By S©verine Koen
The arrest, on January 18, of about 35 women who were protesting at the Electoral Commission (EC) headquarters in Kampala, is just one recent example of the difficulty and danger of staging a demonstration in Uganda. Yet, in this pre-election year, the ability to voice ones opinions, whether for or against the current government, is an absolute necessity for a well-functioning democracy.
On January 22, only four days after the botched protest at the EC and four days before NRM Day, a demonstration was held against President Musevenis government. The march proceeded unimpeded. No police interrupted. Nobody was arrested. How could this demonstration go so smoothly? The answer lies in the simple fact that the protest took place some 11678 kilometers from Kampala: in Washington D.C.
Under the coordination of Ugandans in Diaspora (UDII), about 200 Ugandans and Americans staged a demonstration in the United States capital, and two other protests followed in Boston on January 23 and New York City on January 26. The demonstration in Washington D.C. started in front of the Ugandan embassy and ended in front of the White House, passing in front of major international and American institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and Capitol Hill. Some protestors chanted: Save, save Uganda, Museveni must go! whilst other protestors denounced the Western governments for their continued funding of Musevenis administration. At the end of the protest, a petition against Museveni and the NRM regime was delivered to the U.S Congress.
In todays globalized world, no country can conduct an election completely hidden from the watchful eye of the international community. In particular, most countries increasingly have citizens living and working abroad, who are still deeply engaged in the issues affecting their home countries. This can be evidenced by their online engagement. For instance, blogs such as Ugandans at Heart and Facebook groups such as Ugandans abroad offer platforms where Ugandan issues can be discussed regardless of your location in the world.
Thus, Uganda’s 2011 elections will not only be closely followed by resident citizens of Uganda, but also by Ugandans living outside of Uganda, not to mention many interested foreigners in and outside of the country. The case of the D.C. protest is a great example of how communities in the diaspora maintain strong ties with Uganda and still have a vested interest in fighting for what they think is best for their homeland.
The Independents SÃ©verine Koen got in touch with Deogratias Kawunde Miti, coordinator for UDII, to learn more about Ugandan pre-election mobilisation outside of Uganda.
How was the idea of demonstrations against Museveni in NYC and DC born?
The idea of organising demonstrations under Ugandans in Diaspora (UDII) against oppressive regimes is not new in Ugandaâ€™s political history. Our grandfathers pioneered this during the colonial times as an effective tool of civil disobedience. Itâ€™s partly due to that reason that Uganda won her independence without a protracted war, unlike other African countries like Kenya. However the pacifist means of challenging the government were upstaged by Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Milton Obote of Uganda, among others, who schooled the likes of Museveni and other self-styled revolutionaries in the militarisation of politics. Our current wave against Museveniâ€™s dictatorship and his NRM military regime began at the beginning of last year and gained more urgency following the Kampala Massacres of September 2009. Realising that our colleagues in Uganda may not be granted their right to lawfully oppose Museveniâ€™s military regime in the near future, we decided to hold demonstrations where they can be held and where we can shame the international community into action against the Ugandan dictatorship that had enjoyed a free pass from the world powers despite its bloody record.
Is this your first time organising a demonstration?
Since last year, we have had other protests against the NRMâ€™s tyranny over Uganda and General Museveni’s bloody hand in Buganda, Teso, Acholi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan and beyond. The demonstrations in Washington D.C, New York City and other cities mark a week of protests in and outside of Uganda, against the regimes continued abuse of human rights, militarisation of politics, corruption and nepotism, persecution of political opponents, excessive brutality against dissenting citizens, land grabbing, muzzling of the press and suppression of indigenous kingdoms.
How large is the Ugandan community in your area? Do you have a leadership role within that community?
The Ugandans community on the Eastern coast numbers in several thousands, with the biggest concentrations around Boston, Massachusetts, Washington D.C. Metro area, the New York Tri-State Area, Raleigh, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and around Jacksonville, Florida. These are Ugandans from all parts of Uganda, with different ethnic backgrounds and different political affiliations. We are all brought together to stop Museveni and the NRM from plunging our beloved Uganda into further economic decline, social decay and political turmoil. The leadership of Ugandans in Diaspora (UDII) is derived from office bearers of the different Ugandan political and civil organisations, some independent and others affiliated with the traditional political parties in Uganda.
How easy was it to get permission from the necessary American authorities to have the demonstration?
With particular reference to Washington D.C, General Kale Kayihura and the Uganda Police have a lot to learn. In this capital of the United States, we only need to notify the designated Police department of the purpose of our demonstration, the planned date and the desired time. Once Police verifies your lawful identity, the permit is issued and Police escort is automatically provided for the route, venue and duration of the demonstration. Thatâ€™s what Police in a democratic state should do: secure the demonstrators and the venue. Compare that to Ugandaâ€™s case: When the Kabaka intends to visit Bugerere, Museveni refers him to Kimeze and instead accuses Mengo of trying to cause trouble. Itâ€™s ironic that it was Kimeze who threatened violence in Bugerere, yet Mengo gets the blame from Museveni. Why not simply provide Kabaka and his entourage with security to visit his subjects instead? That could have averted the September disturbances in Kampala.
What do you hope to achieve through these demonstrations?
Our purpose is to build, support, expose and put a face to the growing lack of democracy and high level of corruption in Uganda at the international level.Â We do this by organising political, civic and social awareness of the situation in Uganda at the local, national, and international level. The substantial part of UDII activities will consist of campaigning for democracy, educational, governance, and human rights awareness for the people of Uganda.
Who do you hope to impact through these demonstrations?
We have already achieved a lot by fixing the spotlight on Museveni and NRMs actions in Uganda and Ugandans should prepare for the imminent collapse of Museveni’s regime.
Its through our efforts that on January 13, the US Congress directed the State Department to ensure that electoral reforms are implemented in Uganda and to ensure that the political opposition is protected and allowed to exercise their full rights in the lead to Uganda’s elections in 2011.
On two occasions Museveni and his henchmen have been hounded out of the USA by our demonstrations, first in Boston, MA in October 2009 and most recently on December 4-5, 2009 in New York City.
We have also managed to frame the Anti-Gay Bill in Uganda’s Parliament as part of a broader human rights issue and forced it on the agenda of the US Congress.
We have also worked with US partners to place Northern Uganda back on the international agenda and Ugandans will soon hear the US Congress pronounce itself on justice and rehabilitation for the people of Northern Uganda who have suffered untold atrocities under Museveni’s regime.
Why is it important for you to be involved in Ugandan political affairs even from abroad?
Uganda is our country and we in the Diaspora, having experienced the benefits of life in true democracies, cannot leave Uganda to rot under the evil NRM regime. Leaders of different opposition groups, both in and outside of Uganda, chose to coalesce under the umbrella of Ugandans in Diaspora (UDII) to make the plight of Uganda’s democracy and human rights more visible on the international agenda. We hold demonstrations in the USA, UK, Scandinavian countries and South Africa. Those venues were chosen as starting points for our demonstrations due to their respect for human rights, which contrasts with the situation in Uganda where Museveni and his goons routinely employ brutality to deny our people the freedom of expression, the right to organise politically and the right to peaceful assembly. Also, the USA, UK, South Africa and the Scandinavian countries hold enormous power and can lean on Museveni and force his regime to respect Uganda’s Constitution and international conventions on human rights.
What are you predictions/feelings about the coming Ugandan elections?
If the 2011 elections are held under the current electoral law and commission, then we cannot expect a legitimate result. However, we still have time to cause the regime to change or to collapse before the elections of 2011, especially by demanding that General Museveni immediately withdraws his candidature for a 4th term of his presidency.