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Uganda: Protests in Perspective
May 4, 2011 (110504)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
In February this year Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told a
press conference: "There will be no Egyptian-like revolution
here. ... We would just lock them up. In the most humane
manner possible, bang them into jails land that would be the
end of the story." Events of recent weeks, including last
week's violent attack by security forces on opposition leader
Kizza Besigye and a sit-down strike by Ugandan lawyers
beginning today, seem to indicate that repression may not be
the "end of the story," despite Museveni's overwhelming
victory with 68% of the votes in February's election.
[The press conference report with the quote from Museveni is
in http://www.timeslive.co.za / direct URL:
The challenge to Museveni's authority has been limited and
largely nonviolent. It is unlikely to topple the Ugandan
leader, who has been in power for 25 years, particularly with
the country expected to begin producing oil in June. But the
crackdown has clearly served to undermine his credibility both
in East Africa and among donors.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains (1) a short news update
from the UN's IRIN news service, (2) a commentary from the
Uganda Monitor criticizing the government's actions against
the opposition, and (3) a background essay by Mahmood Mamdani,
also published in the Uganda Monitor, reflecting on the impact
of events in North Africa and future prospects in Uganda.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Uganda, visit
For news, see particularly http://allafrica.com/uganda, which
has regular reports from Ugandan and Kenyan newspapers, as
well as http://www.newvision.co.ug (New Vision) and
http://www.monitor.co.ug (Daily Monitor).
For additional useful background commentary, including one
posted today, see the Guardian blog by Ugandan journalist
For a highly recommended recent book-length analysis, see
Aili Mari Tripp, Museveni's Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in A
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Uganda: Government "won't budge on food prices"
Kampala, 3 May 2011 (IRIN) - The government of Uganda will not
reduce taxes or consider food subsidies, despite an increase
in violence that has led to a "national crisis", according to
Minister of Information Kabakumba Masiko said the consistent
government line since the "walk-to-work" protests began on 8
April still stood, though she maintained other measures were
in place to address stability in the East African country.
"On the supply side, we are ensuring there will be enough food
for our people," she said. "The Bank of Uganda is also mopping
up the excess currency that is contributing to the inflation."
Opposition politicians and critics have blamed the lack of
food and fuel reserves for contributing to skyrocketing
According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, inflation jumped
another 3 percent last month, reaching an annual 14.1 percent
in April from 13.1 percent in March, while crop inflation rose
from 29.1 percent in March to 39.3 percent.
The demonstrations against the rising cost of living have been
led by opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has vowed protests
On 29 April, riots broke out across the capital, Kampala, and
five other centres across the country, killing at least five
people and injuring hundreds more.
"We just woke up angry," said George Lubwama, 27, a barber in
Kasubi, where one person was confirmed by Red Cross officials
to have been shot dead after live rounds and tear gas were
used by security forces trying to dispel angry rioters.
The epicentre of violence in the city, Kisekka market, was
taken over early in the morning by an elite military group led
by President Yoweri MuseveniâTMs son â journalists were
reportedly barred from entering the area and threatened.
The height of the violence was widely seen as a protest
against the violent arrest of Besigye the day before. Security
forces smashed the former presidential candidateâTMs car window
and sprayed him directly in the eyes with tear gas after an
hours-long standoff, after which Besigye was thrown into a
The footage of the brutal arrest on 28 April was widely
circulated and has brought criticism from domestic and
international human rights bodies alike.
On 1 May, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi
Pillay, called the manner in which Besigye was arrested
"The excessive use of force by security officers was plain to
see in the television footage of the event. While I do not
condone the violent rioting that followed, the Ugandan
authorities must realize that their own actions have been the
major factor in turning what were originally peaceful protests
about escalating food and fuel prices into a national crisis,"
Meanwhile, Ugandans continue to feel the impact of increased
food prices following a sharp increase in fuel prices in the
past few months.
A Kasubi taxi driver, Robert Kawuki, says the rising costs
have severely affected his livelihood. "ItâTMs hurting me to the
extremes," he said.
Lubwama added that the politicization of "walk-to-work"
protests was hurting those most affected. "He [Museveni] is
fighting Besigye, but the greatest rebel is the economy now,"
Uganda: We Have Seen the Images; They Look Obscene From Every
30 April 2011
Mr Tabaire is a media trainer and consultant with the African
Centre for Media Excellence.
Dr Kizza Besigye has run for President three times. Quite
obviously, he wants the job that bad. He has run all those
times against the same man - Yoweri Museveni, the same one who
was once Dr Besigye's patient and boss. The boss aspect is the
When some bosses are challenged, they lash out instead of
arguing their case. So it is that when Dr Besigye wrote his
famous critique of the Movement and its leadership in 1999, he
was answered with threats of a court martial trial.
It appears though that penning a critique of your government
as a serving army officer can be forgiven. Not so seeking to
take your (former) boss' job. For having the temerity to
repeatedly challenge President Museveni, Dr Besigye committed
a cardinal sin for which he will not be forgiven. He will be
harassed. He will be brutalised. He will be jailed. He will be
humiliated. Paternalism and autocracy make for a lousy mix.
Even after all these years of seeing how horrendously the
regime's opponents, including Dr Besigye, have been treated,
Thursday's images of the arrest of the FDC leader were still
hard to take in. Just when you thought you had seen it all -
that no security service can treat anyone, let alone the
leader of the largest opposition party with such utter
contempt in public - things happen and you realise you had not
seen it all in the first place. You have to blink again. Just
to be sure.
President Museveni has always argued that he ended stateinspired
violence. But when the security services of the State
that he runs unleash hundreds of armed men, some uniformed
some not, unleash dogs, pepper spray, and a sundry other
gadgets to arrest one unarmed man, moreover one of whose hands
is in a plaster, you have to wonder what happened to the
One night during the September 2009 riots, I watched as Mr
Kalundi Serumaga was kidnapped and bundled into a waiting car
in front of Spear House in Kampala following a TV talkshow. I
looked on helplessly as the coercive yet unlimited power of
the State sprung out of the dark street corner to grab its
prey. Now, those indefatigable security agents do not even
wait for the night. Dr Besigye is receiving his State
treatment in daytime, just so the message goes out plainly.
The level of arrogance on display is as impressive as it is
sickening. It is ultimately absurd. Besides, the actions of
the security services we are seeing debase them. They diminish
Dr Besigye says he is walking to work to protest the rising
cost of living. The government, led by President Museveni,
argues that walking will not resolve the problem (that maybe
suggests that running is better). That Dr Besgye's main aim is
to oust the government through "unconstitutional means" having
failed to rally the people to protest the February 18
presidential elections that the retired army Colonel lost.
Let us say the government's argument is valid.
First, no one disputes the fact that inflation is causing
hardship for many. Second, it is legitimate for the
government's opponents to take maximum advantage of the
situation for political gain. If the government did not want
the inconvenience of protests, it should not have allowed
prices to rise irrespective of the causes.
To prevent the opposition from exploiting the situation is to
deny the essence of politics. You cannot have political
pluralism and behave as if you are the only political player
around, moreover an infallible one. That, however, is the
attitude the government is showing Ugandans.
Which explains the out-and-out disproportionate use of force
against the walk-to-work protesters. The government has
decided to use force to answer economic and political
questions. The aim is to cow everyone into submission, to kill
off this protest thing. The thing, however, may not die. It
may go into a coma, but it may live on.
Why? An toddler is killed, a young man gets a bullet lodged
into his head, a teenage expectant mother is shot and injured,
a leader of the opposition is openly brutalised. These are
enough images to begin to create a single contiguous picture,
a common memory, a common reference point. That point may just
galvanise a people.
Meantime, the beauty of the world today is that the many, many
cameras get to capture brutality as it happens, so we get to
look at the faces of those doing the brutal acts because some
do not even bother with concealment. Someday, Uganda will be
thankful for that.
'Walk to Work' in a historical light - Mamdani
April 24 2011
On Thursday, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the
Makerere Institute of Social Research at the university, made
a passionate presentation at the Rotary International District
Conference in Munyonyo. We bring you a full text of the
Those of you who come from outside may have heard of a novel
form of political protest in Uganda, called 'Walk to Work'.
Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government
that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by
the memory of a single event.
The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels
government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come
to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For
many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to
power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.
Matters have reached a point where even the hint of protest
evokes maximum reaction from government. So much so that a
government, which only a few weeks ago came to power with an
overwhelming majority, today appears to lack not only
flexibility but also an exit strategy.
For civilians, supporters and skeptics alike, the sight of
military resources deployed to maintain civil order in the
streets, has come to blur the line between civil police and
military forces as those in power insist on treating even the
simplest of civil protest as if it were an armed rebellion.
If government is losing coherence and unity that it displayed
during the elections, the opposition is beginning to find at
least a semblance of unity and vision that had evaded it
during election season.
If you keep in mind that many in this opposition, many of
those who had been in the last Parliament, were complicit in
every major turn for the worse when it comes to governance,
then you marvel at the nature of this shift.
How can it be that some of the same opposition that only
yesterday saw Parliament as passport to patronage and licence
to pillage, are discovering resolve and moral courage even
though there is no election in sight and the times are, if
anything, hard? This single thought is the source of
contradictory popular notions, both skepticism and optimism,
when it comes to politics.
My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to
demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that
seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many
in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not
too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian
revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from
now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global
event? How should we understand its significance today?
Historians admit that there is no single objective account of
any event. The account depends, in part, on the location of
the observer. For many in Europe, the events in Tunis and
Cairo were evidence that the colour revolutions that began in
East Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union are finally
spreading beyond the region.
In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir
Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian
revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they
responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because,
media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by
ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve
the degree of unity necessary to confront political power
This response makes little sense to me. For this answer
resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful
struggles will you find a people united in advance of the
movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements
of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through
To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the
democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer
history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I
want to begin with an event that occurred more than three
decades ago in South Africa.
I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed
the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973.
Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the
anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come
to believe that meaningful change could only come through
armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of
This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed
struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of
struggle as something waged by professional fighters,
guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a
movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The
potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by
a new imagination and new methods of struggle.
The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have
already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the
discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in
the face of oppression.
Second, Soweto forged a new unity â a wider unity. Apartheid
rule had split South African society into so many races
(whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa,
Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of
laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the
law in question, they did so separately. In this context came
a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a
new movement, Black Consciousness Movement.
Biko's message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a
colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are
oppressed, you are Black. This was a revolutionary message â
ANC had spoken of non-racialism as early as the Freedom
Charter in the mid-50s. But ANC's non-racialism only touched
the political elite. Individual White and Indian and Coloured
leaders had joined the ANC as individuals. But ordinary people
remained confined and trapped by a political perspective
hemmed in narrow racial or tribal boundaries. Biko forged a
vision with the potential to cut through these boundaries.
Around that same time, another event occurred. It too signaled
a fresh opening. This was the Palestinian Intifada. What is
known as the First Intifada had a Soweto-like potential. Like
the children of Soweto, Palestinian children too dared to face
bullets with no more than stones. Faced with feuding
liberation movements, each claiming to be a sole
representative of the oppressed, the youth of the Intifada
called for a wider unity.
Even though the Egyptian Revolution has come more than three
decades after Soweto, it evokes the memory of Soweto in a
powerful way. This is for at least two reasons.
First, like 1976 Soweto, Tahrir Square in 2011 too shed a
generation's romance with violence. The generation of Nasser
and after had embraced violence as key to fundamental change
in politics and society. This tendency was secular at the
The more Nasser turned to suppressing the opposition and
justifying it in the language of secular nationalism, the more
the opposition began to speak in a religious idiom. The most
important political tendency calling for a surgical break with
the past now spoke the language of radical Islam. Its main
representative in Egypt was Said Qutb. I became interested in
radical Islam after 9/11, which is when I read Sayyid Qutb's
most important book, Signposts. It reminded me of the grammar
of radical politics at the University of Dar es Salaam where I
was a lecturer in the 1970s.
Sayyid Qutb says in the introduction to Signposts that he
wrote the book for an Islamist vanguard; I thought I was
reading a version of Lenin's What is to be Done.
Sayyid Qutb's main argument in the text is that you must make
a distinction between friends and enemies, because with
friends you use persuasion and with enemies you use force. I
thought I was reading Mao Zedong On the Correct Handling of
Contradictions Amongst the People.
I asked myself: how should I understand Sayyid Qutb? As part
of a linear tradition called political Islam? Is the history
of thought best understood inside containers labelled
civilisations; one Islamic, another Hindu, another Confucian,
another Christian, or, alternately, one European, another
Asian, yet another African?
Was not Sayyid Qutb's embrace of political violence in line
with a growing embrace of armed struggle in movements of
national liberation in the '50s and '60s? Was not the key
assumption that armed struggle is not only the most effective
form of struggle but also the only genuine mode of struggle?
The more I read of Sayyid Qutb's distinction between Friend
and Enemy, that you use violence to deal with an enemy and
reason to persuade a friend, the more I realized that I had to
understand Sayyid Qutb as part of his times.
No doubt, like the rest of us, Sayyid Qutb was involved in
multiple conversations: he was involved in multiple debates,
not only with Islamic intellectuals, whether contemporary or
of previous generations, but also with contending
intellectuals inspired by other modes of political thought.
And the main competition then was Marxism-Leninism, a
militantly secular ideology which influenced both Qutb's
language and his methods of organisation and struggle. The
first significance of Tahrir Square was that it shed the mark
of Syed Qutb and the romance with revolutionary violence.
The second resemblance between Soweto and Tahrir Square was on
the question of unity. Just as the anti-apartheid struggle in
South Africa had uncritically reproduced the division between
races and tribes institutionalised in state practices, so too
had the division between religions become a part of the
convention of mainstream politics in Egypt.
Tahrir Square innovated a new politics. It shed the language
of religion in politics but it did so without embracing a
militant secularism that would totally outlaw religion in the
public sphere. It thus called for a broader tolerance of
cultural identities in the public sphere, one that would
include both secular and religious tendencies. The new
contract was that to participate in the public sphere, you
must practice an inclusive politics with respect to others.
This was a move away from inscribing religious identity in
politics, away from turning religious identity into a basis of
political factionalism and sectarian violence. In the days
before Tahrir Square, sectarian violence was often initiated
by those in power, but without a convincing antidote, it also
tended to rip through society. You only have to think of the
violence against the Coptic minority in the weeks before the
historic assembly in Tahrir Square.
Soweto forced many people internationally to rethink their
notions of Africa and African. The convention before Soweto
was to assume that violence was second nature with Africans
and that Africans were incapable of living together
Before Tahrir Square, and particularly after 9/11, official
discourse and media representations in the West were driven by
the assumption that Arabs are genetically predisposed to
violence and to discrimination against anyone different. But
in Tahrir Square, generations and genders, milled and marched
as we say in Kiswahili, bega kwa bega. So did people belonging
to different religious denominations.
What can we learn from this?
New ideas create the basis of new unities and new methods of
struggle. The tendency for power is to seek to politicise
cultural differences in society and then to claim that this
division is only natural. To be successful, a new politics
needs to offer an antidote, an alternative practice that
unites those divided by prevailing modes of governance.
Before and after Soweto, Steve Biko insisted that blackness
was not part of biology but a political experience. In so
doing, he created the ideological basis for a new unity, an
I do not know of a counterpart to Steve Biko in Tahrir Square.
May be there was not one but many Bikos in Egypt. But I do
believe that Tahrir Square has come to symbolise the basis for
a new unity, one that consciously seeks to undermine the
practice of religious sectarianism.
In Uganda today, prevailing governance seeks to divide the
population by politicising ethnicity. The motto is: one tribe,
one district. Inside the district, an administrative tribalism
divides the bafuruki from those designated as indigenous to
the district. As a mode of governance, tribalism
institutionalises offical discrimination against some citizens
and in favour of others.
New ideas nurture new practices. Given time, even the most
revolutionary idea can turn into a routine divorced of
meaning. Think of how we have managed to reduce the practice
of democracy to routine rituals.
The remarkable thing about the events we know as 'Walk to
Work' is that they have followed on the heels of a national
election whose results were anything if not decisive. Whatever
its outcome, 'Walk to work' must make us rethink the practice
of democracy in Uganda.
For a start, one is struck by the spread of cynicism among
both rulers and ruled. More and more in the population thinks
of elections not as the time to make meaningful choices but as
a time to extract dues from politicians who are unlikely to be
sighted until the next election season!
Similarly, more and more in the political class are coming to
think of elections as a managed exercise where the outcome is
decided not by who votes but by who oversees the counting of
votes. What does it say about contemporary democracy that even
an election where those in power can win support of a vast
majority of people, over 90% in Egypt and over two-thirds in
Uganda, does not give you any idea of the level of
dissatisfaction among the electorate?
Consider one remarkable fact. In spite of the growth of
universities and think tanks worldwide, researchers and
consultants have been unable to forecast most major event in
Why? This was true of Soweto 1976, it was true of the fall of
the Soviet Union and it was true of the Egyptian revolution.
What does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can
foretell a natural catastrophe â an earthquake, even a tsunami
â but not a political shift? The rule seems to be: the bigger
the shift, the less likely is the chance of it being foretold.
I think this is so for one reason. Big shifts in social and
political life require an act of the imagination. They require
a break from routine, a departure from convention. That is why
social science, which is focused on the study of routine, of
institutional and repetitive behaviour, is unable to forecast
Herein lies the challenge for Uganda's political class.
No matter how small the numbers involved in the developments
we know as 'Walk to Work', there is no denying its sheer
intellectual brilliance. That brilliance lies in its
simplicity, in its ability to confer on the simplest of human
activities, walking, a major political significance: the
capacity to say no.
The irony is that many in the opposition, and perhaps just as
many in government, seem to think of 'Walk to Work' as a
shortcut to power, which it is unlikely to be. The real
significance of 'Walk to Work' is that it has broken the hold
of routine. In doing so, it presents us with a challenge. That
challenge is to come up with a new language of politics, a new
mode of organization, and a new mode of governance.
From this vantage point, I would like to offer a few
reflections by way of conclusion.
We should resist the temptation to think of Tahrir Square â as
Soweto before it â as a road map. Rather, let us think of
Egypt as a vision, a democratic vision, as both event and
process. Remember that it took nearly two decades for the
Soweto Uprising to deliver a democratic fruit in South Africa.
When it comes to Egypt, the democratic revolution has just
begun. None knows how long it will take to institutionalise
Today, we need to acknowledge that Tahrir Square has not led
to a revolution, but to a reform. And that is not a bad thing.
The lesson of Egypt â unlike that of Libya next door â is the
moral force of non-violence. Unlike violence, non-violence
does not just resist and exclude; it also embraces and
includes, thereby opening up new possibilities of reform,
possibilities that seemed unimaginable only yesterday.
The challenge before the Ugandan political class today is not
to close ranks for a final struggle, as it is habitually prone
to doing. The real challenge is to forge possibilities for a
new politics, on the basis of new associations and new
imaginations. The real challenge is not revolution but reform.
The verdict is still out whether it is government or
opposition that will take the lead and provide the initiative.
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