Protests swept across Uganda’s capital city of Kampala on Friday after police arrested two opposition lawmakers at the Entebbe airport while they attempted to travel to the United States for medical care.
The reason they needed medical care is that they were allegedly abused while imprisoned by state security forces. One of the lawmakers in question happens to have been among Uganda’s most popular musicians before he became a member of parliament. The ruler he seeks to dethrone is an unpleasant strongman with a four-decade resume who is seen as regrettably important to America’s Africa policy.
The story began in July when 73-year-old President Yoweri Museveni decided the time was right to remove the age limit of 75 on his office. Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, therefore became eligible to run again in 2021.
This enraged many younger members of Uganda’s electorate, who feel Museveni has been around too long and is out-of-touch with their concerns and rules with an iron fist despite collapsing infrastructure and rampant corruption.
Supporters of leading opposition candidate Kasiano Wadri—who was in jail on charges of organizing street violence two weeks ago when he won a seat in parliament that was vacated by assassination—blocked Museveni’s presidential convoy on August 13 and pelted it with stones. Five lawmakers were arrested for playing a role in the convoy attack and subsequent riots, including 36-year-old Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, who became a pop star in Uganda under the name “Bobi Wine,” and is very popular among Ugandan youth.
Wine claimed he was campaigning in Arua, the town where the limousine attack occurred when police opened fire on his vehicle and killed his driver. Wine and another MP arrested with him, Francis Zaake, said they were tortured by security police while in detention. A lawyer for the former musician said he was beaten so badly he was unable to walk without assistance.
For reasons unknown, the police decided to arrest Wine and Zaake at the airport on Thursday when they tried to fly to America for medical treatment. Wine’s lawyer said he was “violently arrested” and “bundled into a police ambulance,” where he was beaten right in front of a doctor on the orders of a military officer who wanted to “teach him a lesson.”
“He was groaning in pain,” Wine’s lawyers said of his ordeal. “They kept telling him to shut up.”
The ambulance eventually deposited Wine in a government-run hospital where he has been allowed only limited access to his family. Zaake also ended up in a hospital, from which images have been posted of him lying unconscious in bed, covered with visible bruises.
Attorneys for both Wine and Zaake said their arrest at the airport was unreasonable because even though they have been charged with treason, they were specifically granted permission to travel outside Uganda to seek medical treatment, and their passports were not confiscated.
A statement from the national police indicated they believed the two lawmakers were violating the terms of their bail. Late on Friday, the authorities changed their minds again and announced the men are free to leave the country after all.
Museveni officials dismissed the accounts of abuse as “fake news” and insisted Wine received top-notch medical care during his ambulance ride and stay at the hospital.
Protests on Friday were especially intense in the neighborhood when Wine’s recording studio is located. Some local journalists reported being harassed, arrested, and beaten by police. Demonstrators used burning tires and trash cans to close off several roads. The police response effectively shut down the capital city on Friday.
Museveni has accused the opposition and its supporters of causing political violence. “Unprincipled politicians are taking advantage of our unemployed youth to lure them into riots and demonstrations,” he recently charged.
After the arrest of the lawmakers accused of involvement with the attack on his limo, he issued a statement warning that “a lot of people would have been killed by this Bobi Wine group” without a police crackdown on protests, because “they had gathered stones, knives, and there were reports of even guns.”
A group of musicians and political figures from around the world responded to Museveni’s accusations with a letter condemning Wine’s arrest and the “vicious, life-threatening physical attack by Ugandan government forces” upon him, along with the killing of his driver and the assault on other members of parliament. The group called for his immediate release and medical treatment.
The situation in Uganda is especially difficult for U.S. and European policymakers because Museveni, despite his many flaws, has received extensive support as a bulwark against Islamist ideology. The Ugandan strongman frequently appeals for financial and political support from the United States and its allies on this basis. His detractors say he has become highly adept at exploiting his relationship with America and conning successive administrations into supporting a brutal dictator.
For example, Museveni was quick to support President Donald Trump when the president allegedly referred to some Third World nations as “s**thole countries” in January.
“America has got one of the best presidents ever. Mr. Trump. I love Trump,” Museveni said. “I love Trump because he talks to Africans frankly. I don’t know if he’s misquoted or whatever, but when he speaks I like him because he speaks frankly.”