On Friday 29 April, Kampala erupted in protest against the brutal arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye. As tear gas canisters popped and live gun fire sounded on the streets, state television showed uninterrupted coverage of the Royal Wedding. These competing soundtracks highlighted the absurdity of Museveni’s response to the ‘walk to work’ campaign that has seriously redefined the ways in which Ugandans can express discontent.
In calling on the government to address the problem of rising food and fuel prices, those involved in ‘walk to work’ have faced arrests, tear gas, beatings, bullets, and even pink dye; journalists covering the events have been attacked in a crackdown on independent media; and in new proposals to deny bail to protestors, Museveni has equated the ‘walkers’ with ‘rapists and defilers’.
The disproportionate response of Museveni’s government is underlined by the innovative methods employed by the protestors. Activists for Change’s recent ‘honk’ campaign, for example, encouraged people driving home after work to make noise to show solidarity with those affected by the rising cost of living. For a week, trading centres in Kampala exploded at five o’clock with the sound of car honks, vuvuzelas and tin pots, as police struggled to impound motorbikes and write down car registration numbers.
Whether intentional or not, the names of these protests have resulted in a series of police and government statements that sound surreal even when heard in context: walking to work is now an illegal offence; drivers who honk at five o’clock are liable to arrest.
Museveni’s response to ‘walk to work’ made the protests into something they didn’t need to be. These protests were not necessarily about the election results or political opposition, but an expression of economic and social frustrations, particularly those of disaffected youths in Kampala. A large number of people got behind ‘walk to work’, or at least expressed displeasure at Museveni’s response to it, regardless of their political leanings.
It seemed unlikely throughout that ‘walk to work’ would culminate in a ‘Tahrir Square moment’. For one thing, there is no Tahrir Square in Kampala—City Square has been occupied by the police for months. Museveni also still enjoys a significant amount of popular support, particularly from those who remember the political upheavals of the 1980s.
It is surprising, however, how quickly the ‘walk to work’ protests have died down. This was in part due to Besigye’s attempts to promote himself as a replacement for Museveni, causing many to wonder whether ‘walk to work’ just aimed at replacing one personality with another. But the demise of ‘walk to work’ also coincided with the swearing in of the new parliament, and a renewed sense of optimism in Museveni and his (rather late) promises to address the issues affecting Ugandan’s lives.
The main opposition parties—Uganda People’s Congress, Democratic Party, People’s Progress Party, and Social Democratic Party—have now seized the opportunity to re-unite under the name ‘Free Uganda Now’. While Uganda needs a strong and united opposition, it is difficult to see any usefulness in this new coalition—rather than focusing on challenging policies and bills, this new group places immediate regime change at the top of its agenda. Perhaps the opposition are not yet ready to put aside the knowledge that political change in Uganda has always come through struggle.
Yolana Pringle is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research looks at the history of mental illness in colonial Uganda. She is an occasional blogger at www.colonialpsychiatry.net.