In Uganda, a pop star takes on a president, at his peril

In his red beret and jumpsuit the Ugandan pop star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known as Bobi Wine, leads cheering campaigners down a street, punching the air and waving the national flag.

That image has defined the unlikely new political phenomenon - and possibly now put him in danger as an opposition figure taking on one of Africa's longest-serving leaders.

Once considered a marijuana-loving crooner, the 36-year-old "ghetto child" is a new member of parliament who urges his countrymen to stand up against what he calls a failing government. He has protested against an unpopular social media tax and against a controversial change to the constitution removing presidential age limits.

Despite murmurs about his wild past and inexperience in politics, his approach appears to be working: All of the candidates he has backed in strongly contested legislative by-elections this year have emerged victorious.

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But after clashes this week led to a smashed window in President Yoweri Museveni's convoy and Ssentamu's own driver shot dead, some of the singer's supporters now wonder if they'll ever see him again.

The brash young lawmaker was charged on Thursday in a military court with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition for his alleged role in Monday's clashes in the northwestern town of Arua, where both he and Museveni had been campaigning.

As the president's convoy left a rally, authorities say, a group associated with Ssentamu and the candidate he supported, Kassiano Wadri, pelted it with stones.

Ssentamu quickly posted on Twitter a photo of his dead driver slumped in a car seat, blaming police "thinking they've shot at me." Then he was arrested, and he hasn't been seen in public since.

His lawyer, Medard Sseggona, told reporters after Thursday's closed-door hearing that his client had been so "brutalised he cannot walk, he cannot stand, he can only sit with difficulty ... It is hard to say whether he understands this and that."

Critics have said Uganda's government might find it easier to get the verdict it wants in a military court, where independent observers often have limited access. Ssentamu's wife, Barbara, told reporters he has never owned a gun and does not know how to handle one, reinforcing widespread concerns about trumped-up charges.

The case against Ssentamu has riveted this East African country that has rarely seen a politician of such charisma and drive. Beaten and bruised, often literally, Uganda's opposition politicians have largely retreated as the 74-year-old Museveni pursues an even longer stay in power.

While Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential challenger who has been jailed many times, appears to relax his protest movement, Ssentamu has been urging bold action. The young must take the place of the old in Uganda's leadership, he says.

His message resonates widely in a country where many educated young people cannot find employment, public hospitals often lack basic medicines and main roads are dangerously potholed.

Because traditional avenues of political agitation have largely been blocked by the government, the music and street spectacle of an entertainer with a political message offer hope to those who want change, said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, who teaches political history at Uganda's Makerere University.

"There is political frustration, there is political anger, and right now anyone can do. Even if it means following a comedian, we are going to follow a comedian," Ndebesa said. "Uganda is a political accident waiting to happen. A singer like Bobi Wine can put Uganda on fire."

Running against both the ruling party and the main opposition party under Besigye, Ssentamu won his parliament seat by a landslide last year after a campaign in which he presented himself as the voice of youth.

"It is good to imagine things, but it is better to work toward that imagination," he told the local broadcaster NBS afterwards while speaking about his presidential ambitions. "But it does not take only me. It takes all of us."

Not long after taking his parliament seat, Ssentamu was among a small group of lawmakers roughed up by security forces inside the chamber for their failed efforts to block legislation that opened the door for Museveni to possibly rule for life.

"You are either uninformed or you are a liar, a characteristic you so liberally apply to me," the president said to Ssentamu in a scathing letter published in local newspapers in October amid public debate over the law.

Museveni, who took power by force in 1986, is now able to rule into the 2030s. While his government is a key US security ally, notably in fighting Islamic extremists in Somalia, the security forces have long faced human rights groups' allegations of abuses.

The alleged harassment of Ssentamu, however, has only boosted his popularity and led to calls for a presidential run in 2021.

"Bobi Wine is now a phenomenon in the sense of the reaction of the state," said Asuman Bisiika, a Ugandan political analyst. "The only critical thing is how he responds to the brutality of the state. How does he respond after the physical impact of the state on his body? We are waiting."

A trial before a military court is likely to be drawn out over months and possibly years, impeding his political activities. His followers have expressed concern that this was the government's motive in locking him up.

In the poor suburb of Kamwokya in the capital, Kampala, where Ssentamu's musical journey started and where he is fondly recalled as "the ghetto president," some vow to fight until he is freed. On Thursday, protesters were quickly dispersed by police lobbing tear gas.

"For us, Bobi Wine is a good leader because he cares for the ordinary person and he is a truth teller," said John Bosco Ssegawa, standing in a street where tires had been burned. "And those people whose names I will not mention think he is wrong. No, they are wrong."