An anthropologist's take on Uganda and the Great Lakes region...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The 'Walk to Work' campaign

People across Kampala, and other urban centres, are today bracing themselves for the sixth day of the 'Walk to Work' campaign (W2W). This campaign has already resulted in the worst civil disturbances in Uganda since the National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power, in 1986. However, contrary to what some commentators are now suggesting, these protests are unlikely to develop into an 'Egyptian style' uprising.

Rather, W2W needs to be seen as a consequence of the recently concluded presidential and parliamentary elections. Following their disastrous showing in those polls, in early April, the Uganda opposition launched an organization for direct action, called the 'Activists for Change' (A4C). President Museveni's main opponent Kizza Besigye (who polled just 26% in February) and his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) played a key role in its formation. MP-elect Mathias Mpuuga, a senior member of the Democratic Party (DP) and well-known Buganda-nationalist, fronts the organization, while two other presidential contenders - DP leader Norbert Mao and Uganda People's Congress (UPC) leader Olara Otunnu - are also highly visible. It is also supported by other opposition groups, and by a number of civil society organizations (including senior figures within the Church of Uganda).

On 11th April, A4C launched the W2W campaign, which was designed to harness popular discontent over rising food and fuel prices. Inflation had weakened to single digit figures following the global downturn, after averaging 12.5% during 2008-9, but has climbed steadily in the past six months - driven by rising food and fuel prices, and a weakening Ugandan shilling. In addition, government spending rose ahead of the polls - in line with January's supplementary budget of UgSh 600 billion - exacerbating these pressures. Food production also dropped throughout early-2011, as a result of a prolonged drought caused by the La Nina weather system (incidentally, I have documented the profound social consequences of a previous La Nina in my book Ghosts of Kanungu, 2009). The combined result was that headline inflation hit double-digit figures in March and April, while the food price index increased by 39.3% in April.

However, from the beginning, the main story of W2W was the security forces' markedly draconian response to the protests. On the first day of the campaign, Besigye, Mao and several dozen opposition MPs were arrested. Mao's arrest resulted in violent protests, in which the police shot dead three people. Besigye was arrested again two days later, and shot in the arm with a rubber bullet. Besigye and Mao were also arrested during the third W2W event. On 21st April, the fourth day of W2W, the police responded to a protest in Mpuuga's home town of Masaka by firing live rounds, accidentally killing a baby. On 28th April, during the fifth W2W action, Besigye attempted to drive into Kampala city centre. However, the police stopped his convoy on several occasions, before finally halting it near Wandageya. During the ensuing standoff, plainclothes police stormed Besigye's vehicle, and subdued him with pepper spray. Tear gas canisters were also fired directly at some of his entourage. Besigye was dragged from the vehicle, and manhandled into a waiting police truck. Cameramen from Kampala's NTV recorded the entire incident, and their footage can be viewed here:

When these images were broadcast on NTV (and other stations), and were posted on the internet, they triggered riots in various locations around Kampala. The earliest incidents were reported from various central locations, including the densely populated areas around Kisekka Market, the Old Taxi Park and Lugogo Stadium. However, they soon spread to various outlying locations as well, including the areas around the FDC headquarters in Najjanankumbi, and various sites along the Entebbe road (the largest being at Kajjansi, which is about 20 km south of Kampala). Later, they also spread to Makerere University, as well as to various other urban centres around the country (including Masaka, Mbale and Mbarara). At each of these locations, scores of mostly young men set tires and cars alight, and fought running battles with police and the army. The security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition into the crowds. At least 5 people were killed (all of them in and around Kampala), at least 139 were hospitalized (at least 20 of them with gunshot wounds), and more than 700 were arrested. Some sources have put the death toll as high as 9.

Both the opposition and media commentators have been quick to paint the events as a spontaneous outbreak of popular unrest directed against Museveni's government, similar to that which occurred in Egypt, and thus likely to gather momentum. However, the opposition's position here is overstated:

Firstly, there is no anti-regime consensus. Many Ugandans share the opposition's unease over food and fuel prices. However, there is no indication that most people directly blame the government for these. A recent televised address, in which Museveni cited external pressures for the economic strain, was sympathetically received among large sections of the population. And we must remember that Museveni was reelected with an overwhelming majority less than three months ago. Secondly, although there has been growing outrage at Besigye's treatment in recent weeks, it is unlikely that Friday's riots can be seen as an expression of popular support for him, or for his movement. All of the riots in Kamapala, in particular, occurred in and around long-established FDC strongholds - suggesting that they were orchestrated by existing FDC sympathizers (possibly even by the network of 'vigilante' groups with which the party has been associated in the past). Moreover, the fact that they all ended so quickly - even in Kisekka and Kajjansi, the scenes of the heaviest clashes, the rioting lasted no more than two hours - contrasts with the image of a 'popular uprising'. Finally, there is little indication that more people will become mobilized to the A4C cause as a result of Friday's riots. Certainly, FDC activists - especially the young men - are now expecting more violence, starting today. However, throughout 30th April and 1st May radio talk shows were also inundated with callers appealing for calm. For his part, Besigye himself - who following his arrest was flown to Nairobi for medical treatment - has subsequently made a similar request (albeit while also reiterating that peaceful protests would continue).

However, this is not to say that the government has emerged from all of this unscathed. On the contrary, Museveni and the security services have come in for growing criticism for their handling of events. The footage of Besigye's fourth arrest (above) - as well as a rather confused press conference in which Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura criticized his own commanders for their actions before and during the riots - has fed negative perceptions. During Friday's events, the police entirely lost control of at least one of the riot sites (Kisekka), following which the Special Forces group - under the command of Museveni's son Kainerugaba Muhoozi - had to be called in (significantly escalating the violence at that location). Yesterday, Wednesday 4th May, hundreds of lawyers across the country began a three day strike to protest what they called the 'crimes against humanity' committed by the security services last Friday.

However, the biggest criticisms of the government's handling of events appears to be coming from the international community. In a snub to Museveni, Besigye was visited in prison by the Irish and Dutch ambassadors (on 11th April) and by the Norweigan and French ambassadors (on 18th April). And following the riots of 29th April, both the EU and the UN have publically criticized Museveni. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called on the Ugandan government to halt its 'excessive' use of force on civilians.

So where do we go from here? Certainly, more civil unrest is likely in the days to come. However, this is unlikely to turn into an Egyptian style uprising. More likely, a combination of domestic and international pressure will force Museveni into major concessions, possibly involving a large tax reduction on fuel (a move just made in neighbouring Kenya). Rumours now abound in Kampala that the international community may even now try to force Museveni into forming a 'unity government' with the opposition, as a means for diffusion tensions. However, this is unlikely to happen, given the leverage that Museveni has as the lead player in ongoing peace keeping operations in Somalia. In addition, even if the opposition were brought into such an arrangement, it is unlikely that they would be able to turn this into tangible gains. To achieve these, they would also need to have to develop a coherent agenda - something they have singularly failed to do for the past 5 years (indeed, the W2W campaign is probably the first thing that they have agreed on, in all that time).

Still, in light the growing chorus of criticism of Museveni's handling of the protests, Besigye and his allies may already count the W2W campaign as a significant success.