Ugandan presidential challenger Bobi Wine campaigns in a flak jacket

Uganda’s main opposition candidate in next week’s presidential election has swapped his trademark red beret for a helmet and starts each day with shadow-boxing and a prayer to survive a campaign trail he describes as a war zone.

Popstar-turned-lawmaker Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, who goes by the name Bobi Wine, is the frontrunner among 10 candidates challenging Yoweri Museveni, who is seeking to extend his 34-year rule in the East African nation at the Jan. 14 vote. While former guerrilla fighter Museveni, 76, has long been seen as a stabilising force in Uganda after the brutal reigns of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, opponents say his administration has become riddled with corruption and nepotism.

“Museveni is a different generation. He is a representative of history. I am a representative of the future,” Wine, 38, told Reuters at his home, a sprawling compound in Magere, a suburb on the northern outskirts of the capital Kampala. Previous presidential election campaigns have been marked by the intimidation of opposition candidates though analysts say crackdowns by the security forces have been more brutal and widespread this time around.

Wine’s energy, music and humble origins have struck a chord with Uganda’s many young people, unnerving the ruling party and leading to repeated arrests of Wine and his loyalists for allegedly threatening public order. “I am in this struggle to liberate Uganda,” he told Reuters. “Before that is accomplished I don’t care how many times I am arrested, harassed, beaten, tear gassed or pepper sprayed.”

If elected, Wine said he would create jobs for the youth and crack down on corruption that he says has left schools and hospitals crumbling in the country of 46 million people. Uganda has one of Africa’s youngest populations with nearly 80% under 30 years old, government data shows. The government estimates four out of six young Ugandans are unemployed and 80% of those working are in informal jobs with low pay.

Museveni’s office did not respond to a Reuters request for an interview. His spokesman referred requests for comment on allegations of corruption and nepotism to the ruling National Resistance Movement party, which did not respond. Museveni has previously said there was a corruption problem but he was fighting it. He has denied accusations of nepotism.

‘WAR ZONE’ Under Museveni, Uganda has been a staunch Western ally and it provides the biggest contingent of the African Union force fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia. Uganda found major oil reserves over a decade ago but has yet to produce any crude and it relies on foreign aid for a quarter of its budget.

Last month, the government banned election rallies saying they could spread COVID-19 but Wine and other candidates argue that has prevented a free and fair election because government allies control most of the media outlets. Electoral Commission spokesman Paul Bukenya told Reuters rallies could become coronavirus superspreader events and candidates had many ways to disseminate their messages including flyers, banners, billboards, brochures and social media.

Wine, a slim but sturdy figure, grew up in a Kampala slum, the 20th child in a polygamous family of 33 children. He said his music – and his politics – was inspired by the struggles his mother faced as she hawked street food to educate and feed her children.

Wine’s musical career took off in the early 2000s with songs decrying urban poverty and political oppression, backed by catchy, feel-good beats. In 2017, he won a parliamentary by-election as an independent by a landslide and then last year he became leader of the opposition National Unity Platform party. He has been detained multiple times since entering politics, including on the day he filed his nomination papers, and has taken to wearing a bullet-proof vest, as well as his helmet.

“If I didn’t have it I don’t know what would have happened to me. Every one, six people whom I move with in the car, have all been hit,” Wine said. “(It’s) more or less a war zone.” Wine says he has been targeted with tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Police say his campaign is breaking laws governing public order and COVID-19 restrictions.

At least 54 people died in protests that erupted when Wine was detained in one incident in November. In another, an injured protester died in his campaign ambulance after police blocked its path, Wine said. “Some days you start eating tear gas as early as seven in the morning. Others you start much later. You start a day with 20 people and by the end of the day half of them are in prison.”

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by David Clarke)

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