April 15, 2011
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni may have just rekindled opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s dimming political star.
Besigye who lost in a landslide in February’s presidential elections was all but down to his last roll of the political die, unable to attract a hundred people to demonstrate against what he said was yet another rigged election. Opposition members were urging him to step aside to make room for new blood.
On Thursday, however, he was shot in the hand by the much-dreaded army during his second walk-to-work campaign in a week to protest soaring inflation. Within hours pictures were circulating on the web of Besigye at Kampala a sling and a bandage the size of a boxing glove, drawing sympathy even from non-supporters.
Museveni’s heavy-handedness defied the lesson he seemed to learn following his rigged victory against Besigye in their 2006 face-off: that unjustly persecuting your political enemies will just turn them into martyrs. In 2005 he accused Besigye of rape and treason and millions flocked to Besigye’s defense. In 2011, as a presidential adviser told me, the regime thought it wiser to adopt a non-confrontational approach and simply outspend the opposition – a hundred-to-one by some estimates.
But the grudge between Museveni and his doctor during the bush wars is personal; emotion overtook logic. And the former rebel fighter reverted to his militaristic instinct and applied overwhelming force in his quest for unchallenged power.
That threat of annihilation was on full display and worked frighteningly well during the election lead-up, with new security members briskly “trained” and dispatched for service around the country, resulting in a largely violence-free contest in sharp contrast to the previous two presidential elections.
But security forces have lingered, taking over parks, turning abandoned shop blocks into sleeping quarters, pitching tents in dusty lots, cordoning off city streets, cruising in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, loafing in riot gear outside police stations. The regime has disallowed every proposed opposition gathering in recent months, even tear-gassing and beating a few dozen protesters in downtown market.
A few-week clamp-down to ensure stability at the time of elections, fine said the public. But with the security presence unchanged months afterwards, Uganda is, as the head of the law society noted this week, starting to feel like a police state.
Ugandans have grown tired.
Whatever you think of his motives, Besigye’s walk-to-work campaign shrewdly exploited that exasperation, while addressing the government’s “concern” that a mass mob would unleash chaos – the regime’s stated rationale for repeatedly denying demonstration permits.
Walk-to-work had no single starting and ending point: you walk from your residence to your place of employment, meeting government concerns and at the same time potentially expanding the campaign’s scope and impact.
Walk-to-work was also decidedly inclusive: inflation transcends tribe, clan and political affiliation.
Furthermore, it had a peaceful, innocuous, professional, and economically responsible if not environmentally friendly and healthy ring to it, captured in its very name.
The ruling regime struggled to frame the fiasco as an attempt by the opposition “to disrupt movements along highways so that business in town would come to a standstill, leading the country to hate the government” (Ministry of Internal Affairs Kirunda Kivejina).
But calling in the army to whack people walking to work, and shooting one man in the hand for it painted a different portrait, one the government finds itself a pains to brush over.