Why last month’s scuffles in parliament excited the public but did not lead to popular protests
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Last week, poorly trained security operatives entered the parliament’s main chamber and removed opposition members who were protesting plans by the ruling party to amend the constitution to allow President Yoweri Museveni run in 2021. The issue in this debate is not really about allowing 75 year-olds to run for president. Rather people are concerned that this amendment will give Museveni a chance to extend his rule from 35 to 40 years. For many Ugandans this is a path to a life presidency.
The debate on the floor of parliament degenerated into fist and stick fights between security operatives and opposition MPs. Many MPs were bundled out of the House like chicken thieves, dumped into motor vehicles and taken to prison. All this drama was broadcast live on national television and streamlined live on social media. Yet there were no protests on the streets to support the position of MPs in parliament.
Meanwhile, on social media; especially Facebook, passions are running high. Ugandans are angry that Museveni wants to turn our republic into a monarchy. They call the amendment “rape of the constitution.” But if Ugandans are so passionate about this issue, why were they docile when MPs seeking to protect the constitution were assaulted and bundled out of parliament?
The behaviour of Ugandans is even more intriguing given that this debate was taking place in Kampala City which is surrounded by Wakiso District. This is the most urbanised area of Uganda with over two million registered voters. Its residents are the most educated, youthful, exposed and articulate sections of our society. And they have universal access to newspapers, radio and television and near-universal access to social media.
If this amendment spells doom for our country, how could the struggle of MPs in parliament not precipitate reaction from the public? It is not convincing to say the opposition could not mobilise because of the police. The residents of Kampala and Wakiso have access to Facebook, Twitter, Whats App and SMS, the best platforms for mass mobilisation. The government did not shut down social media. And no one censored newspapers or television and radio debate on this issue.
Let us accept, just for arguments sake, that the opposition actually tried to mobilize the masses to protest but people were afraid of being beaten by the police. Yet Uganda has had large protests before that lasted days in spite (and also because) of police brutality – the arrest of Kizza Besigye in November 2005, Kayunga riots in 2009 and Walk to Work in 2011.
The argument that Ugandans fear to protest because of police brutality does not hold. I agree that it is still early in this debate; so it is possible that as the debate progresses we may see larger protests. Yet I am inclined to believe this will need another issue (other than Museveni’s desire to rule for life) to galvanise many people to take to the streets. Hence, holding other factors constant, there is likely going to be no protests.