Crackdown on Uganda Protests Sparks Rumblings of a Revolution

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Marc Hofer / AFP / Getty Images

A Ugandan protestor shouts near a burning barricade in Kampala on April 29, 2011 during disturbances a day after Uganda's opposition leader Kizze Besigye was arrested for the fourth time this month.

What began as a series of peaceful protests against Uganda's soaring inflation has turned increasingly bloody, with clashes between police and demonstrators in the capital Kampala on Friday leaving at least five dead, more than 100 injured and 700 in jail. The government's use of excessive police force on those taking part in the protests that started three weeks ago has already prompted criticism of President Yoweri Museveni's tactics, even from his supporters. Now many are wondering whether the police's deadly actions — and the public's violent reaction — are enough to bring him down.

The latest riots came a day after police operatives arrested opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has been a target since he started the walk-to-work campaign to protest the government's neglect of rising fuel and food prices. On Thursday, police smashed his car window with the butt of a pistol, pepper sprayed him at close range and whisked him to jail for the fourth time in three weeks.

The next day, protesters angry at Besigye's treatment lit bonfires in the streets of Kampala and threw stones at police and military, who responded by firing live ammunition. Violence also erupted in five other towns, including Entebbe and Mbale. Workers hid in their offices and bolted-down shops, while others retreated home, as heavily armed police vehicles patrolled near-empty streets ringing with the sound of gunfire.

Long-time observers say that had Museveni ignored the first walk-to-work protest on April 11, few Ugandans would have paid any attention to the campaign. Instead, the president's security forces beat and tear-gassed protesters to quash a rally that cut across political and tribal lines — and outraged a public that after decades of upheaval following independence has come to value stability above all else and usually shies away from political activity.

In the tradition of Africa's Big Men, Museveni — a former bush rebel who extended his mandate to 30 years when he won a disputed reelection bid in February — has determined to hold onto power at any cost, carving out new districts, usurping state funds to buy off adversaries and pay for his reelection campaign, while appearing to shrug off the concerns of his citizens, which include high and rising unemployment, endemic corruption, vote-buying and excessive government spending on the president's pet projects.

This disconnect from the nation's troubles coupled with his crackdown on dissent has even Museveni's long-time supporters questioning his handling of the country. Museveni's own ministers have criticized the crackdown and during the April 21 protest, a senior police officer disobeyed orders by allowing Olara Otunnu, President of the opposition Uganda People's Congress, to walk to work. The officer has since been reassigned to another police unit. Religious leaders in the devoutly Christian country have denounced the president's use of force against protesters, and on Thursday mulled adopting a resolution that would prohibit them from accepting gifts such as vehicles and cash from Museveni. There have been rumblings among the devout for some time that religious leaders should not accept gifts from the president, on grounds that it could compromise them ethically and keep them from speaking out against official abuse.

Museveni did not take the news well, saying on Thursday, "Even in the village when somebody dances well they give them money, and you are saying the President of Uganda should not give people gifts. Sorry, I will do it as long as I am president." In Museveni's response, Ugandans saw a leader both defensive and defiant amid a deteriorating national outlook. This has led to speculation that Uganda could become the first sub-Saharan African domino to fall in the democratic revolution sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

But what makes that unlikely, at least for the moment, is that Uganda's protests lack the size, discipline and tenacity of those that brought down dictators in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Many of those caught up in Friday's riots vandalized shops and smashed the windows of passing vehicles with no clear political goal in mind. Museveni controls a security apparatus that has been steadfastly devoted to the regime, and has been shrewd in nurturing that devotion through various promotions and shake-ups: his 36-year-old son Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba has risen swiftly through the ranks to the role of commander of the Special Forces Group. Then there is the likelihood that inflation — which has shot up from 6.4% to 14% since February — could stabilize given sound policy adjustments, leaving the opposition with the challenge of finding another unifying grievance around which to rally support in a country where apathy is high.

Museveni is betting that the disproportionate force the police are using on demonstrators will scare Ugandans back toward political detachment, with Minister of Internal Affairs AM Kirundea Kivejinja on Friday dismissing claims that his administration's heavy-handedness isn't working. "We know this situation is temporary," he said. "In six months we're going to be back in business."

Museveni on Saturday defended his security forces' treatment of Besigye, who sustained injuries to his chest, back and eyes on Thursday. The opposition, however, has vowed to continue with its walk-to-work protests. "These protests will go on now until a critical mass is reached," said opposition leader Otunnu over the weekend. "We have now demystified the fear Museveni had instilled in the public."