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Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine (C), is escorted by police officers during his arrest in Kalangala in central Uganda on Dec. 30, 2020.STRINGER/Reuters

Choking in tear gas and dodging the police who harass him at every stop on the campaign trail, Bobi Wine has one big goal remaining: sheer survival.

The Ugandan election is a week away. “My most important mission is to be alive in seven days,” says the young musician who has become the leading opposition candidate in the Jan. 14 vote.

A few minutes after he began a Zoom conference with international media in his campaign vehicle on Thursday, the police struck again. They rapped on his window and ordered him to leave. When he resisted, they dragged him brutally from the car, fired guns and tear gas, and ordered him again to move on – while the shocked media watched and listened to the shots and chaos.

“They’re shooting live bullets, just because I parked on the side of the road,” he gasped in the middle of the police attack.

Then, as he departed, a police vehicle drove alongside him for kilometres, its blue-and-red lights flashing, as police fired more volleys of tear gas from their riot guns, leaving him choking again.

The musician, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, has already endured several arrests, torture in detention and two narrow escapes from police attacks that he believes were assassination attempts.

He has been greeted by big crowds of enthusiastic supporters at every campaign stop, but his speeches are often disrupted by gunfire and tear gas.

“I expect a live bullet, targeted at me, at any time,” he told journalists on Thursday.

He has begun wearing a helmet and bullet-proof vest to protect himself as he greets the crowds on the streets. Until the helmet became necessary, he wore a revolutionary red beret. He favours the rhetoric of liberation politics, calling his organization the “People Power” movement.

More than 50 civilians, largely his political supporters, were killed by security forces in November under a “shoot to kill” order to crush the protests that had erupted in the streets after one of Mr. Kyagulanyi’s many arrests. Some were swimming through a swamp to escape the shooting when they were gunned down.

On Thursday, his lawyer unveiled a 47-page complaint that Mr. Kyagulanyi and others are submitting to the International Criminal Court, alleging that the November killings and other abuses are evidence of crimes against humanity. The complaint includes photos, videos and other details of “acts of abuse and torture, arbitrary arrest, mutilation and murder of civilian protestors [and] arrest and beatings of political figures.”

Mr. Kyagulanyi is attempting to unseat one of Africa’s longest-ruling autocrats, President Yoweri Museveni, who has dominated Uganda for 34 years after seizing power in a military rebellion.

In his early years, Mr. Museveni often promised to rule for only a short time. “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,” he said in 1986.

Since then, he has repeatedly found new ways to tighten his grip on power. First he scrapped a two-term presidential limit; then he eliminated an age limit, allowing him to remain in office at the age of 76 and to run yet again for re-election.

He has described Mr. Kyagulanyi as a thug who must be crushed. There is little doubt that Mr. Museveni and the ruling party will win the official tally in next week’s election. But they could be losing a deeper contest for the hearts and minds of the people, especially among the younger generation. In a country that is overwhelmingly young, Mr. Kyagulanyi and his supporters may be the future, no matter how often the 38-year-old candidate is arrested.

“Museveni risks making him a martyr,” said two scholars, Anna Reuss and Kristof Titeca, in an analysis last month on the Democracy in Africa website.

“The government’s violent crackdown has earned him sympathy, and only served to fuel anger toward the regime. This is the paradox Museveni is confronted with: by clamping down so hard on Bobi Wine, he is co-creating and strengthening his own enemy… . The situation could slip out of control as political temperatures continue to rise.”

Almost every day, security forces arrest members of Mr. Kyagulanyi’s campaign team and even the journalists who cover his campaign. On Thursday, 23 of the 25 members of his campaign team were arrested and taken to an unknown location, Mr. Kyagulanyi said.

“I set off with people every day, but by the end of the day, some are in prison, some are in hospital and some are dead,” he told journalists.

“Today I began with 25 people, but by the end of the day it’s just me and my driver. The only thing that gives me hope is that we see people yearning for change, people lining the side of the road, in their thousands, for hundreds of kilometres. That is what keeps me going every day.”

Few analysts expect a fair election next week. The European Union has refused to send an election observer team, unwilling to legitimize the process.

The ruling party’s open use of violence against its opponents “drops any pretense that this will be a free and fair political competition,” said a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. defence department think tank.

“Uganda’s Electoral Commission, the only body allowed by law to announce election results, is widely seen as partisan,” it said. “Uganda’s once-respected judiciary has repeatedly buckled under executive pressure.”

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