Ugandans pay price for protest

Ugandan police have arrested the country’s two main opposition leaders after they attempted to lead a protest over rising prices.

Kizza Besigye and Norbert Mao, who were second and third behind President Yoweri Museveni in last month’s presidential poll, were detained separately in the capital Kampala on Monday morning, along with several other politicians. Opposition parties and civil society groups had called for the “walk to work” demonstration over the high cost of fuel and food.

Police banned the demonstration, claiming the real intention was to topple the government. Museveni, who has held power for 25 years, has already shown paranoia about Egypt-style protests, ordering a ban on text messages during the election that allude to the north African uprisings.

Besigye, who has been Museveni’s main challenger in the past three polls and has a history of scrapes with the security services, set off on foot from his home to his office before 8am on Monday morning, but was blocked by riot police on a road leading towards the city centre. Police used teargas to disperse a small group of protesters accompanying Besigye. After a two-hour standoff, he was forced into a police vehicle.

“We condemn this blatant abuse of human rights and use of violence on innocent people,” Besigye told Uganda’s KFM radio before he was taken away.

He was later taken to court and charged with inciting violence, which he denied. A judge ordered his release on bail.

Mao, who is regarded as a rising star of Ugandan politics, was arrested while walking in to work from Kampala’s Ntinda suburb. He was accompanied by about 100 unarmed demonstrators, who were also teargassed.

Oghwens Kisangala, a spokesman for Besigye’s party, Forum for Democratic Change, who took part in the demonstration, said it was difficult to understand the police action.

“Maybe they thought that if we reached the city centre, there would be thousands of people walking with the politicians,” he said, speaking by telephone from Kampala. “This speaks volumes about the state’s fear of an uprising.”

Both Besigye and Mao, who polled 26% and 2% respectively in the presidential election, claimed the poll was rigged. International observers noted widespread irregularities, including the massive abuse of state resources to fund Museveni’s campaign.

Besigye, who was Museveni’s personal doctor during the bush war that brought him to power and was detained on trumped-up charges before the 2005 poll, had threatened to call street protests after the results were announced in February, but never followed through.

Monday’s demonstration may have had broader appeal, given the rising cost of living. Inflation has been rising for five straight months, and now tops 11%. Food prices leapt 12% in March alone. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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