Deadly Crackdown on Uganda's Walk-to-Work Protests

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ronald Kabuubi / AP

Supporters of Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye walk towards Kampala protesting higher food and fuel prices in Kalerwe suburb Thursday April 21, 2011.

After his third failed run at the Ugandan presidency in February, opposition leader Kizza Besigye's rants against government abuse were beginning to sound tired and futile. Opposition demonstrations, like the one held in Kampala's Kiseka Market last month to protest discrepancies in the landslide election, were having trouble attracting a few dozen supporters. So no one took much notice when Besigye, who heads the Forum for Democratic Change, announced he and other opposition leaders would walk to work to protest the country's soaring fuel and food prices.

No one except Uganda's security forces, who intercepted the first march on April 11 in full riot gear, fired tear gas and hauled the opposition leaders onto police trucks.

Public outrage over the government's heavy-handedness was instant. By April 14, Ugandans had seen images of Besigye, the victim of a rubber-gunshot wound, standing outside Kampala Hospital with his hand bandaged and in a sling, and walk-to-work campaigns had spread to four cities across the country. But by Friday, the protest movement had become violent. Clashes between the demonstrators, and between protestors and police, have left at least five people dead — including a two-year-old child who was shot in the head and chest by security forces — dozens injured, and hundreds arrested.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a former bush rebel whose troops overthrew Milton Obote in 1986, has vowed no compromise against the opposition. But his show of force has so far only stoked resistance as it comes amid a growing list of public grievances, including swelling unemployment, runaway corruption, and reckless government spending.

Museveni's reelection campaign is estimated to have cost $350 million, with a supplementary budget approved to foot the bill after the national treasury was reportedly exhausted. Since then his regime has spent $740 million on fighter jets and at least $1.3 million on his swearing-in ceremony next month — all while inflation has soared from 6% to 11% since February.

Now the government's brutal crackdown on Besigye supporters has undermined Museveni's image as liberator and peacemaker and is threatening to damage Uganda's standing both regionally and internationally. Donor nations have condemned the disproportionate use of force, while regional media are questioning just where Museveni is leading Uganda.

Since his mandate was extended to 30 years in February, when he won 68% of the vote, Museveni — known for his populist touch — has at times come off as unbothered by citizen concerns, issuing statements that have bordered on the bizarre. Regarding rising fuel prices, which have risen 50% since January, he said last week, "What I call on the public to do is to use fuel sparingly. Don't drive to bars." He also recently dismissed rapidly rising food prices by saying that they're good for farmers. And last weekend, he told journalists at his country home in Rwakitura, Kiruhura district: "I can see myself getting the Nobel Peace Prize for managing the country, especially the army, very well."

Over his 25 years running Uganda, Museveni has ushered in a stretch of unprecedented stability and economic growth amid liberalization. Poverty has dropped from 56% in 1992 to 25% last year. Donor dependency has dropped to around 25%. Uganda has become one of Africa's shining successes in the fight against AIDS. And the government is set to start extracting a 2-billion-barrel oil find, which could double state revenues. But infrastructure is crumbling. Education and health services are failing the people. To buy off potential political adversaries, Museveni has added so many new districts that Uganda, a country of 32 million, now has the highest number of sub-national administrative units in Africa and the fourth highest in the world. And the standard of living is still painfully low, with GDP per capita at only $509, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Ahead of the February election, Museveni's campaign rallies and literature claimed that he would do what no leader in modern history has achieved: to be an agent of progress after a quarter century of ruling. But talk across Uganda's potholed capital hints at a realization that an agent of stability could in time become a threat to that very stability. Besigye — who just a few weeks ago was facing rumblings in the opposition for him to step aside — is now shrewdly milking that worry with his walk-to-work campaign, a peaceful and economically and environmentally responsible protest that has magnified the regime's use of force.

On Thursday, Besigye was refused bail on charges of unlawful assembly and sent to join fellow opposition leader Norbert Mao in Nakasongola Prison about 60 miles north of Kampala. Museveni is reasoning that the crackdown will forever stop the protests and shock Ugandans — who have grown fearful of the chaos that reigned under Museveni's predecessors — back into their natural state of political detachment. But for now, images of children choking on tear gas, one brutally slain, and a man in bandages thrown behind bars just for walking to work are proving more powerful than the threat from the barrel of a gun.