This week a spree of protests across Uganda have caused quite the headache for Uganda’s government and police officials; however, it would be a mistake to compare these to other protest movements sweeping the globe. First, Uganda has a rich history of violent protests, yet these typically fizzle out before making any political sway. Second, the police in Uganda are highly organized and not above spraying tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
Lastly, these protests are complicated. They are motivated by temporary inflation in fuel and food prices, but are led by the political opposition. Four of the opposition candidates have declared February’s Parliamentary and Presidential elections void due to irregularities, but largely, Ugandans have accepted the results in which incumbent President Yoweri Museveni took a commanding lead. Commonwealth monitors reported “…a largely peaceful campaign and a reasonably calm Election Day in most areas but this was regrettably marred by localized incidents of violence and poor management by the Electoral Commission.” It seems as though opposition leaders hope that temporary economic woes will eventually drive the populace to push for changes in the ruling government. This is a long-shot, and I am doubtful that these protests will be sustained long enough for Ugandans to forget their original motives and to focus on ousting President Museveni.
Here’s a timeline of the events and the motivations behind these protests.
11 April 2011: Dr. Kizza Besigye of the FDC party and Mr. Norbert Mao of the DP party are arrested for “incitement to cause violence” and “failure to obey lawful orders” in a walk-to-work in protest of high food and fuel prices in Kampala.
14 April 2011: Dr. Kizza Besigye leads a second walk to work protest outside of Kampala. When the protestors began throwing stones at police, Dr. Besigye was injured by a rubber bullet. There are also reports that the police fired tear gas into a hospital near where the protestors were marching. News of police conduct during the second walk-to-work sparked riots across Kampala, Jinja, Mbale, and Masaka. Meanwhile, Mr. Mao led similar protests in Gulu – where violence resulted in 3 deaths and at least 57 injuries. In total, at least 220 people were arrested in connection with the protests and charged with “defying a police ban on protests”.
15 April 2011: About 8,000 students at Makerere University in Kampala go on strike, complaining about a proposal that would double tuition costs. Some of the students where brandishing banners calling for President Museveni to step down.
16 April 2011: President Museveni speaks out for the first time about the protests as calm returns to Uganda. Here are some of the highlights from his speech:
“There will be no demonstrations in Kampala … if Besigye wants to walk for exercise let him do it somewhere else.”
“If Besigye demonstrates, will it bring international oil prices down because he has demonstrated? Will it rain because Besigye has demonstrated?”
“Demonstrations will worsen the situation because business people will be scared to transport food and fuel to the city because their vehicles will be burnt.”
“Some people have been saying we should remove the tax on fuel, but the tax is small and we need this money to build roads and if we removed this tax we would be subsidising consumption.”
“What I call on the public to do is to use fuel sparingly, don’t drive to bars.”
Uganda faces a tough road ahead with rising oil prices and a looming famine as drought continues in the East Africa / Horn of Africa region. I doubt that these protests will lead to substantive changes in the government. President Museveni made some excellent points on Saturday – first that blaming the government for inflation is ridiculous and second that rioting will only make the situation worse.
PHOTO | AFP Ugandan military police pass a barricade of rocks by supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye made in Kasangati. Police used tear gas and fired in the air to prevent the leader from marching to protest against the rising cost of living he says is due to bad governance by President Yoweri Museveni.