»]Being hauled up before courts and jailed just because you have chosen to walk to work as a form of protest is something unimaginable in many countries. But in Uganda it happens.
Security forces are harassing and have been locking up opposition politicians and their supporters who are taking part in a protest against spiralling food and fuel prices by walking to work.
The walk-to-work protest, as it is called, began on April 11. A group calling itself Activists for Change (A4C) organised the demonstration and opposition politicians – keen to show they are concerned about people’s discontent over rising prices – heeded the call to take part.
But the protest got off to a stuttering start as the leading opposition figure, Kizza Besigye, was promptly intercepted by security forces when he was leaving his home in Kasangati near Kampala, the capital. Another politician, Nobert Mao, head of the Democratic Party, and an opposition MP were also picked up.
Besigye, who was arrested for a fourth time on Thursday a day after he was freed on bail on condition that he does not stage more protests, had been given three options: To return to his house or be driven to work in a police vehicle or send for his personal car and drive to work. He chose none.
Purchase of fighter jets
The tense standoff that ensued and resulted in Besigye getting shot in the right hand – as supporters who were dispersed by police amid plumes of tear gas joined him – shows no sign of easing and has led to more protests.
It is not hard to see the source of the discontent. The government is planning to buy eight fighter jets for $740m when its people cannot afford food. Government officials justify this spending by saying Uganda needs to beef up its defence systems, if it is to protect its newfound oil near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
To add insult to injury, $1.3m will be splashed out on a swearing-in ceremony for President Yoweri Museveni, who won re-election in February. Several heads of state have been invited to grace what promises to be a colourful ceremony.
Sounding ever so defiant, Besigye told a crowd of his supporters shortly after his release that he would stage more walk-to-work protests.
On April 28 security forces resumed their crackdown, smashing the window of Besigye’s car as he drove into Kampala and spraying him with pepper before bundling him on the back of a pick-up truck.
The crackdown has so far killed five people, including three in the northern town of Gulu and a two-year-old girl in Masaka, 120km south of Kampala.
«We never knew the government is so threatened to the extent» of shooting innocent civilians, Salaamu Musumba, a former MP and vice-president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the party Besigye heads, told Al Jazeera.
The government blames the violence on the actions of the opposition; the opposition say their right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the constitution. Security forces, they argue, do not have to use brute force to disperse unarmed protesters.
The protesters may be unarmed but Kale Kayihura, the chief of the police, told reporters days after the first protest was dispersed that the opposition were trying to use demonstrators to topple a duly elected government.
That accusation seems to gain credence from the utterances made by Besigye on his campaign trail in the run-up to the February 18 presidential elections that he lost to Museveni. It was his third straight electoral defeat since 2001, when he first had a shot at the presidency.
Masses paying price
Besigye, a retired colonel and former personal physician of Museveni, had threatened to stage Egypt-style protests if the election was rigged. He has dismissed the past two elections and the recent one as a sham, but stopped short of staging protests, and merely said he would not recognise the government.
Museveni’s supporters, mostly rural dwellers who gave him 68 per cent of the vote against Besigye’s 26 per cent, say the opposition leader is simply a bad loser trying to take advantage of the disgruntled masses in the capital.
The spokesperson of the ruling National Resistance Movement, who has nicknamed the 55-year-old physician-turned-politician «Dr Walker» after the walk-to-work protest, says the masses are paying the price for the protest.
«Quite a good number of people are dead and scores injured after showdowns that should never have been in the first place had the protesters complied with police regulations,» Mary Karooro Okurut wrote in The New Vision, a state-owned paper.
«By now everybody knows that the motive for the walk-to-work riots has little or nothing to do with the inflation. The rioters simply want to make Kampala … and Uganda at large ungovernable.»
But Besigye remains popular in Kampala and in what appeared a major morale boost, he was visited by diplomats from the Irish and Dutch embassies at the countryside prison in Nakasongola where he was held for a week – much to the chagrin of the government.
Though he has vowed to press ahead with the protests, it remains to be seen how he will beef up the demonstrations given the brute force security forces have used to deadly effect in disrupting the protests.
«The psyche of the police is to handle protesters as enemies and it seems it will take time and experience for the Ugandan police to realise that their job isn’t to defend the regime against the people,» Eriasa Mukiibi-Sserunjogi, a journalist for the Independent news magazine in Kampala, told Al Jazeera.
The government has been quick to explain the source of the crisis, blaming it on drought and the turmoil in oil-producing countries like Libya. But that will not reduce the cost of living. The consumer price index grew by four per cent in March from the previous month and the year-on-year inflation rate stands at 11.1 per cent – up from six per cent.
Museveni, who has ruled the landlocked east African nation since 1986, has been accused of indifference. He told a semi-official Sunday paper in an interview that reducing taxes on fuel imports was unlikely as the government needs money to keep going.
Besigye and his supporters are not only unhappy about spiralling prices. Museveni’s government, in which his wife Janet is a cabinet minister, has signally failed to create jobs for graduates in urban areas, where they are multiplying like malarial microbes.
The Uganda Bureau of Statistics says of the more than 400,000 who enter the labour market each year, 113,000 are absorbed in formal employment. The rest join the informal sector, where they earn barely enough to survive.
Corruption – which reaches ministerial level and has seen major culprits only getting a slap on the wrist – is stoking public anger in cities, which boast a sizeable middleclass that gets to read stories about corruption and malfeasance in newspapers almost on a daily basis.
Delivery of social services is patchy; motorists driving in and around Kampala fret about crater-size potholes and many hospitals remain underequipped, understaffed and underpay their staff.
It is unclear how the crisis will end. Dialogue is still an option, but the president does not seem to be ready to make major concessions.
The FDC may want to call for fresh elections, but «the last thing Museveni can subject himself to now is another election», says Mukiibi-Sserunjogi of the Independent magazine. Besigye said more protests are in the offing and if he means what he says, there will be more tear gas; more deaths, more destruction and injury.