The Uganda government has designated the red beret as official military clothing that could land members of the public who wear them in jail, a move that essentially bans the uniform of leading opposition leader Bobi Wine and his supporters.
Bobi Wine, a pop star turned politician who has announced he is running for president against longtime leader Yoweri Museveni in 2021, has made the red beret his signature, calling it a “symbol of resistance”.
However the beret, also worn by some soldiers, was included in Uganda’s first-ever gazette of all military clothing, which states that any member of the public found in possession of the items “is liable on conviction to imprisonment for life”, under section 160 of the 2005 UPDF Act.
“The dress code for the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) has been gazetted. The action was endorsed by the top organs of the army which also commended the dress committee for concluding the task assigned to it years back,” army spokesman Richard Karemire said in a statement on Monday.
“It manifests the commitment to define identity and outlook of a professional army as well as adhering to the EAC (East African Community) protocols,” he added.
According to the gazette dated September 18, the sale or wearing of any attire which resembles the army uniform is also banned.
Prohibited items, besides the red beret, include side caps, bush hats, ceremonial forage caps and camouflaged baseball caps.
“It is prohibited to wear or use any decoration supplied or authorised for use by any member of the defence forces or any decoration so nearly resembling that decoration and likely to deceive the public,” the gazette said.
‘Symbol of resistance’
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has not yet commented on the new rules.
He formally declared his presidential bid in July at an event in the capital, Kampala.
Wearing a red tie and red beret, a look copied by dozens of his supporters at the event, he said: “On behalf of the people of Uganda, I am challenging you (Museveni) to a free and fair election in 2021.”
Reacting to the new rules, a leading figure in his “People Power” movement – which he has yet to register as a political party – said they would not stop wearing it.
“We shall continue to wear the revolutionary red berets,” said youth leader Ivan Boowe.
“No amount of intimidation will make us fear to exercise our rights. By designating our dress code as military wear, the government is moving to attempt to ban the People Power movement and we are ready to face any action government takes,” he added.
Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesperson for the People Power movement, said Museveni was getting “sleepless nights” because of their party.
“He forgets that whatever he intends for our harm just pushes us forward,” he wrote on Twitter.
Bobi Wine, 37, first attracted a youth following through songs critical of Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986. He rose to prominence in 2017 when, as an independent candidate, he won an election to represent a constituency near Kampala.
He has since successfully campaigned for other opposition candidates, raising his profile as a national leader and attracting calls urging him to run for president.
But he faces multiple challenges, including limited opportunities to hold rallies or stage concerts before elections.
He was most recently arrested in April for allegedly staging an unsanctioned protest last year – charges fellow opposition MPs decried as ridiculous – but was released from jail after a few days.
He is also facing treason charges, which he denies, after being arrested with 30 other opposition politicians in August last year for allegedly stoning Museveni’s convoy following a campaign rally.
In that incident, Bobi Wine’s driver was shot dead, while the politician later flew to the United States to receive treatment for wounds he said were sustained during torture by security forces. The government denied that he was mistreated.