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The Credible Antagonist
Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Olajide Salawu

In a new documentary film on his life and politics, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu is in a Toyota SUV when the camera pans closely to his face revealing his lanky form even in his cardigan. His red beret — the veritable and allegorical element of his political struggle — hangs on his knee in the brief foreshadow. Along with other comrades of his political persuasion, they are gearing up for a campaign against one of Africa’s last dictators. Shortly after this scene,  Ssentamu asks if his comrades are ready for the outing in solidarity, and then a hymn follows. They all chorus their ache of their country’s political hostage and tempest but register their assurance of victory in the end. It is an overture that summarizes the intention of the film: to familiarize the audience with the massive energy Ssentamu has gained from his people.  We see him lead an entourage of motorcyclists through a market alley and standing high with his red beret as an unflagging radical raising his fist in struggle. However, we would soon learn that opposition comes at a price;  people are seen seeking safety in every corner as sporadic shootings heighten the tempo and pathos of the film. Ssentamu, known as Bobi Wine, his stage moniker as a musician, has become an African symbol of liberationism. And beyond his music, has been in the fierce field of Ugandan politics.  In the last decade, Wine’s personhood has edged out as a critic, ideologue, and a credible antagonist of Yoweri Museveni.

In this 2023 documentary, directors, Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp stage for their viewers, the disenchanting metonymic scene of an African country’s fledgling democracy and political malady. Produced by National Geographic and titled, Bobi Wine: The People’s President, the film is a record of personal and political dreams of Wine. For 1 hour and 45 minutes we witness the arc of Wine’s political ambition. He galvanized support from nooks and crannies of Uganda, becoming an MP and ultimately and daringly, contesting the presidential office. The People’s President is a testament of Wine’s mission to release Uganda “out of the dark night” of local colonialism, imperial grip, and “elite capture” to use Achille Mbembe and Olufemi Taiwo’s terms respectively. If anything is assured, he is a sworn enemy of the former revolutionary turned political captor, Musevenu. Born during Idi Amin’s military dictatorship of Uganda, Wine’s memory of politics in Uganda has been that of terror, absolute greed, and suppression of the press. And there is the decades-long autocracy led by bobbly-cheeked president, Yoweri Museveni, who has since ascending power holds the destiny of his country in his hand. For thirty-five years, Museveni has been the enduring face of Ugandan political tenure, and only in the same province as Cameroonian President Paul Biya. Wine in his socially conscious reggae, Rastafarian style music, and political manifesto has secured a nationwide acceptance from the masses with his social spirit that contradicts the politics of absolutism. He has remained a committed nightmare of Museveni, who has racketeered powers to himself and botched democratic processes by creating a police state. This is what Bwayo and Sharp  infers through their visual rhetoric of Wine’s life.   

The auteurs show us a kaleidoscopic view of Uganda after the film’s brief prologue. The view is an urban sprawl of Kampala settlements that attest to the struggling face of Ugandan economy and social plights of its people. As the lens descends on the rusty roofs that shield houses from the tropical sun of the East African region, Wine comes into view again. This time he is hailed. It is legible that Wine is the masses’ darling in terms of political hope. He is a “man of the people” not in Achebean terms. He has secured street credibility. He is seen vibing and freestyling with a kid in the hood, with his Jamaican badge so obvious on his chest. Barbara Kyagulanyi, his wife, describes Wine as having a “raggamuffin” personality – attesting to his deviancy. She also remarks, “if he decides to do something, nothing will stop him.” This resilience and tenacity will come full circle as the narration of Wine’s political life unfolds. In unpacking his dynamic personality, the documentary notes Wine is a caring father who likes to throw fist with his kids. Fondly called Taata by Shalom Namagembe, his daughter, Wine’s voice has become that of freedom for many who have used their life to witness power shuttle between two dictators: Amin and Museveni. He is a father to the masses. His politics of antagonism has relational power that identify with the sufferings of the urban and rural masses during his presidential campaign in a highly dubious election in 2021 which has been tagged funnily, “Scientific Election” as an attempt to technologize Ugandan electoral processes. For Wine, he prefers to sacrifice his life for the people of Uganda. He  wants his comrades and allies to carry forward if he eventually dies in his quest for Ugandan political liberation. One example of this commitment to common good was his agitation during the pandemic for equal distribution of palliative materials. He also produced a song that received rave attention globally in effort for public awareness and political consciousness through his party National Unity Platform.

 The pedigree of antagonist figures whose music is a testimony to power abuse in African “dark politics” can be traced to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who I have described a credible ancestor of Afrobeat elsewhere. In 1979, Fela established his political party against the practice of impunity and unstable political atmosphere in Nigeria. He described his party as the Movement of the People. MOP was an unapologetic step into Nigeria’s flawed political atmosphere since independence. Always in conflict with the state, Fela recognized the strength in his own personality, socialist-cum-Africanist pandering of his music, and the hope of leading Nigeria to a new future. While the enterprise did not end up as planned, Fela, like Wine, suffered the same fate in the hands of the Nigerian government. He was clobbered, and on one occasion his residence, Kalakuta Republic, was burned down by the government. While Wine’s home  hasn’t been burnt down, it is constantly policed and surveilled by the government.Museveni’s stay in power has created fatigue in Uganda’s politics, and continental wide discontent with the politics of dictatorship practiced by most African leaders. Once “a favorite revolutionary” of Wine himself, Bwayo and Sharp invite their viewers to the identity of violence that characterizes postcolonial politics. Museveni encapsulates what Alessandro Nai and Jürgen Maier have described in their new book as “dark politicians” wherein dark is a metaphor for “narcissism” and “psychopathy.” They are transgressive political figures who would use all means to secure their validity. In the case of Uganda and for Mustafa Kizza who was a former contestant of presidential election, he observed that Uganda is under the atmosphere of militocracy – a term that collapses the practice of democracy with totalitarian state. In 2017, Museveni removed the age barrier that would stop him from contesting the 2021 election, scoring 315 against the opposition in parliaments whose scorecard was marginally 62.  This put him on the road to life president as he could now contest for life since the age obstacle has been eliminated. Wine’s dissatisfaction with the fact that Museveni has now emplaced himself as a life president further concretized his interest in the presidential election. This interest generated a new momentum in already aggravated politics that would see Wine’s driver killed. Wine was assaulted physically, accused of treason and for possession of arms, and was then incarcerated. On his return with frail health from police custody, he would be taken to the United States for further examination and treatment. Wine used the opportunity of American media to turn global attention to the ongoing political saga in Uganda, and on his return from the States he relentlessly pursued his political aspiration despite the daily tribulations in the hands of police. As a matter of fact, when the office of his party was ransacked and signatures collected from zones and districts for his nomination were stolen, he was still resolute.  He still walked with his head up into the nomination room, and with great assurance that the future of the Ugandan people was safe in his hand. His friends, comrades, and allies were bent on securing the nomination. We would soon know why the influential theorist Achille Mbembe describes brutalism as a “feature” of the postcolony in his new book, as the film climbs up to the peak of 2021 election’s action. Wine will eventually lose owing to rigging, oppression, and monumental shambles that would return Museveni to power.

 Antagonism involves risking lives, and both Bwayo and Sharp devise different cinematic strategies and technologies to provide evidence beyond the re-enactment of scenes that documentary sometimes involve. Submitted phone footages were inserted into the narrative to capture aspects of life and times during the violent electioneering and campaign in Uganda. Many of these include  clipped scenes of casualties who were shot and are being transported to safe places. Other cinematic frames include casualties being rushed  into clinics for  gashes and wounds inflicted by gun-toting soldiers . Supplementary media archives are also visual evidence that the directors use in bringing to notice Museveni’s personality. One clear example of this is his interview with Al Jazeera where he flippantly dismissed Wine as a rabble rouser and blamed the victims of police harassment. In a previous video of his interview, he has also described Wine as a poster child of “Western elements,” and alleged that he is being used to disturb the peaceful atmosphere of Uganda. Stability concerns and the overwhelming tensions  the film attempts to portray is reflected through constant swinging of the camera, denoting that the film is recorded under an unstable environment. Equally, this draws the viewer's attention to the instability of everydayness under the present polity. It raises security concerns for a project of political testimony that Bwayo and Sharp attempt to tell through  The People’s President.

In 2018, human rights activist and poet, Stella Nyanzi published a poem on Facebook that mocked Museveni’s penchant for terror, fraudulence, and corruption in Uganda. Presently in exile, Nyanzi has been an unflinching critic of Museveni using Facebook to write poems and abrasive sexual humor to generate global consciousness on Ugandan politics.The film is not an overtly masculine image of Uganda’s political heroism, but references to other leading critics such as Nyanzi  could have generated dynamics and gender undercurrent of Uganda’s political struggle. Even then, it is obvious how network and collaborative steps that Wine has taken with other leading faces of Ugandan struggles.  They’ve collectively resisted the oppressive force of Museveni, crystallizing in his image as an antagonist of Uganda’s purported democrat, Muzeveni.

The politics of antagonism is a slippery one, and the film attempts to portray this. I return to Wine ’s regretful remark on Museveni , describing him as  his “favorite revolutionary.” Many, like Museveni, once a promising African leader, have become fallen heroes of antagonism. Museveni, another villain of Ugandan history, was on the positive side of history in the role he played in ousting former life president Idi Amin Dada from power. But he would later resurface as architect of oppression and debilitating Ugandan political economy. In Cameroon, Paul Biya has occupied power for more than three decades, and he was once a credible antagonist of African politics. In Zimbabwe before the death of Rober Mugabe, he was an anti-Western hero of African politics, but would lead the southern African country through the hard grip of power until he was enthroned. Still yet, the documentary provides a strong political warning that the future of Africa is in African hands. Ability to rise above the tide of poor and weak leadership will open the threshold of fortune and new fate. It will remove most African countries from their present beleaguered status. A true credible antagonist will avoid the pitfalls of the hero's past.

The above text was written by Olajide Salawu who is an Edmonton based Nigerian writer. His works have appeared at venues such as CBC, Literary Review of Canada, LitHub, The Republic and so on.