Author, playwright, and poet Wole Soyinka has long been forthright about African democracy, especially in his home country Nigeria. He has spoken up against military juntas and civilian autocrats alike, showcasing the eloquence you’d expect from Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature, an honor he received in 1986.
While Soyinka is often critical of Africa’s leaders, it’s in support of strengthening democracy itself. The 86-year-old—whose first novel in 48 years publishes in September—says that mission is why he’s throwing his voice behind Bobi Wine in Uganda, whose opposition challenge against the 34-year rule of president Yoweri Museveni, 76, will yield one of the most closely watched elections on the continent. Ugandans go to the polls on Jan. 14.
Robert Kyagulanyi, a.k.a Bobi Wine, is the Ugandan pop star turned elected member of parliament who is now a thorn in Museveni’s side as the leader of an opposition challenge buoyed by millions of young Ugandans.
“Bobi Wine, for me right now, represents the face of democracy for Uganda,” says Soyinka, speaking from Lagos.
Perhaps the surest sign Bobi Wine may be a credible threat to Museveni’s rule is how brutally the administration has dealt with the 38-year-old politician and his supporters. In November, more than 50 people were killed after opposition supporters protested the arrest of Bobi Wine and another opposition leader.
Soyinka says he has been watching Bobi Wine, whom he met in Nigeria in October 2019, for awhile now. “Even before [we met], I’d taken an interest in his movement, his candidature, and his passion. And I share it; I share every bit of it,” he says. Despite being an octogenarian himself, the professor says he’s “fed up” with Africa’s leadership of “sick old men.”
Museveni, who is Africa’s third longest ruling leader, has claimed victory in five elections since 1996. It’s estimated that some 80% of Uganda’s population of 43 million was born after he first came to power in 1986.
Soyinka’s history with Uganda dates back to the 1970s, when he joined protests against the tyrannical rule of then president Idi Amin. Indeed, Museveni first came to prominence also by opposing Amin’s rule, but as a young, military rebel leader.
“We just have to ask Museveni to stop terrorizing Ugandan people, to stop behaving even worse than Idi Amin against who we all rose,” says Soyinka. “I met Museveni during the fight against Sani Abacha [former Nigerian military dictator]. At the time we met it was still possible to consider him a democratic leader. Today he’s joined the gang—the enemies of society.”
Soyinka, like other prominent opposition figures, is speaking up on Bobi Wine’s behalf in part to raise awareness of his own numerous arrests by government forces. At one point in 2018, Soyinka and others feared he would be kept in prison indefinitely after photos emerged of his injuries
There is another link between Bobi Wine and Soyinka: Fela Kuti, the late Nigerian Afrobeat legend, who was a first cousin of Soyinka. Bobi Wine first met Soyinka in Lagos at the annual Felabration event, organized by the Kuti family. One of Bobi Wine’s influential international supporters is Rikki Stein, who managed Fela in the 1980s. Fela, who died in 1997 and is best known for his activist music, also formed a political party of his own in 1979, though it was never approved by Nigerian authorities.
Soyinka doesn’t make a direct Fela Kuti comparison with Bobi Wine, and argues that realizing democracy in African countries is the most important goal, whether you’re a former soccer star “like George Weah in Liberia” or a “B-movie Hollywood actor like Ronald Reagan” in the US.
“Whoever champions the principle of democracy, I back the individual,” he says. “Whoever opposes it, especially in a brutal way that doesn’t even think of the future, that degrades the humanity on behalf of whom such a political principle is being expressed…that person for me is an enemy of humanity, not just of society.”
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