Uganda’s professional elites need to take a stand

Officially, 54 people died in two days of madness in Uganda’s capital Kampala last month, sparked by the arrest of leading opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine. The videos shared on social media told a sinister, harrowing and gruesome story.

Lost in the tragic death toll was a face-masked young man — his collapsed lifeless body staining the shopping mall floor with his blood. He was killed by police as they violently enforced “measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic”. 

In other graphic videos circulating online, a journalist abandoned her camera to rush a 15-year-old boy to a hospital on a boda boda after a bullet shattered his chest. Amos Ssegawa didn’t make it.

The heavily armed police were engaged in running battles with unarmed supporters of Bobi Wine, whose given name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu Robert. Bobi Wine wants to end President Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year rule in Uganda by beating him in next month’s election.

“What is life here? What have you benefited from being alive? At least if I die, it is for a cause. I don’t mind dying if you are going to live happily,” said one young man, barely 20 years old, to a lady pleading with him not to return to the protest. He had just cheated death: minutes earlier a bullet had ripped through his arm and shoulder, before exiting and scratching his chin. He dressed his own gunshot wounds, determined to rejoin the protest.

For a chance to change their desolate fate and obstacle-ridden existence, the youth are willing to die for Bobi Wine’s cause.

But he is yet to convince an important segment of the population: the older, professional, elite classes; those Ugandans who former opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, has previously described as “useless”. These professionals — including lawyers, doctors, and teachers — were instrumental in Museveni’s rise to power.

They were targeted by Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s, and many fled to Kenya, where they also faced persecution. Those that stayed at home resisted the dictatorship of Milton Obote, and helped to end it, creating the space for Museveni to seize power.

It is not just in Uganda that this strata of society exercises undue influence. In Sudan, the Sudanese Professionals Association — a group incorporating lawyers, doctors, engineers and teachers — helped to organise the protests against dictator Omar al-Bashir. Doctors set up camps to treat the wounded and then, when the military tried to hijack the revolution, their co-ordinated efforts kept momentum going and forced a civilian transitional government to be appointed.

Without this kind of support, the sacrifices made by Uganda’s youth — ready to choke on teargas to precipitate change — may be in vain, and will just become yet another violent electoral memory.

Although Uganda’s professional elites may lack the audacity to take to the streets, there are other ways they can join the struggle for democracy. They can refuse to work, and lend their voices to the demands for reform of the electoral commission and the military, two institutions that have been the bastions of Museveni’s long stay in power.

They also need to dismiss attempts to paint protesters and Bobi Wine supporters as hooligans and vandals, and recognise that their grievances are real and legitimate. 

The question is: Will the middle-class professional elites rise to the call and unite for a fairer Uganda that works for all? Or will they continue to build their gated compounds, shutting out the cries to remove a de facto dictatorship? 

Eric Mwine-Mugaju is a Ugandan journalist and commentator

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