An unlikely Ugandan hero emerges

An unlikely Ugandan hero emerges
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History is replete with stirring examples of great leaders who emerged when their nations needed them most. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and others were individuals whose service to their countries almost invariably involved a level of sacrifice that gave powerful reality to the phrase, “The last full measure of devotion.”

In September, I had the opportunity to meet in Washington with Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine. An improbable Ugandan hero, Wine one day may be recognized as a great leader of his nation and someone who answered history’s call. Wine is an Afropop star who made the dangerous but important decision to enter politics. Elected to the Ugandan Parliament in 2016, he has emerged as the unifying force rallying opposition to the increasingly corrupt and violent rule of Yoweri Museveni.


When President Museveni came to power in 1986, there was great hope that he might represent a new and more principled generation of African leaders. Sadly, despite early optimism about his leadership, those hopes proved unfounded. As Museveni’s rule over Uganda has extended into a fourth decade, his legacy for corruption and brutality has come to echo that of his notorious predecessor, Idi Amin. The fear and paranoia he recently exhibited toward those who oppose him are evidence that he knows the tide of justice is moving forward.

Bobi Wine and other courageous members of the opposition have been in the vanguard of this new wave of democracy and freedom, and the enthusiasm and support they have been receiving is notable. They have won significant by-election victories, and the youth of Uganda (77 percent of the total population is under age 30) in particular are responding to Wine’s blend of idealism, rock star energy, and profound personal empathy for the suffering of the Ugandan people.

Whereas politicians from Amin to Milton Obote to now Museveni have exploited the tribal and ethnic divisions of Uganda’s people, Bobi Wine seeks to build a spirit of shared nationhood and patriotism based on a genuine commitment to democracy and justice. Clearly Museveni believes Wine’s message of unity and reform poses a grave threat to his corrupt regime.

On Aug. 13, while campaigning for the opposition in Arua, Bobi Wine and four other members of Parliament were arrested and beaten by Museveni’s security forces. Over the succeeding days, Wine and 32 others were tortured while in custody and subsequently charged with treason. The incontrovertible evidence of the torture they endured was witnessed when Wine could not sit, stand or walk at his bail hearing on Aug. 27 and had to be carried down the steps.

Following enormous international outcry over the abuse of Bobi Wine, he was permitted to leave Uganda to receive medical treatment. When I met him in Washington, Wine was preparing to return to Uganda despite the very real risk that his well-being, and perhaps his life, could be in jeopardy. Upon his arrival, his fans were prohibited from greeting him and he was taken directly to his home via police escort. Despite these realities, I remain struck by Wine’s quiet courage, his steely determination, and his willingness to sacrifice for a cause larger than himself.

Bobi Wine laments in his well-known anthem, “Freedom”: “See our leaders become misleaders, and see our mentors become tormentors, freedom fighters become dictators. ... Like Martin Luther King said, ‘In the end we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’”

It is time for those of us who share his commitment to freedom and justice to not only stand with Bobi Wine, but to sing with him as well.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett serves as president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice. She has taught at Tufts University and the University of Southern Denmark, served as director of the graduate program in public policy at New England College, and worked for then-Sen. Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE as deputy counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Criminal Justice Subcommittee.