Riots have swept across Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in the biggest anti-government protest in sub-Saharan Africa this year.
Security forces have launched a brutal crackdown, firing at unarmed civilians with live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas. Two people have been killed, more than 120 wounded and about 360 arrested. Women and girls have been among those beaten, according to witnesses.
The growing unrest — triggered by rising food and fuel prices — has gained fresh impetus after the violent arrest of the opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, last week. Critics say President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 25 years, is losing his grip. They claim his wildly disproportionate crackdown on Besigye’s “walk to work” protests smacks of panic and is sowing the seeds of popular revolt.
“I thought the police were going to kill me,” said Andrew Kibwka (18), after police beat him with heavy sticks. “I [told] them I’m harmless, but they just carried on. They beat me because I was running away.”
Some point to the political earthquakes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and wonder if the aftershocks could reach south of the Sahara. Already there are pockets of unrest from Burkina Faso to Senegal to Swaziland. Even South Africa, reputed anchor of the continent, is tormented by deadly protests over poor public services.
In Uganda there is an inchoate revolution struggling to be born. Protests have spread to several towns, leaving seven people dead and hundreds in jail. The riots, in which roads have been barricaded with burning tyres, mark a new level of defiance. Facebook and Twitter, which the government unsuccessfully tried to block, are reverberating with dissent. Museveni’s heavy-handed attempts to put out the fire appear only to be fanning its flames.
The subversion here began on April 11 with a defeated politician and half a dozen allies walking down a street. The “walk to work” campaign is intended to highlight the soaring food and fuel prices, which leave many unable to afford public transport.
If Besigye, who has lost three elections to Museveni, had been ignored the protest might have fizzled out. But instead riot police blocked the group, used tear gas and arrested him. At a stroke this waning figure was reborn as a hero of resistance.
Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, an MP-elect for Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, said: “We never intended to have a Tahrir Square to remove Museveni. We just wanted a reawakening of the people. We started walking, the simplest thing on Earth, and Museveni said, ‘You can’t.'”
At the third protest Besigye was hit in the hand by a rubber bullet. Images of him with his hand bandaged and in a sling gave the opposition a publicity coup. With each walk he has attracted more followers.
Nganda, who was jailed for five days for taking part in a walk, said: “When you start a campaign, you never know what the response will be. Museveni’s brutal reaction is what raised its profile beyond our expectations. It’s dominating the media, the opposition, even Museveni himself.”
The 37-year-old said Ugandans would prove as determined as their North African counterparts. “I don’t think when the Tunisians started they knew it would be the end of Ben Ali, or when the Egyptians started they knew they would get rid of Mubarak. Nobody can be sure what shape it will take in Uganda, but we are going to continue until Museveni leaves.”
Besigye (54), who was Museveni’s doctor during the bush war against former president Milton Obote, was detained again in Kampala last week after police smashed their way into his vehicle and shot pepper spray into his eyes.
An hour earlier he had admitted that he was hesitant to draw comparisons with Egypt and Tunisia. “The only parallel goes to the extent that people are discontented with what is going on and their governments are non-responsive. How this popular discontent is channelled is always governed by the unique qualities of governments.”
Asked if he was prepared to die for the cause, Besigye said: “I am not setting out to become a martyr of anything. I am simply asserting my citizen’s rights, which are inherent, which are not offered by the state and which I am determined to defend at all costs.”
Commodity prices could be the spark in a Ugandan tinderbox of resentment over corruption and neglected public services. Museveni has refused to copy neighbouring Kenya by cutting fuel taxes, while his re-election campaign is estimated to have cost $350-million, with a further $1,3-million allotted to his inauguration ceremony.
Public anger was burning on a street where no car was safe from flying stones. Robert Mayanja, a self-described activist, said: “What they are doing now shows that Museveni rigged the last election. If you look at Uganda, why should we vote for him after 25 years? We have high prices; we have hospitals without medicine.”
Mayanja (31) said a repeat of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia was “definitely” possible. “People are ready. We know they are going to arrest many people and put them in torture chambers. We know this regime has expired. These are the signs.”
In Ntinda district youths shouted and hurled stones and chunks of concrete at passing cars. On one corner a man ran up to a passing council vehicle and smashed the driver’s window with a rock.
A teacher, who gave his name only as Nixon (32), said he could not imagine an Egypt-like revolt in the short term. “But in the long term I believe it can happen,” he said. “The military is still strong and many of the soldiers are unwilling to turn to the side of the people. But in time they might get tired of beating the people.”
A young population, often seen as politically apathetic, has reached unexpected levels of activism. People who used to bolt at the first whiff of tear gas are losing their fear. But there are serious doubts about whether a critical mass of Ugandans has the will or the means to drive out the president, who retains a vice-like hold on the military and police.
Rosebell Kagumire, a journalist who is blogging and tweeting about the political crisis, said: “It’s hard to get people to believe going to the streets will change anything, especially when they know the government is prepared to kill half of them. Ugandans have not reached that level yet.”
Museveni, whose election victory has been denounced as fraudulent, is confident he can avoid the fate of Arab leaders. “Nobody can take over power through an uprising,” he said recently. “Whoever thinks like that, I pity such a person.”
His spokesperson, Tamale Mirundi, said: “In Tunisia and Egypt democracy was lacking; in Uganda we elect our leaders at every level. Besigye cannot say he was cheated and that is why he is jumping on oil prices.”
Mirundi played down the power of the internet. “Go to the villages. How many people can access Facebook? Very few.” Yet every day in Uganda new people are connecting and interacting for the first time. “Uganda is sitting on a time bomb,” tweeted Richo Nuwagaba. “It’s just a matter of time. I am scared.” —