‘Bobi Wine: The People’s President’ powerful exploration of Ugandan democracy and resistance
Bobi Wine on top of a vehicle during the 2021 presidential campaigns as he solicited for support in Nakaseke, Central Uganda, on Nov. 18, 2020. | Photo credit: Lookman Kampala

The powerful new documentary Bobi Wine: The People’s President uses former pop star turned politician Bobi Wine as a means to showcase the fight for democracy in the African country of Uganda. It is through his struggle for some semblance of a free and fair election in his home country that viewers are treated to a deeper understanding of what the people of Uganda are currently going through—and the connection it has to everyone around the world.

A warning: The film isn’t an easy watch, as moments of unrelenting brutality and violence are interwoven through glimmers of hope and resilience. Yet, it is necessary viewing, as the subject matter it covers is relevant not only for the people of Uganda but for those in every country where there is a threat of authoritarian maneuvers to stifle freedom.

Filmmakers Moses Bwayo and Christopher Sharp follow the influential political figure Bobi Wine—born Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu—from his time as a renowned musician to his foray into the political scene of Uganda. Wine was born in what is known as the slums of Kampala, and he would use his eventual success as a music artist to become a member of the Ugandan parliament. There he would eventually become an opposition leader, standing against the oppressive regime led by current President Yoweri Museveni.

The majority of the film follows Wine and his supporters challenging Museveni’s decades-long presidency. They first do this by campaigning against Museveni’s attempt to change the country’s constitutional presidential age limits, and eventually in the so-called “scientific” general elections of 2021, where Wine would challenge Museveni for the presidency. Throughout, we are not only treated to Wine’s unrelenting hope for a better Uganda but also that of his wife and partner Barbie, their children, and the many activists around him and his family.

In order to understand the stakes of the film, it’s important to put into perspective what’s currently happening politically in Uganda. Museveni has been in power since 1986. His regime has been described by scholars as authoritarian and autocratic—essentially a system governed by one person in power. In the numerous elections held since Museveni has taken office, there have been accusations of voter suppression and a lack of transparency when it comes to the results—all of which have coincidently seen Museveni as the victor.

In 2017, Museveni signed the 2018 Age Limit Bill into law, which effectively removed presidential age limit caps. Prior to this, people above 75 and those below 35 years of age were not allowed to run for president. The passing of the 2018 bill was convenient for Museveni, as he was reaching the age limit—he’s currently 78—thus allowing him to continue staking a claim on the highest political seat in the country. This was despite the many protests of thousands in Uganda who opposed the constitutional change, Bobi Wine amongst them.

Museveni’s regime is marked by extreme violence on the part of the police and military against those who speak out against his authority. It is also a government that has led the way in legislation endangering the lives of those belonging to the LGBTQ community. In May of this year, Uganda’s parliament passed one of the world’s strictest anti-LGBTQ bills. The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 includes long jail terms and the death penalty for those caught engaging in “aggravated homosexuality” and other so-called offenses. Museveni has gone on record saying that homosexuality is a “danger to the procreation of [the] human race.” He has also expressed the opinion that Western nations are “trying to impose their practices [of LGBTQ acceptance] on other people.”

What we witness in the documentary is that Museveni’s oppressive sentiments are not limited to only those in the LGBTQ community, but anyone whom he deems as being against his values and government. This is what Wine, Barbie, and their supporters are up against, and the fight is a raw and emotionally taxing one.

Unlike a polished Hollywood movie steeped in fiction, there is no neat bow to tie up the story in Bobi Wine. The resistance fighter uses his music to denounce the dictatorial regime and support his life mission to defend the oppressed and the voiceless people of Uganda. This means taking on the country’s police and military, which are not afraid to use violence and torture to intimidate and silence him and his supporters. As you watch, you want Wine to emerge victorious in the clearly rigged election, but you know it isn’t meant to be.

The filmmakers make it clear that this fight for democracy goes beyond Wine. His music and courage to be the face of the resistance have inspired a nation of primarily young people to get involved and speak up. It is important to note that Uganda has the second youngest population in the world. More than three-quarters (78%) of its citizens are under the age of 35. This youthful population is projected to double in the next 25 years. This is also noted in the film, as many of the young people identify with Wine’s music. They see themselves more in the young Wine than the older and authoritarian Museveni.

The scenes of Wine standing on top of cars as a sea of supporters surround him are powerful—not so much because of it happening to Wine, but more so because we see people brave enough to publicly support someone opposing a regime known to arrest and abduct detractors. This is also something touched on in the film, as demonstrators are arrested, abducted, and in some cases shot dead on the streets of Uganda.

Yet, still, the crowds come out. Not simply for Wine, but for the ideas of democracy and liberation they believe he embodies. This is what is important to focus on, as one can get lost in the heavy moments of violence scattered throughout the documentary. The film is heavy, but it is far from depressing. It is also not an issue isolated to Uganda alone.

Bobi Wine in a police arrest van after he was arrested in Luuka district, Eastern Uganda. Nov. 18, 2020. | Photo credit: Lookman Kampala

Uganda may have passed some of the strictest anti-LGBTQ legislation, but it is not the only country where such laws exist or could soon pass. According to GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, more than 500 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation have been introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. this year. Also, just as the Uganda state seemingly wishes to do away with free and just elections, right here in the U.S. we also face a number of political figures who never hesitate to employ voter suppression tactics in order to control the outcome of future elections.

It can be easy to look at documentaries that focus on affairs in countries outside your own and feel removed. Yet, the issues presented in Bobi Wine do not exist in a vacuum.

This is especially true when one realizes that the United States government invests nearly $1 billion annually in aid to Uganda. Much of this funding no doubt ends up in the hands of Museveni and his backers. On a recent panel after a screening of the film, Wine noted this investment and expressed his wish that people in the U.S. would help by speaking out and questioning where their money goes. “Watch this [film], watch the suffering of the people in Uganda,” he urged. “The American taxpayers are paying for our oppression; don’t sponsor our oppressors.”

This sentiment drives home the power of storytelling and just how influential it can be in changing public sentiment and involvement. The documentary has intimate moments that help us understand the psyche of people willing to risk their lives for what they believe will be a better world. It also treats viewers to the larger-than-life spirit of the thousands of people in Uganda who have dared to demand true democracy.

Many outside of Uganda may not usually pay as close attention to the events happening there, but this film aims to change that. It’s definitely a must-watch.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President is currently playing in select theaters. Ticket information can be found here.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.