May 13, 2011
It was one of the stranger twists I’ve reported on. On the day that President Yoweri Museveni was sworn in – after winning a fourth term in a landslide in February – tens of thousands of Ugandans flooded Kampala’s streets to cheer on lame duck opposition leader Kizza Besigye.
Dancing, chanting, waving tree branches, taunting the shiny motorcades of corrupt politicians who had attended Museveni’s inauguration yesterday, a tsunami of youth surged down Entebbe Road, threatening to take over the whole city. It was a momentous coup for the opposition and for third-time presidential candidate Besigye, who was being pressured just a couple months ago to make way for new blood in an opposition in crisis.
But it also was a reminder of how unfocused and unsavvy the opposition can be, and why – despite mounting dissatisfaction with Museveni’s 25-year rule – overthrowing the former bush rebel remains a long shot.
The plan yesterday was for supporters to eventually congregate at a dirt lot in the Nsambya neighborhood of Kampala, and telling by the sea of protesters gushing down Entebbe Road, this would have made for a gathering of epic proportions.
But oops. The opposition failed to communicate to supporters preceding Besigye’s caravan on where to go; the result was that those who reached Kibuye Roundabout dispersed in different directions, diluting the mass to a trickle on the straightaway that led – unobstructed by security forces – to Nsambya. And by the time Besigye’s convoy, which had been forced to make several detours, finally reached Nsambya, many among the unremarkable crowd there had parted. It was just the latest preventable mistake by a fractured, poorly funded opposition that can ill afford to make missteps in its bid to unseat the National Resistance Movement, which has a firm grip on everything from the national treasury to the electoral commission and the military.
The opposition has been quick to blame security forces for its delayed arrival and hence the so-so showing in Nsambya. But had the opposition instructed its supporters to move down Entebbe Road toward Nsambya, the energy upon Besigye’s arrival and the message communicated would have been far more potent: imagine the sight of a Woodstockian-like mass spilling across Nsambya, unified in its opposition to the man who’d just been inaugurated. The kind of stuff that lights up newspaper covers for days if not weeks, that plays at the top of the international 24-hour news cycle, that has the power to convert even a leader’s most ardent supporters, and make that same leader seriously question his own grip on power. Thursday’s protest made a strong statement no doubt, but handled more deftly it might well have produced a Tahrir Square-like tipping point that thoroughly liberated this nation from its fearful, apathetic tendencies. Thursday thus marks a botched opportunity.
With the growing erosion of democratic space in Uganda – including the restriction of basic movements of opposition leaders, harassment of journalists (implicitly legitimized by the Inspector General of Police), and a beefed up security presence to the point that virtually every public green space in the capital including roundabouts and city parks is now being held down by men with guns – such a chance may not present itself again anytime soon.
Another liability to the burgeoning protest movement is that there is a rag-tag rebel-rouser-like quality to a good portion of it as seen in yesterday’s rally, with supporters in one instant pelting statuesque police with stones, and others taunting foreigners with slurry barks of “mzungu” (white person). For many on-hand, the day appeared to be an excuse to dance and cheer and be in the thick of it rather than a vehicle for substantive social change.
It doesn’t help that no major opposition voice has seriously attempted to inculcate discipline among protestors. A degree of chaos is welcomed as an agent of change; while Tunisia and especially Egypt should have taught Uganda’s opposition otherwise.
Then there’s the fact that the opposition’s aims aren’t clearly defined beyond regime change and an end to inflation. Clear goals keep people motivated and united. Discipline nurtures a sense of dignity and entitlement. And battling against a heavy-handed regime that has money and “legitimacy” (a fourth term) on its side, the opposition can ill afford to proceed without either.
The opposition has every right to feel encouraged by the outpouring of support it received Thursday but at the same time should be deeply concerned about its failures to grasp and implement the nuances of effective mobilization.