NAJJANANKUMBI, UGANDA — A large music venue in this capital city suburb attracted crowds of music lovers in late 2018, all of whom gathered to see popular musician and opposition politician Bobi Wine.
But when they arrived, instead of a concert, they found heavy police presence. And on the signal of a police captain, the police began to turn people away.
The concert was scheduled for Dec. 26, but the local government put a stop to it 48 hours before it began.
“I organize for other artists the same way I organize for Bobi Wine, but I haven’t been stopped by the police,” says Juma Balunywa, the managing director of Balunywa Promotions. “They only stop me when I am organizing for Bobi Wine.”
Balunywa says he spent 47 million Ugandan shillings (about $12,800) to organize the Dec. 26 concert. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu and who has said publicly that he is considering running for president, hasn’t scheduled any performances since then.
Though frustrating to Balunywa and Wine’s many fans, it’s completely legal for the government to shut the concert down. Under the Public Order Management Act of 2013, organizers must alert police at least three days before any public gathering. The law also requires organizers to coordinate with police to ensure that the gathering occurs in an orderly fashion.
The law was enacted after Uganda’s 2011 election season, during which public protests led to multiple deaths and destruction of property.
But activists say the law is really only used to ensure that opposition groups aren’t able to gather together in a meaningful way.
Balunywa, who has organized events for Wine for eight years, says the concerts weren’t a problem until 2017, when the singer was elected to parliament to represent the Kyadondo East area. Since then, three of his concerts have been stopped by police, who cite the Public Order Management law. The last of those three canceled concerts was the one scheduled for Dec. 26.
Wine has been a popular musician since the late 1990s, but his songs began to take on political themes in the mid-2000s. In a country where publicly criticizing the government can be dangerous, Wine’s music gave courage to people who support opposition political movements.
Wine hasn’t emerged unscathed. He’s been arrested multiple times, including in 2018, when he says he was tortured before he was released from police custody.
Crispy Kaheru, executive director of Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy, says Uganda’s Public Order Management law is used to stifle public gatherings rather than ensure public order. The law requires only that event organizers alert police to upcoming gatherings, he adds, but organizers are actually expected to seek police approval.
“It is waved in front of whoever wants to hold public assembly,” he says.
Gerald Karuhanga, a lawyer and member of parliament, says the law’s drafters didn’t have good intentions.
“It was intended to curtail and control opposition,” Karuhanga says. “Stop political gatherings. Stop concerts.”
The law’s intent is to foil opposition leaders who want to organize legitimate meetings, he says.
But Robina Nabbanja, parliamentarian and member of the National Resistance Movement, the political party controlled by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, says the law has its merits.
She points to an incident in 2007 in which a person was killed during protests over management of Uganda’s forest land, a parcel of which is earmarked for a foreign-owned sugar company. That sort of “public nuisance” doesn’t happen anymore, she says.
“You can move freely without expecting demonstrators. We don’t have unlawful meetings anymore,” she says.
Plus, Nabbanja adds, she’s never been stopped from organizing a meeting. In fact, she says, the police are helpful in providing security.
“I am a crowd puller myself,” she says. “If you don’t have police, the public can be rowdy.”
Wine should follow the proper procedures, she adds.
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Edward Kaliisa says he’s still sore that he didn’t get to see Wine perform. He chalks the cancellation up to the singer’s popularity as an opposition politician.
“They are afraid of Bobi Wine and many others likely to oust Museveni and his men from power,” he says.