Africa youth boom on display as Uganda leader faces pop star

President Yoweri Museveni. (File, AFP)
President Yoweri Museveni. (File, AFP)

Call it a struggle for the soul of the ghetto.

Uganda's longtime president this month went on a whirlwind tour of some of the capital's poorest slums, handing out checks totaling over a quarter-million dollars.

The next day, residents turned up in the red colors of the opposition and instead gave thanks to President Yoweri Museveni's newest and biggest challenger, a crusading pop star and rookie lawmaker who styles himself as the "ghetto president."

The 36-year-old singer who performs as Bobi Wine is going toe-to-toe with one of Africa's longest-serving presidents, inspiring young people across the continent who are fed up with aging leaders they say are out of touch.

While Africa faces a youth boom in the decades ahead, with the population expected to double by 2050, Uganda is a dramatic example of the tensions to come. More than 75% of Ugandans are under age 30, according to government statistics. Called "Museveni babies," they've known no other president and fear they won't know another for a decade or more.

Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, returned on Thursday from the United States following treatment for injuries suffered during alleged torture by members of Uganda's presidential guard. It was sparked by his arrest over August clashes in which the president's motorcade was pelted with stones. The government denies the torture allegation and has charged the singer with treason, which he denies.

"We must get our freedom or we shall die trying," Ssentamu told reporters on Thursday after greeting a cheering crowd on his arrival with a raised fist. He plans a national address on Saturday.

By returning home instead of choosing exile, the singer has increased the pressure on the 74-year-old Museveni, who for the first time in years is not attending the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders next week. Ugandan authorities say the president has more urgent matters.

The clashes in which Ssentamu's driver was shot dead and five other lawmakers were arrested and allegedly tortured have exposed Museveni, a key US security ally whose country is a top recipient of US aid, to rare international criticism.

The European Union parliament urged Ugandan authorities "to stop the crackdown against opposition politicians and supporters." Five US senators on the Foreign Relations Committee said they were "gravely concerned about the continued deterioration of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in Uganda." Dozens of global musicians have condemned the singer's treatment.

Uganda's government in response has accused outsiders of meddling in its affairs.

Opposition leaders find it increasingly hard to organise in Uganda. Four-time presidential challenger Kizza Besigye has been detained hundreds of times.

As a fresh-faced activist with widespread appeal, Ssentamu may pose a more serious threat.

The singer was a small child when Museveni took power by force in 1986, and like many he grew up in a Kampala slum.

The crowded slums are magnets for impoverished strivers who arrive daily from villages and hustle to get by, selling everything from burglar-proof bars to street snacks. They have rallied to Ssentamu's cry that Uganda's youth must take over after years of alleged misrule in a country with per capita income of just $604, according to the World Bank.

"People Power is you, People Power is me, People Power is all of us," he said recently.

When he was arrested, slum residents burned tires in protest.

Ssentamu's voice has grown after he won a parliamentary seat last year without the backing of a political party. He quickly tapped into growing discontent when he unsuccessfully opposed the removal of a clause in the constitution that prevented anyone over 75 from holding the presidency.

Museveni is now eligible to run again when his current term ends in 2021 and could rule until the 2030s.

Wary of Ssentamu's appeal, the president warned youth about being lured into rioting by opposition leaders. He once again said youth should be grateful for progress made under his rule. Then he went to the slums to hand out money.

The donations were a "symbolic" token of Museveni's goodwill and have "nothing to do with prevailing politics," presidential spokesperson Don Wanyama told The Associated Press. The president has long made similar donations elsewhere, he said.

Some residents disagreed.

"That Museveni, we will eat his money. But he will lose against Bobi Wine," said Issa Mugerwa, a jobless 32-year-old.

Museveni remains popular in much of the Ugandan countryside, where food is relatively plentiful and older people acknowledge the relative peace and security under his rule. But in urban areas he faces scorn for his hours-long speeches and folksy admonishments on Twitter.

"Many wives can be a problem," the president tweeted last month. On another day he mused: "I am a cattle keeper. If the cows do not bring calves then I worry. It is the same with the human beings, if they don't bring forth children then I get worried."

Museveni has gained the nickname Bosiko, after a clumsy bike-riding character in a popular television ad.

"He lives in the past," said Livingstone Sewanyana, a lawyer who runs the Kampala-based civic group Foundation for Human Rights Initiative. "His messages don't resonate with the present. The reality is that the people are poor, the people are unemployed, the people live in fear. He never speaks to that reality."

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