Last week, MTV officially announced that its 2021 Africa Music Awards, the MAMAs, would be held in Uganda on February 20. The event, which has been planned in coordination with Uganda’s tourism ministry, is being advertised alongside the hashtag #VisitUganda. If Uganda were free, it would be welcome news. But just as the MTV announcement was made, Uganda’s most popular politician, Hon Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, was under house arrest, having dared to challenge Uganda’s long-ruling dictator, Yoweri Museveni, in a recently concluded presidential election.
Most Ugandans believe that Bobi Wine was the clear winner of those elections, and that Museveni is once again forcefully imposing himself on Ugandans after 35 years in power. If allowed to stand, this will be Museveni’s sixth consecutive term in office. There is growing evidence that a large number of Ugandans may be prepared, this time round, to resist Museveni assumption of power, in spite of the obvious dangers posed to them by Museveni’s ruthless military forces, in particular the so-called Special Forces Command which takes its orders directly from Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kaneirugaba.
The election period itself was characterized by ballot stuffing; the invasion of polling stations by Museveni’s security forces; an army raid on Bobi’s National Unity Platform party headquarters; a total internet blackout both during the voting period and for more than three days thereafter; the illegal detention of Bobi’s campaign team; widespread arrests and the torture of hundreds of his supporters (and even the targeted murder of some); and the killing of at least 54 unarmed people in the streets. Many in this last group of victims had come out to peacefully demonstrate when Bobi was illegally detained during a campaign stop – others were innocent bystanders; one was just 15 years old. As of this Tuesday, Bobi’s house arrest has come to an end, but several hundred people, including his entire team, remain in prison, despite many of them having been granted bail.
Just as MTV began advertising its plans to host the Africa Music Awards in Uganda, Bobi and his wife, Barbie, were entering their tenth evening under house arrest. Armed soldiers stood surrounding their home, keeping them under arbitrary military detention – a violation of international law. Earlier in the week, they’d had run out of food, and for several days, despite condemnation from the international community and from ambassadors in the country, our de facto jailers had even blocked provisions from reaching them.
Before Bobi became a Member of Uganda’s Parliament in 2017, he was a successful musician, making a respectable living that allowed him to provide for his family. But since entering opposition politics, the regime has cancelled more than 150 of his concerts and banned his music on local radio and television. In order to perform, he had to travel abroad and seek opportunities outside of Uganda.
Over the years, many other Ugandan musicians have faced pressure not to criticize the regime, but instead to sing praise songs for Museveni. Those musicians who refuse to sing for the regime have been denied the right to perform and have had their shows cancelled by the police – often at the last minute, without reason, and in violation of Ugandan court judgements.
In 2018, at the conclusion of a successful by-election campaign for a colleague in parliament, Bobi was arrested and beaten along with four other members of parliament, and dozens of his supporters. After a week in detention, he and others emerged from police custody on crutches. During the police raid on the hotel where Bobi had been staying, his driver and good friend, Yasin Kawuma, was shot dead. He was sitting in the passenger seat of Bobi’s vehicle, and there is every reason to believe that Bobi was the intended target.
Over the past several decades Museveni has been responsible for untold misery, including the muzzling of free speech and the violent abuse of basic human rights in Uganda. This brutal regime, of which Bobi has been a routine target, is also responsible for the theft from public funds, including aid programs, of billions of dollars; the rigging of successive elections; interfering militarily in neighboring countries without cause; massacres of civilians, including small children; and the trafficking in illegal wildlife products including elephant tusks and pangolin scales – while also cynically using wildlife conservation as a pretext to steal land from some of Uganda’s most vulnerable citizens.
About 18 months ago, some people in the Ugandan activist community learned of MTV’s decision to hold the Africa Music Awards in Uganda. They wrote to over a dozen MTV and Viacom executives, requesting that they find another venue, and explained why, including some of the reasons cited above. They received no response.
Now that the Museveni regime’s brutal conduct during the recently concluded election period has been widely covered in the international media, those same executives cannot claim ignorance. How can they now contemplate, albeit virtually, bringing the best of Africa’s musical talent to participate in a global awards ceremony taking place in Uganda at this time? By doing so MTV would not only be lending itself to whitewashing the regime’s crimes, but also implicate all nominated artists. How can MTV and Viacom executives, who claim to be supportive of Black Lives Matter, now look the other way when those lives are African?
Dr Vincent Magombe
Ugandan Journalist and Broadcaster