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Field Recording: We Are Removing a Dictator

By Moses Bwayo

Moses Bwayo and his wife Nulu Bwayo posing together in front of a house and garden

Moses Bwayo and Nulu. Courtesy of the author

What would life be like in America? By the time we fled Uganda, there had been two attempted kidnappings of my wife, Nulu. I had been shot in the face at close range while filming, arrested, thrown in a crammed police cell, and denied access to a lawyer. A week after my arrest, I was produced in court, charged with unlawful assembly, and sent to Luzira prisons. My lawyer had tried to visit me while I was in police custody. Still, he was ordered to leave the police station at gunpoint after being assaulted, kicked, and beaten; Nulu narrated this ordeal to me after I was released from custody.

Bobi Wine: The People’s President (2022) is an observational documentary that took us five years to film, amassing about 4,000 hours of footage, including archival footage. We follow the main protagonists, Bobi Wine and his wife, Barbie, on a dangerous journey to bring democratic change in Uganda. This film has been a deep labor of love, and through excellent collaboration with incredibly talented filmmakers, we managed to bring it to the world. My co-director and producer, Christopher Sharp, decided to make this film after meeting Bobi and Barbie in Europe. He then traveled to Uganda to assemble a crew to start filming. I was hired as a third camera operator on the project and quickly became the only camera operator following Bobi; it had become dangerous, forcing the other crew members to leave the country. Christopher and I were born and raised in Uganda and are deeply connected to Uganda and its people. We know what our home could be if it is well managed.

We wanted to tell this honest story in a contained way. That’s why we focused on Bobi and Barbie, through whom we could tell the broader story of the nation. We couldn’t have done this any other way; I was mainly on the ground in Uganda collecting the material as Christopher was in the edit. This collaboration enabled us to protect the footage since I had to send it outside the country every few days. After following Bobi for two years, we were introduced to our producer, John Battsek. John helped us assemble a post-production team and was heavily involved in the edit to bring this story to life.

Making this film has been a great sacrifice, as my wife and I have had to flee from our home in Uganda to now seek political asylum in the United States. The United States has offered us a second chance to live again. We are forever indebted to this country and its people for welcoming us. The stakes have been extremely high while telling this story. However, to be a vehicle of change or part of a vehicle of change, you must put yourself in challenging, sometimes life-changing situations. I believe cinema can change the world; I hope this story will bring some change back home. This story is significant not only to Uganda and Africa but is a universal story that resonates with current world issues today.

March 2020: I was arrested while filming a scene for the documentary; in the scene, Bobi was being filmed at a rooftop bar in Nsambya, a Kampala suburb, for a music video for a song he had just released. Bobi had just released a song, titled “Ballot or Bullet,” about the upcoming election. By this point, I had followed Bobi Wine for about two years as he led the fight for social justice, constitutionalism, and a return to democracy from Museveni’s dictatorial regime, which has been in power since 1986.

March 2022: My wife Nulu and I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on a sunny afternoon. We were anxious. Nulu was seven months pregnant, and I have heard that sometimes, even after arriving in the U.S., you could be denied entry and put back on a plane. We were fleeing a dictator whose regime wanted us dead. But there was relief as we deplaned and walked through the airport to immigration. I had been singled out as we went through security and left Uganda. The man asked me where we were going and for what purpose. I told him we were going on a honeymoon. They opened my carry-on bag and combed it. A mustached man in a suit filmed the whole thing. I remained calm; I had nothing illegal, and there should be no reason for this. I was eventually allowed through. While we waited in the boarding area, I was anxious about being called out over the loudspeaker. I was also nostalgic while we sat waiting to board; I had many feelings simultaneously. As the plane left the tarmac at Entebbe airport that evening, I looked out the window; the lights below faded as the aircraft climbed away from the runway. I wondered how long it would take to see Uganda again, the family we were leaving behind. It was hard, not knowing what lay ahead.

March 2020: Following my arrest and consequent detention, fellow journalists, filmmakers, and civil society in Uganda and around the world launched an online campaign demanding my release. As the pressure mounted, the foreign embassies in Uganda joined the campaign, with tweets and posts demanding my unconditional release and charges against me to be dropped. I was released after spending four days and three nights in Luzira prison. I felt like a new person coming out of jail, even though I had only spent four days in a crowded prison cell. It felt like a lifetime; I wondered how I, being a law-abiding citizen, had gotten myself into that place. However, I quickly corrected myself; it was not my fault but the system in place. What was intended to break my spirit further encouraged me to continue the film.

At that point, I knew why Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, had given up his comfortable life as a successful musician in Uganda and East Africa to lead the fight against the dictatorship. I saw firsthand why telling this story was urgent and essential. This story is of my dear country, Uganda, with a population of more than 45 million people, with over 75% under age 35; Uganda is the second youngest country in the world. The Ugandan people have not seen another president since 1986, when Museveni took power after leading a five-year-long, brutal guerrilla war that left half a million Ugandans dead. The war was majorly waged in the central region famously known as the Luwero Triangle, a densely populated area. Since independence from the British in 1962, Uganda has never had a peaceful power transfer. During the first 24 years, Uganda saw coups and military takeovers, some governments lasting only a few months, which culminated in the 1981–86 bush war led by rebel leader Yoweri Museveni.

On taking power in 1986, General Museveni promised a fundamental change and a return to democratic governance. The early years of his regime were successful, making him a darling to the West because of his progressive and democratic policies, like overseeing the adoption of Uganda’s fourth constitution in 1995, one of the best constitutions in the world at the time. His government seemed on the right path until 2005 when his political party (National Resistance Movement) introduced a constitutional amendment that would essentially remove presidential term limits, leading to an exodus of some close political allies, with many fleeing Uganda on falling out with the regime. The NRM successfully removed the presidential term limits from the constitution, and Museveni ran again after completing the stipulated two presidential terms. In 2017, as he neared 75, he removed his final barrier to a lifetime presidency, repealing the president’s constitutional age limit, despite vocal opposition in parliament led by Bobi Wine.

October 2017: When I first began filming Bobi, I asked myself, why him? In the film’s first act, Bobi says, “It is not because I’m the smartest or most knowledgeable; it is maybe because of the music that I have done that projected our plight, so when the people asked me to stand, I agreed.” For over five years, I followed Bobi Wine and saw firsthand his integrity and unwavering courage in leading the fight against authoritarianism. Some of his close political allies have sold out to the regime. Some have disappeared—to this day, we don’t know if they were murdered or are still incarcerated in unknown detention centers—and some to this day are still being kidnapped. I have seen supporters killed by the armed forces, and I have also witnessed the Ugandan population’s hope in Bobi and the NUP/People Power movement. I have heard Bobi insist on nonviolence—including telling his supporters to remain nonviolent even while being brutalized by the army and police. On multiple occasions, he has come out to condemn violence and preach peaceful means to change.

October 2023: Bobi made international headlines when he was forcefully pulled from a plane by plain-dressed men and shoved into an unmarked vehicle while one of his party members filmed the entire ordeal. He was later escorted home by a heavy military presence, placed under house arrest, and his home communications were jammed. Traumatic and unpredictable events like this are risks Bobi and his family take every time they choose to leave their home. Bobi has stated more than once that if it weren’t for the existence of this film and the threat it poses to Museveni’s violent dictatorship, he would likely not be here.

January 2024: The morning of the Academy Awards nominations announcement, Bobi, his wife Barbie, and their three children had been under house arrest for over a week; as the news of our film’s nomination spread throughout the country, the military and police withdrew from their home. This is how far any attention to this film goes to protect him and those close to him. Since the nomination, we have seen the police in Uganda act more consciously because now they are aware the world is watching.

I hope the world will do what is moral and stand on the right side of history with the oppressed people of Uganda. Bobi often says, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”

Today, Bobi Wine leads the largest opposition party in Uganda. They stand for democratic values, for matters of humanity, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism.

In a world that is becoming increasingly totalitarian, where more and more countries have given up democracy and democratic values and are heading toward a more hostile world, Bobi continues to call upon his supporters to find peaceful means to change. He has built a political party from an organic mass movement and embodies the fight for freedom and democracy. The youth see their future leader in him, and he is the hope for a new Uganda. Please don’t ignore the Ugandan people’s struggle.

Moses Bwayo is a Ugandan journalist and the co-director and one of the cinematographers of the documentary Bobi Wine: The People’s President.