Riots in Uganda: A Sign of Things to Come?

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Marc Hofer / AP

Uganda military police arrest a man during riots in Kampala, Uganda

In a region that includes Kenya, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda can sometimes seem like the stable, sleepy neighbor. But appearances can be deceiving. For 22 years, the Ugandan government has been fighting the cultlike rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a conflict largely ignored by the rest of the world until the past few years, when the LRA extended its violent reach into southern Sudan and eastern Congo. And now it looks as though Uganda is facing more fighting, this time between the government and the country's largest ethnic group. Last week, the capital, Kampala, erupted in bloody riots that left at least 21 dead and about 100 wounded. With an election scheduled for 2011, many fear that the latest burst of violence may be a taste of things to come.

On Sept. 10, protests by the supporters of one of Uganda's traditional Kings spread from outlying towns to the heart of Kampala, bringing the city to a standstill. The riots lasted two days. Cars and police stations were set on fire. Looting was widespread. In response, President Yoweri Museveni sent thousands of police and troops into the streets with orders to shoot on sight. They fired live rounds into the crowds. Four radio stations were taken off the air for "inciting violence," and a leading talk-show host who had been accused of sedition, several opposition politicians and hundreds of suspected rioters were arrested.

Uganda's postindependence leader Milton Obote had abolished the country's four kingdoms in the 1960s. But in 1993, Museveni, a former rebel leader who had seized power seven years earlier and whose family traces its lineage to a tribe in the southwest of the country, restored some of their traditional and ceremonial powers. The idea was that the Kings be rehabilitated as cultural figureheads while remaining barred from active politics. But some Kings were angered by the restrictions, in particular Ronald Mutebi, the King of Buganda, which covers much of the area surrounding Kampala and whose Baganda people make up about 10% of Uganda's population of 31 million. Mutebi has argued that the Kings need a formal constitutional role, not least to settle disputes over how far his kingdom extends. Last week's violence was sparked by the government's decision to block Mutebi's visit to a town east of Kampala that had declared it was breaking away from Buganda.

Since Museveni took power in 1986, he has transformed from one of the shining lights of a new generation of African leaders — dedicated to development and democracy — into an autocrat. In a manner all too common in Africa, his administration has failed to lift its people out of poverty, while it enriches itself through rampant corruption. The potential rewards of power have only risen this year with the discovery of oil reserves estimated at 2 billion bbl. in the west of the country.

Meanwhile, Museveni's increasingly blatant attempts to hold on to power — abolishing presidential term limits, imprisoning opposition leaders — have narrowed the avenues in Uganda for expressing dissent. Which is why, as in neighboring Kenya, people are returning to tribal allegiances as a way of channeling their discontent. And why Museveni's reaction to last week's riots was so heavy-handed.

Many see more bloodshed to come in the run-up to the 2011 presidential poll. "Given the economic conditions in the country — the high poverty, mass unemployment and corruption — the situation will remain highly unstable and dangerous," says Aaron Mukwaya, a political scientist at Kampala's Makerere University. "You cannot rule out a repeat of this violence." For his part, Museveni has taken to blaming the opposition and shadowy foreign powers for inciting the riots. "I want to assure you that the days of mercy for rioters are over," said the President on Monday, as he toured a police station that had been torched during the fighting.

Maybe. But the days of rioting may be just beginning. As the country's leading independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, put it in the aftermath of the violence: "Museveni Wins the Battle, but War Still On."