Why Activists Are Celebrating MTV Africa Postponing Its Awards Show in Uganda

The move came as human rights abuse claims continue to mount against the country's government.
Bobi Wine sings on a stage in Busabala, suburb of Kampala, Uganda, on November 10, 2018.
Bobi Wine sings on a stage in Busabala, suburb of Kampala, Uganda, on November 10, 2018. Photo: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, when MTV Base Africa postponed the 2021 MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs), due to be hosted by Uganda, 30-year-old activist Safina Nakayiza viewed it as a “small win”.

“It’s important that people don't move on from the horrors of these past few months, and that’s what the regime tried to do – and to paint Uganda as a safe place, which it’s not,” she told VICE World News.


In partnership with the Uganda Tourism Board, MTV Base Africa promoted the event using the hashtag #VisitUganda, leading to criticism that they were promoting a country that has continued to clamp down on opposition voices following January’s election.

“I tweeted to foreign artists who had been advertised to try and appeal to their consciences and get them to stand with the people of Uganda,” said Nakayiza, who is a nurse by profession. She added that she saw the postponement as a small win because it was realised by “collective voices on social media”, although she would have preferred the event to be cancelled outright. Viacom, MTV’s parent company, has declined to give an exact reason for postponing the virtual award show.

Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president of 35 years, was re-elected after the country went to the polls on the 14th of January. Opposition presidential candidate and musician Bobi Wine has claimed the election was rigged and is fighting the results in court.


In the months preceding the vote, the country saw police violently quash protests. Last November, at least 50 people were killed during the unrest that broke out after Bobi Wine was arrested, in what supporters argued was an attempt to stop him from campaigning. After the election, politically-motivated abductions continue to be reported, and last week the government itself acknowledged that 44 people have been reported kidnapped and 31 of these are “yet to be traced”.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the election period included “killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet”. Heavy military deployment in Ugandan cities and towns around election day, as well as a five-day full internet shutdown, meant that physical protests were largely suppressed as results came in.

But despite a continued ban on social media in the country, and government threats that VPN users could be arrested, Nakayiza is one of a growing number of activists in Uganda and the diaspora who are using alternative methods of organising and activism.


As well as the campaign to stop the MAMAs, movements gaining traction include #BoycottMuseveni, which encourages people to stop using companies they allege are linked to Museveni and his family, and Red Pearl movement, which is associated with People Power, Bobi Wine’s movement, and spreads awareness about the situation in Uganda through their Instagram and Twitter accounts.

VICE World News spoke to the organisers of End Museveni Dictatorship (EMD) Mutual Aid, an initiative set up following the unrest in November to support survivors of state violence. 

By the 2nd of February, the group – made up of Ugandans on the ground and in the diaspora – had collected $2,959 and disbursed $625 on “medical, legal and safe housing costs, including relocating at least one activist in danger to a neighbouring country”, the collective said.

EMD Mutual Aid said that before they formed, most of the organisers were providing this type of support on an ad-hoc basis already, and some “have been victimised before by the dictatorship and their medical recovery was funded by individual contributions”. While they see their fundraising as an achievement in itself, EMD Mutual Aid said “it isn’t the money that counts”. 

“Our focus is on showing how everybody can contribute to the struggle,” the group told VICE World News. “To offer Ugandans and their siblings worldwide an option of tangibly contributing to the care of freedom workers as an expression of solidarity in itself builds revolutionary hope towards our collective achievement of freedom.”


From London to Accra, Ugandans in the diaspora have played a significant role in supporting activists at home. Photos of street protests around the world have been shared online, and petitions demanding Western governments withdraw aid to Uganda or to not recognise the election results have been set up. Last week, an online event, Resisting Dictatorship in Uganda: The 2021 Election Crisis and Beyond, involving organisations such as Africa for Uganda and People Power, was streamed on the social media pages of Black Lives Matter in Philadelphia (BLM Philly).

The hosting of the MTV Africa Music Awards was met with particular outrage by many Ugandans because of the government’s treatment of presidential candidate Bobi Wine, who is also a musician. As well as enduring arrest, torture and assassination attempts over the past few years, Wine’s music has been censored. In 2017, he was banned from performing live shows, a move that was deemed illegal three years later by Uganda’s High Court. One of Bobi Wine's lawyers was also among those who called for the MAMAs to be boycotted.


Kampire Bahana, an internationally acclaimed 33-year-old Ugandan DJ, also spoke out against the awards on Twitter. “First of all, it’s a virtual award show, and social media is blocked so Ugandans can’t watch it,” she told VICE World News.

“And then it’s celebrating African artists, when so many African artists are being persecuted in this country, including people like Nubian Li, who is still in military prison,” Bahana added, referring to Bobi Wine’s long-time musical partner, who remains in detention for possessing ammunition alongside 48 other members of his party, the National Unity Platform.

Still, some defended Uganda’s hosting of the awards as an exciting opportunity for the East African country. Bebe Cool, a reggae musician who supports President Museveni and spoke at a virtual press conference about the awards in November, described the MAMAs as “a major step forward in our music industry”.

Batte, a 28-year-old digital marketer who spoke out against the awards and requested to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said that activism by “ordinary Ugandans online” resulted in the postponement. “DJ Khaled [who was scheduled to host] deleted a promo tweet after it received a lot of backlash from the host country. Then, after a few weeks, MTV postponed the awards with no explanation as to why, but we all know,” he said.

Batte told VICE World News that online activism is “still as dangerous as physical protests”. He was recently detained by the authorities for posting content critical of the ruling party on his Twitter account. “Ugandans might not have internet access, but that doesn’t mean we just give up. At the moment, this is the only form of protest we can take part in, and it’s working,” explained Batte, who said this is the reason the government continues to block social media nearly a month after the election. 

“Online activism has worked in cases where some of our friends have been arrested, or when we require accountability from certain government organisations,” said Batte. And despite a limited number of Ugandans having internet access – even without restrictions, only 50 percent are online – he says those who do can help represent everyone.

“We’ve raised funds for people in need – people who didn’t even know about Twitter, yet we still managed to impact them.”