Kampala, Uganda — Clashes between police and protesters furious over the arrest of Ugandan opposition presidential hopeful and musician Bobi Wine have left dozens dead and hundreds under arrest, police said Friday. It's the country's worst unrest in a decade, and more is expected ahead of the election in January, in which Wine has emerged as a potent challenger to the country's long-time president.
The Reuters news agency quoted police spokesman Fred Enanga as saying Friday that 28 people had died and 577 were detained after some protesters engaged in violence, including purported attacks on members of the public who don't support Wine's National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
"What we have seen in the last few days, that is violence, vandalism, looting, intimidation and threats, are crimes that were being committed (against) people who are not pro-NUP," Enanga claimed, according to Reuters. "This is not something that we can tolerate."
The protests broke out on Wednesday after police arrested Wine, who was expected to appear in court Friday for arraignment, in the eastern town of Iganga. Police accuse him of flouting COVID-19 guidelines that require presidential candidates to address less than 200 people.
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, has been arrested many times in recent years. He has captured the imagination of many Ugandans, particularly younger generations, and Africans from across the continent with his persistent calls for President Yoweri Museveni to retire after 36 years of authoritarian rule.
Despite significant natural resources, Uganda remains one of the world's poorest nations, with millions of people surviving on less than a dollar per day. The conditions have fueled a rise in opposition to Museveni, who seized power in the late 1980s after leading rebellions against dictators who ran the country in the wake of British colonial rule.
Last year, Wine's allies accused Museveni of spending $126 million of government funds on a Chinese facial-recognition system — ostensibly to prevent crime in Kampala — in a "politically motivated" bid to monitor protests and track opposition leaders.
"They are not doing this for security. The focus for them is hunting down political opponents," Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesman for Wine, said last year.
Wine has long used his music as a vehicle for his message. His latest music video, released just a month ago as he eyed the presidency, is for a song recorded with Jamaican reggae superstar Buju Banton, titled "Bullet or Ballot."
It starts with a brief excerpt of a Nelson Mandela speech in which the late South African freedom fighter says, "there is no easy road to freedom," before paying tribute to various icons of African nations' fight for democracy in the wake of colonialism.
The video, which has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube, relies heavily on video of recent anti-government protests around Kampala, the police's response to those demonstrations, including clips of Wine himself being manhandled by officers, and images of Museveni, whom the artists label an "oppressor."
His arrest on Wednesday triggered protests in the capital and elsewhere across the country, which has a population of about 42 million. Protesters have set fires on roads and used other means to block traffic, demanding Wine's release.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Security Minister Gen. Elly Tumwine hinted that a crackdown by security personnel could be imminent.
"This was a deliberate and pre-planned move to cause chaos because we have evidence," Tumwine asserted of the protests. "But I want to warn those inciting violence that they will reap what they sow."