Bobi Wine: The Ugandan Pop Star-Turned-Lawmaker in Huawei’s Crosshairs

Ugandan musician turned politician, Robert Kyagulanyi, commonly known by his stage name Bobi Wine (C), is escorted by Uganda legislators after speaking to the press outside his home, in Kampala, on April 23, 2019. - Ugandan police detained Bobi Wine, on April 22, 2019 a pop star turned MP who …
ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images

On April 13, Ugandan pop star turned politician Bobi Wine offered to help airlift Africans out of China after learning of the “inhumane treatment” black people were suffering at the hands of Han Chinese in the southern city of Guangzhou.

In recent days, Guangzhou’s significant African population has faced increased discrimination from the Han – including forced evictions and ejections from hotels and restaurants – amid the ongoing Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The Han reportedly blame Africans for a second wave of coronavirus in China, even though evidence indicates that the country’s first – and original – wave of coronavirus never fully abated.

“We are offering to airlift Africans and African-Americans being subjected to inhumane treatment in parts of China … We are calling upon the government of China to urgently intervene and ensure that targeted attacks on black people are brought to an end,” Wine said in a joint statement with his business partner.

Since becoming a legislator in 2017, Bobi Wine has unnerved Ugandan government authorities, who consider him a threat to authoritarian Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year grip on power. The government often deems Wine’s political rallies “unauthorized protests” and breaks them up with tear gas and live rounds; along with Wine, supporters are sometimes jailed.

Prior to joining Uganda’s federal legislator representing the center of the country, Wine spent nearly 15 years regularly releasing Afrobeat singles, becoming an acclaimed national artist. He has also acted in several projects.

Last fall, Wine spoke out after the government forbade him and his followers from wearing a red beret representing his “People Power” democratic political movement. The ban designated the beret “property of the state” and warned that people who wear or sell them may be prosecuted under military law, which could lead to a life sentence.

“This beret ban is a sham. It is a blatant attempt to suffocate a successful threat to the autocratic status quo,” Wine said in a statement.

“But People Power is more than a red beret, we are bigger than our symbol. We are a booming political movement fighting for the future of Uganda and we will continue our struggle for democracy,” Wine added.

At his political rallies, Wine often sings to his supporters, expressing his opposition to Museveni’s regime through his lyrics.

In March, Wine released a song about the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic in which he criticized the country’s leaders for not providing better health care for Ugandans. Explaining the song, Wine pointed out that Uganda’s government has invested heavily in oppressing its citizens – as evidenced by the country’s multi-million dollar Huawei surveillance system – while neglecting the nation’s healthcare system and other basic needs.

“For a long time we have been calling out the government of Uganda, like many governments on the African continent that have neglected the healthcare systems,” Wine said of his song. “They have invested heavily in weapons and invested heavily in curtailing the voices of the people,” he added.

A Ugandan opposition leader, Wine has said in interviews that, in 2018, Uganda’s government hired technicians from Chinese telecom giant Huawei to conduct a surveillance operation on him that ultimately resulted in his physical torture and the slaying of his driver. Wine’s supporters believe the attack was an assassination attempt.

The incident occurred as he campaigned in a parliamentary by-election. After locating him, Wine said government forces ambushed, detained, and tortured him, sharing his account of the incident on his Facebook page.

“The marks on my back, ankles, elbows, legs, and head are still visible. I continued to groan in pain and the last I heard was someone hit me at the back of the head with an object — I think a gun butt or something,” Wine wrote. “That was the last time I knew what was going on.”

Wine’s driver, Yasin Kawuma, died after being shot during the incident. The legislator wrote that he has since been using burner phones and codes to keep the government from spying on him.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) conducted an investigation into African government surveillance last August confirming Wine was targeted. Ugandan intelligence officials reportedly hired Huawei technicians to hack into Wine’s WhatsApp messaging application to monitor and track the dissident and his supporters.

“It was hard, but Huawei cyber experts are good. They worked with us and we broke into Bobi Wine’s encrypted messages and the messages of his entire team,” a Ugandan official close to the surveillance program told the WSJ.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei has helped build a large portion of Africa’s internet and cellular industry in recent years. This has led to the company embedding its signature “safe city system,” a monitoring system already prevalent throughout China, into the cyber networks of some countries.

In Uganda, Huawei has secured a number of lucrative contracts over the past few years, the WSJ noted, supplying most of the country’s 3G and 4G cell towers. It has also built multi-million-dollar surveillance centers and surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition to monitor citizens’ movement throughout the country. Huawei installed and trains the police to use a network of 5000 cameras as part of this flagship system, advertised as a way to prevent crime.

Huawei is omnipresent in Uganda. Throughout the capital, and even in remote villages where most homes are without electricity, state-of-the-art surveillance cameras are posted to watch over people.

Ugandan privacy rights activist Dorothy Mukasa told the WSJ that she believes Huawei’s surveillance system is used by the government to “target opposition more than criminals,” Wine serving as a prime example.

Especially popular among younger Ugandans, 38-year-old Wine regularly accuses Museveni of preventing Ugandans from practicing democracy. In 2018, Parliament did away with Uganda’s presidential age limit of 75, which many believe was intended to clear the way for 75-year-old Museveni to seek a sixth term in office in 2021. Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986.

Last summer, Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – officially announced his bid for Uganda’s presidency in 2021.

“On behalf of the people of Uganda, I am challenging you [Museveni] to a free and fair election in 2021,” Wine declared.

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