This feature is part of Blavity’s African Spotlight series which highlights heads of state, as well as other politicians and societal leaders, who are currently in power or influencing change on the continent. African leaders are making significant impact both in their own countries and internationally. Growing diasporas and increasing interconnectivity make developments on the continent more relevant to Black America and people everywhere than ever before.

Yoweri Museveni became President of Uganda in January of 1986 when his National Resistance Army seized power after a civil war. He now has a reputed challenger in Afrobeat artist Bobi Wine.

In January, Museveni will celebrate 35 years in power. That’s longer than 75% of Uganda's citizens have been alive.

In recent years, the 76-year-old Museveni, who’s been a rebel leader and one of the world’s longest-serving presidents, has added another unlikely item to his resume: hip-hop star. Ten years ago, during a re-election campaign, the then 65-year-old president released a song that became a surprise hit.

“U Want Another Rap?” is a sung/spoken rap song in a mix of English and Runyankore -- a language spoken by the Nkore people of southwestern Uganda -- and it's kind of catchy.

Museveni won that election with over two-thirds of the vote. He also used pop music to help him win his 2016 election. That time, he assembled an all-star group of Ugandan musicians to record “Tubonga Nawe Sevo,” which roughly translates to “We Are With You.” 

As Blavity previously reported, Kanye West, while working on a new album, visited Uganda in 2018 and gave Museveni a pair of Yeezys. Museveni, in turn, offered musical assistance, informing West, “I am also a rapper. If you want help on your album, I am always here to help.” Should Museveni ever decide to retire, he perhaps has a musical career to fall back on.

But retirement seems to be the last thing on Museveni’s mind, and his long rule has a dark side. Museveni was legally supposed to retire years ago, but pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2005 to get rid of presidential term limits, followed by another amendment in 2017 that eliminated the age limit of 75 for presidents.

Along the way, Museveni has also used shady methods to maintain his decades-long grip on power. The government banned political parties until 2005. Museveni’s own National Resistance Movement didn’t count as a party under the law and was allowed to operate freely. The government has often arrested, harassed and intimidated Museveni’s political opponents and even poets, as Blavity previously reported. A frequent target has been opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has run and lost against Museveni in the last four elections, dating back to 2001. Many videos exist online of Besigye being arrested, often roughly, by government forces.

In addition to intimidating his opposition, Museveni’s government has been accused of rigging elections. In that context, Museveni’s unexpected ventures in pop music can be seen, not so much as an older man trying to appeal to young voters, but as a president trying to soften his image as he holds onto power with an iron fist.

Ironically, however, these musical endeavors may have created the biggest challenge yet to Museveni’s rule. Besigye announced earlier this year that he will not run in Uganda’s next presidential election, scheduled for 2021. This decision was largely the result of being replaced as Museveni's lead opposition by a young rookie politician, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a popular musician known as Bobi Wine.

Wine, whose musical style is described by Rolling Stone magazine as “a sunny blend of Jamaican dancehall and a local Afrobeat style,” has long called himself the "Ghetto President.” His family has been involved in politics for years, sometimes being targeted with violence and arrest for their efforts. Wine's political turning point came in 2016 with the “Tubonga Nawe Sevo” song. According to Rolling Stone, Wine was one of the few major artists to turn down the government’s offer to appear on the record, reportedly rejecting a large sum of money being offered for the appearance.

Instead, Wine publicly beefed with Bebe Cool, one of the artists featured on the record. Wine also put out various songs, such as “Dembe” (“Peace”) and "Uganda Zukuka" (“Uganda Wake Up”), both critical of Musveni’s long rule.

In 2017, Wine decided to step into politics himself, running for parliament and winning against several other candidates, including the one backed by Museveni. He and his supporters started a political movement called People Power, which successfully got other candidates elected to office. Last June, Wine announced that he would run for president in 2021.

Wine is 38 years old, making him exactly half as old as Museveni and too young to remember anyone else as president. Challenging the long-time ruler of Uganda won’t be easy. Wine has seen his supporters attacked and even killed. Wine himself survived an attack that he said he sees as an assassination attempt. He has been arrested and tortured, and had to fly to the U.S. for medical treatment for his injuries.  

Criminal charges were filled against Wine last year for attempting to “alarm, annoy or ridicule” the president. This year, he was additionally charged with falsifying documents, as authorities allege that he claimed to be older than he really is in order to qualify for the parliamentary seat he won in 2017. Wine has rejected what he calls “trumped up” charges, and said he remains confident he can win in 2021. Just last month, People Power’s offices were raided and its campaign material was seized by police and military forces.

Even with these challenges, Wine has built a popular campaign. He took over an existing political party, the National Unity Party (NUP), to facilitate his campaign. After a legal fight over the party, Wine was recently declared its rightful presidential candidate. With a popular movement and now an official party backing him, Wine has traveled Uganda spreading a message of political change mixed with populist appeals that promise new jobs and revitalizing jobs.

The NUP recently published its manifesto, promising pay increases and economic support for teachers, security forces and farmers. This is a message that Wine tailors to individual communities. In the region of Busoga, for instance, Wine recently spoke to an enthusiastic crowd as he promised to revive the local sugarcane industry that had seen decline in recent years.

Museveni, meanwhile, has launched his own reelection campaign, which has been highlighting the president's age and "stamina" while criticizing his opponents as "young...but confused." The government has also been harassing Wine and his campaign. Earlier this month, after Wine was officially confirmed as a candidate in next year's election, police arrested him again, beating and pepper-spraying him in the process.

As an article in African Arguments pointed out, the Museveni government faces a dilemma. If the government eases its attempts to suppress Bobi Wine and People Power, the movement will continue to grow stronger ahead of the election. If the government cracks down too hard, however, it runs the risk of sparking a revolution. And Museveni, who himself came to power as the leader of a revolutionary movement, knows the risk of a group of people becoming fed up with the current authorities and taking control for themselves.

Uganda’s elections are scheduled for next February, so the next few months will determine whether the seat will remain held by the unlikely president turned hip-hop star or go to the even more unlikely Afrobeat artist turned politician.