NUP portends developments “we may not have dealt with before.”
“I have not had a single NUP activist asking to be paid a penny, and if that spirit continues, we may be in for a surprise. In many ways, government shot themselves in the food by deploying violence against these people; the more violence the State meted out, it is as if the more they were encouraged,” he said.
In dealing with the unknown quantity — particularly the 75 per cent of population is below the age of 30 — Dr Golooba says the NRM government is repeating the same mistakes of the Obote II government when it embarked on persecution of the Banyarwanda and driving hundreds of them into Museveni’s rebellion.
“Many people voted for NUP not because it had a lot to offer or said anything that we don’t know; it was a protest vote for the hundreds of youths arrested, disappeared, and tortured. Parents imagined that those affected youths could be their children,” Dr Golooba argued.
“If Museveni continues with the same approach, he will be making his own life difficult — because in one way, you millitarise them and then drive them away from you. Obote did the same by persecuting the Banyarwanda and helped National Resistance Army ranks swell.”
A senior Cabinet minister, one of the dozen defeated by the electorate in the elections, who prefered to remain anonymous held a similar view.
“Whenever someone was arrested or maimed, the immediate community around him got angry. In the worst case scenario, when people died, that anger was exported further to the villages during burial. Most of those affected were Baganda, so little wonder the entire region turned against us. I bet in every district there had been a burial as a result of government senseless actions,” the minister said.
Throw in the snowballing levels of youth unemployment, high cost of living, grand scale corruption, land evictions, et cetera, this could be just the beginning of President Museveni’s fight with the unknown quantity if he chooses to cling to power.
In the aftermath of the Arua by-election debacle, social commentator Kalundi Sserumaga teased on his twitter: “You know you have stayed in power way too long when you start fighting an opponent who is younger than your children.” More victims and more Nubian Lis are yet to be seen.
This report was produced with support from the Editors Guild of Uganda.