Bobi Wine‘s man in Washington harbors no illusions that President Yoweri Museveni will quietly step down after three and a half decades in power.
Instead, Jeffrey Smith‘s mission is at once simpler and more ambitious: Keeping his pop star-turned-opposition leader client — and the dreams of countless people he has inspired across Africa — alive as he challenges the results of last month’s election that saw Museveni win a sixth term in office.
“I don’t think many people expected, given all the obstacles in his way, that Bobi Wine would surmount all those and emerge as the new president of Uganda and usher in the first peaceful transfer of power [since independence in 1962],” Smith told The Influencers, the weekly podcast hosted by Foreign Lobby Report and crisis communications firm LEVICK. “This is a long-term game, and part of that long-term game is keeping him alive and keeping his colleagues alive … to fight for the next day.”
A longtime human rights advocate who has worked for such outfits as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy and UNESCO, Smith founded Vanguard Africa in 2016 with the goal of promoting pro-democracy leaders across the continent.
The firm has represented Wine pro bono since 2018, even before he announced his candidacy. Smith helped organize several visits with US policymakers in the executive branch and Capitol Hill as Wine came under attack in Uganda for his criticism of the government.
Smith says the advocacy work proved crucial in showing US policymakers that another way was possible after decades of support for Museveni and other African strongmen.
“Much of our work is really putting in front of [US policymakers] viable alternative options for leadership,” he said. “And I think that the fact that we’ve been able to do that with Bobi Wine and a number of his colleagues over a number of years has helped policymakers here in the US see beyond Museveni, see that there are potentially transformational leaders … that you can rely on.”
With Wine formally challenging the election results in court this week, Smith sees a chance to draw attention to allegations of ballot fraud and voter intimidation.
“We don’t expect the [Ugandan] Supreme Court to take this seriously,” said Smith, which he says is in Museveni’s pocket. “However we feel — and the team around Bobi Wine in Uganda feels — that this will provide at least a platform to the international community, to the international press, to challenge these results and to show comprehensively the sham that it was.”
Vanguard Africa also campaigned around another key event this month: The MTV Africa Music Awards, which was to be hosted in cooperation with Uganda’s tourism ministry in Kampala on Feb. 20. The major industry event bills itself as the “iconic awards to showcase African Talent and Creativity.”
“One of the campaigns we’re working on is to raise awareness of the irony here, that Bobi Wine, although he is the biggest opposition leader in the country, he is also the country’s biggest music star, ” Smith said. “His music has been banned from the radio, he can’t perform on television. He hasn’t been able to perform at concerts for several years now.”
The pressure campaign appears to have worked: MTV announced Thursday that it was postponing the awards show.
“Many Americans may have never heard of Uganda or can locate it on a map,” Smith said. “So we have to identify events like this, anchor issues, to use them essentially as anchor issues through which to spotlight broader issues and concerns that are going on.”
The goal, Smith said, is to force a rethink among Uganda’s aid donors, starting with the United States.
“This is a government that receives $900 million to $1 billion in assistance from the US government [that] essentially bankrolls the repression,” he said. “There needs to be a fundamental shift of US policy toward Uganda, and not just Uganda, but dictatorships and authoritarian regimes the world over.”
And to critics who say that the US has lost legitimacy to speak out on such issues after four years of President Donald Trump‘s well-known proclivity for strongman rulers and the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol, Smith has a ready answer.
“I would argue the complete opposite,” he said. “I think now is the time to redouble efforts. Despite the glaring problems that we’ve witnessed over the past four years … our democratic processes held.”
“American democratic resilience provides some guidance for how this new administration under President Joe Biden can reinvigorate democracy at home by strengthening our institutions here but also by unapologetically promoting them abroad, including in Africa.”
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