Last week Kampala and other major urban areas across Uganda erupted into the most widespread protests so far in Sub-Saharan African following the revolutions in the north. Before the conflicts began I had argued in an article in Think Africa Press that the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, had failed to mobilise sufficient support for large-scale demonstrations following his national election defeat in February. So what changed?
The rising food and fuel costs seriously affecting Ugandan life were already in evidence in February when Museveni won his (albeit contested) landslide. The economic situation worsened by drought, weak international markets and government corruption and incompetence has certainly deteriorated in the last few months but the lack of serious opposition to Museveni during the election and an indifference to Besigye’s post-election demands for Tunisian style uprisings appeared to indicate that the spark to light the touch-paper remained missing.
In fact, what seems to have brought Ugandan’s out in their thousands onto the streets to oppose the state was the not the current situation itself, though that was clearly the motivating undercurrent, but the response of Museveni’s government to those questioning his policies in a supposed democracy. When Besigye started his ‘Walk to Work’ campaign in response to the impact of rising fuel costs on making public transport inaccessible to the poorest Ugandan’s he had very little obvious support. The protests were small-scale and low-key and Besigye remained, seemingly, at his lowest ebb of popularity for a decade. Then he was arrested for making his peaceful protest. His arrest was swift, brutal and repeated several times over as a cycle of release and resumption of protests began. The violent and exceptionally dis-proportional response of the government to peaceful protest in their midst enraged sections of the population who now saw Besigye shot in the hand, beaten and blinded by pepper spray. They took to the streets to protest his treatment and the government, panicking again, responded with yet more ferocity using live ammunition, tear gas and intimidation on protestors across the country.
This dis-proportional response to initially peaceful protest appears to have given new life to the Besigye-led anti-Museveni campaign and has heaped pressure on the government internally and internationally to recognise the rights of peaceful protest and address the key issues affecting Ugandan’s on a daily basis.
Museveni appears, to some extent, to have learned last week’s lessons. Yesterday the former commander of the army, Major General Mugisha Muntu, walked to work from his home on Kololo hill without incident. While lawyers protesting the justice departments legal treatment of Besigye have carried on demonstration and strike for the last two days largely in peace. How far government tolerance will be stretched once Besigye returns from hospital in Kenya remains to be seen.
And, perhaps more importantly, Ugandans’s now wait to discover whether Museveni has heard their anger over the rising cost of living and lack of basic services and acknowledged their right to peaceful protest to expose these harmful issues.