From House Arrest to the Oscars Circuit

Probably the only people at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last week who were out on bail were Bobi Wine, the Ugandan politician and musician, and his wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi. Their presence was seemingly the result of some rather cynical political calculations. Once the film about Wine’s Presidential campaign, “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” was nominated for an Oscar, in the Best Documentary Feature category, the government of the authoritarian Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, was apparently in a pickle: If the government prevented Wine from travelling, his absence during the pre-Oscars festivities—not to mention the ceremony itself—would highlight its tireless campaign of harassment, torture, and detention against him. The alternative, of allowing Wine and Kyagulanyi to travel to Los Angeles and other cities, including London (where the film was nominated for a BAFTA), must have seemed the lesser of two evils. One day, Wine and Kyagulanyi were under house arrest in their home in Kampala, with three of their children, not sure if Museveni would drag Wine off to prison again, and a few days later they were in the Hilton. “I would sleep on the street and go without food to get attention for what’s going on in Uganda,” Wine said the other day. “Instead, I’m achieving that by sleeping in a nice bed in a nice hotel in Los Angeles. It’s very strange.”

During their time in Los Angeles, Wine and Kyagulanyi kept up a hectic schedule of press interviews and the meet-and-greet parties that are standard Oscar campaign events, in addition to the luncheon, where Kyagulanyi was seated next to Cillian Murphy and took a selfie with Emma Stone. Wine, who was at a different table, didn’t recognize his seatmates. “I don’t get to watch contemporary films,” he explained, noting how much time he’s spent in and out of prison over the past few years. “But I’m sure my children would know them.” Wine is hardly resistant to popular culture. Since the early two-thousands, he has probably been one of Uganda’s biggest Afrobeat stars, with a flow of hit songs and millions of views on his YouTube channel. He could have continued being a big musical star and occasional actor, but, in 2017, he grew so dismayed by the government’s excesses and repression that he ran for Parliament as a reform candidate. He won easily. The next year, he was arrested on vague charges of firearms and ammunition possession, which he denied. He was held for a month and beaten while in custody. He became a favorite target of the seventy-nine-year-old Museveni, who has been President since 1986, and who has engineered the abolishment of Presidential term and age limits.

In 2019, Wine announced that he would run for President in the 2021 election, and the film, directed by Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo, both of whom were born in Uganda and grew up there, follows his campaign, during which Wine and hundreds of his supporters were arrested, his driver was shot dead, his bodyguard was killed. An Internet blackout was imposed during the election, and Wine, who was declared to have lost, questioned the result. (Museveni claimed victory and said that the election was “the most ‘cheating free’ election since 1962.”) Two years later, Museveni refused to renew an agreement to allow the United Nations human-rights office to operate in Uganda, so it closed its offices in the country amid what the Associated Press referred to as “concern over human rights violations including extrajudicial killings.” Wine credits his current state of being alive to the film. “The camera protected us,” Wine said. “It was our shield.” The film wasn’t officially released in Uganda, but it was made available for free on YouTube, which can be accessed there. Its protective aura isn’t permanent or impenetrable: Sharp lives in London, but Bwayo, who still lived in Uganda when the film was being made, received death threats before it came out, and he and his wife fled to Los Angeles (they are currently seeking asylum in the United States).

Wine’s forty-second birthday happened to fall during this week of Oscars mingling, so, after the nominees luncheon, Wine and Kyagulanyi took a break from Hollywood and headed to the suburb of Santa Clarita, where their friends Margaret and Kasibante Andrew Kayiira hosted a birthday party for him. The Kayiiras moved to California a few years ago, having left Uganda in 1987. That was the year that Kasibante’s father, a professor of criminal justice and the leader of the Uganda Freedom Movement, a guerrilla organization, was killed. At one point during the nineteen-eighties, the elder Kayiira and Museveni had fought side by side against the Ugandan government. But, eventually, Museveni consolidated his power and began to view the U.F.M. and other groups as a threat, and it is widely suspected that Kayiira’s killing was carried out by soldiers loyal to Museveni. (Reports at the time suggested that the killing was related to a robbery.) The Kayiiras’ bright, lovely kitchen was decorated with a large photograph of a lion, a medium-sized photograph of Big Ben, and a huge silk screen of Wine, who has a slim face with a chiselled chin and a steady, sleepy-eyed gaze. In the photograph, he is wearing the red beret of the National Unity Platform, the party he founded. “Bobi is our hope,” Kasibante Kayiira said. “He is so, so courageous.” Margaret was busy at the stove, frying yucca, which she then served with guacamole—a sort of Ugandan-Californian hybrid appetizer.

Other Ugandan friends began to trickle in. One of them, Mary Flavia Namulindwa, was reading a message on her phone with an anxious look on her face. She had sought asylum in the United States in 2020, when video of her at a Bobi Wine rally found its way to her boss at a government-owned television station, where she was a high-profile entertainment reporter. “I had to run for my life,” she told me. Now she was holding up her phone and looking stricken. “Adam is dead,” she announced to the group, and everyone gasped. Namulindwa explained that Adam Mulwana was an activist and musician who had performed with Wine and supported his campaign. Last year, Mulwana fell suddenly ill—he alleged that he’d been poisoned by a woman posing as a fan. (A Ugandan paper, The Monitor, reported that he died “after a long illness.”) Namulindwa co-hosts a show with Isaac Kawalya, another television reporter who left Uganda and is now seeking asylum, on a YouTube channel she started, called Diaspora Connect UG, and which is available to the thousands who have left Uganda to escape the dictatorship. “You either join Museveni, or you flee,” Kawalya told me.

We gathered around a buffet table loaded with platters of Ugandan specialties—matoke (mashed green bananas), chicken nut stew, braised beef, and rice with beef—and then found places in the living room in front of a huge television, which was tuned to Wine’s YouTube channel. Everyone sang along to most of his songs. “This makes me nostalgic,” Wine said, sighing. He explained that he has been banned from performing music in Uganda since 2018. “I miss the stage,” he said. “That’s my life.” Since the ban, he has played concerts in other countries, but in Uganda he has only been able to record audience-free performances for release online. He pointed to the video that was now playing on the screen: he and his band performing on a boat in the middle of Lake Victoria. Another video began, which showed Wine chatting with an older, bald man. Wine sat up and pointed angrily at the screen. “Do you see that old man? He joined the ruling party and would point out young people for them to abduct and torture. Young people, my supporters.” He shook his head hard and leaned back in his chair.

I asked him if he was ever tempted to leave Uganda. “Of course I am,” he said. “But I can’t. My conscience wouldn’t allow me. We need people to know our story.” He began opening his birthday presents—some Calvin Klein cologne, a new iPhone. “Oh, it is nice to be loved,” he said, appreciatively. He returned to the subject of leaving Uganda. “When I think of how many people have been tortured, or killed, or arrested for my campaign, I know I can’t leave. I can’t. I’m stuck!” He smiled. He isn’t sure what awaits him and Kyagulanyi when they return to Kampala and their children, after the Oscars. “We never, never know,” he said. “Sometimes, the military comes onto the plane I’m on when it lands, when it’s still on the tarmac, and they pull me off.” He is braced for the likelihood that, at the very least, they will be put back under house arrest. In the meantime, he said, “This is a brief vacation.” ♦

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