January 26, 2011
KAMPALA – The recent announcement that Activists for Change is “reloading” the Walk to Work campaign, in which Ugandans are to walk from their residents to their place of employment in a peaceful expression of discontent with the direction of the country, is welcome news to the reform-minded here.
It was Walk to Work I, last April, that challenged the nothing-we-can-do mindset with a yes-we-can refrain, and the timing of Reload is auspicious: bribery scandals are rocking the ruling party, national debt and inflation are soaring. Bank interest rates have edged toward 30%. Electricity subsidies are set to end. Youth unemployment is at 83%. There’s a lot for ordinary Ugandans to be angry about.
And yet Walk to Work Reload has all the makings of a bad Hollywood sequel.
– In being a new idea, W2W I produced the kind of spontaneous mobilization that mark nearly all successful brands of social protest, from the Egyptian “revolution” to the Occupy Movement. Whereas W2WI surpassed the expectations of everyone involved – and this inspired even the most disillusioned Ugandans to rise to their feet– the sequel by nature of being a sequel is put in the position of having to live up to expectations.
– The original achieved nothing of lasting substance. It lacked clear aims and fizzled amid a shortage of stamina, conviction, and discipline among protesters. Inflation, said to be the driving force, continued to rise. The corrupt elite stayed put, shielded by a president and security apparatus that in its brutal crackdown solidified its own reputation of indestructibility (a façade that public stamina always exposes). This is not lost on the public as it contemplates involvement with Reload.
– The insanity of security personnel pepper spraying an opposition leader at point-blank range, shooting him with a rubber bullet, tear gassing schools and maiming children – all of which invigorated W2WI – isn’t likely to repeat itself. Last week’s protest was dispersed by rubber bullets and tear gas, yes, and a photojournalist was shot at. But opposition leaders were released within hours, and overall, security forces have shown more restraint.
– The movement’s leading star is a fading star. With Kizza Besigye fresh off a landslide defeat for the office of the presidency at the time of the first Walk to Work, in which long-time incumbent Yoweri Museveni dipped into national coffers to fund his campaign and allegedly paid for votes in sugar and salt, many Ugandans were left with the sense that he had been cheated of victory, and that indignation was channeled into the protests. Nearly a year later, he has stepped down as leader of his party and said he’s done running for president. He’s still out-front in Reload, but he’s less relevant politically, and no unifying figure has risen in his wake.
– The opposition still hasn’t laid out clear goals. It hasn’t inspired a formidable crop of real activists – dedicated, informed, discipled – but is still relying largely on heat-of-the-moment passion provoked by Besigye passing in his SUV.
– Public apathy is pervasive. While Walk to Work helped motivate portions of this extremely detached citizenry, and several other noisy strikes have followed, there’s a long way to go. Most ordinary Ugandans simply don’t have the interest in social protest, in playing their part in the political process. They’d rather pray for change. Or claim they’ve tried everything and nothing works. With the way things are headed, that could change; every society has its breaking point. But Uganda is not there now, not in time for Reload.
To succeed, the opposition must think up a new form of protest; nurture serious activism; clearly define its aims; shrewdly exploit government missteps; and name a unifying leader – the lack of which makes this sequel a lot like staring down the barrel of an empty gun.