By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
Being allowed to hold rallies recently after a long unofficial ban meant the jury was always out on opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Would he pull crowds? Would his message resonate with the public? Or would he self-destruct?
At the rallies, it became immediately clear that supporters are more impatient about the change he preaches.
Isaac Kiyemba, a resident of Kinawataka in Kampala, is a portrait of Besigye’s radical supporter.
Holding a picture of Besigye in military fatigues, Kiyemba sweats profusely under the baking sun on the afternoon of Jan. 25 at Luzira Grounds near the capital, Kampala. Flashing the V-sign, he jumps excitedly as Ingrid Turinawe, the chairperson of the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) women’s league, leads the crowd in song.
The atmosphere at several recent rallies by opposition political leaders under the auspices of the Activists for Change (A4C) makes it feel like the scheduled 2016 presidential election is here.
When FDC leader Kizza Besigye takes to the podium, he declares it is no longer a question of whether President Yoweri Museveni is leaving power or not.
The only thing to be discussed, says Besigye, is how “Museveni is going” (will be removed).
“What do we do?” Besigye asks.
“Zaake,” Kiyemba and the rest of the crowd roar back in a thunderous response. “Zaake” is now a popular Luganda slang for “let us use guns”.
Taking up arms to overthrow the government is a demand Besigye has come to expect from his supporters. “Guns are the only option that can remove this man (Museveni),” says Kiyemba.
Kiyemba says he can “never” support any other person to take on Museveni because it is only Besigye who can do the job. “I started supporting Besigye in 2001 and if he had mobilised us to use guns then, Museveni would already be out of power,” Kiyemba says, thumping his chest.
Besigye wooed a big section of the anti-Museveni public by seeming to suggest a military solution in 2001, assuring his supporters that he had the capacity to shoot Museveni out of power. He famously dubbed himself the hammer that would knock the cotter pin (a reference Museveni had earlier made of himself) out of Uganda’s power machine. Besigye also claimed to have 90 percent support in the army. At the time, Besigye expected several top generals with whom he had shared the trenches in Museveni’s 5-year guerrilla bush war in Luweero, to join him. They did not and Besigye eased off that line.
Even now, however, Besigye is conscious that his supporters like that line. So he is always keen to play up his ability to pursue a military option.
“I commanded the big guns and the small guns; not just what these policemen are threatening you with,” he told the Luzira rally, adding that had he decided to take the military option, “Museveni would already be out of power”.
People power is stronger
But Besigye hastens to tell his supporters that collectively, they have more power than guns. Drawing from Uganda’s turbulent history, Besigye reminds them that groups of gunmen have successively replaced one another and that each time the new power holders have turned the guns against the people who supported them in the first place.
“Our objective now is to defeat gun rule forever,” Besigye said at Luzira. Besigye says defeating the guns can only be achieved through popular uprising. He urges his supporters to, therefore, shed off fear and come out and protest.
At the Luzira rally, Besigye shared the podium with Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze who dramatised the effect of people power using her example. Nambooze is a petite woman, quite unimposing in demeanour, but gifted with a vitriolic tongue that got her a slot in parliament but had, before that, sent her to jail a few times. But she told the crowd that because she is fearless, whenever the need to arrest her arises, the different security bosses first hold high level meetings with either the knowledge or the participation of President Museveni.
“But look at how (suspended Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Director for Physical Planning George) Agaba came here and killed people,” Nambooze said, referring to the shooting incident in the area in which at least one person was killed by a KCCA eviction squad.
“You are no different from me and you can be feared and respected by the oppressors if you stop fearing,” Nambooze advised.
The message is sinking in. Several speakers took swipes at police constables who were deployed in their hundreds to watch over proceedings during rallies and line the streets as Besigye and his colleagues vacate the venues. “Tulumbe?” (Should we attack?), a group of supporters at the Luzira rally asks for an order to attack the policemen stationed all over the place.
But Kyaddondo East MP Ssemujju Nganda tells them the police is not their target. The target is President Museveni, he says. “In fact they (policemen) say they beat you up because you have refused to act fast and liberate them,” Ssemujju tells them.
Besigye also tells his supporters that the police are part of the people who urgently needed to be liberated.
“It is when I was detained at Kasangati police station that I found out that the policemen who had arrested me cram into a (metallic) container (for shelter),” he told the Luzira rally. Besigye tells his supporters that the policemen are no different from the guns and sticks they wield.
“They have all been hired by the oppressor to protect him,” he said.
Some opposition supporters, however, seem to have grown impatient with the police and often appear to itch for a fight. Most of the police officers deployed at the rallies this time carried no guns but sticks and teargas canisters. But restraint was written all over their faces; at least in comparison to the way they handled the earlier protests.
Not the same for some supporters. “How much do you get paid to sell your country?” a youth accosts a by standing policeman, who looks the other way as if to cool off things.
About half a kilometre away from the rally venue in Luzira, a female police officer is taking position along the road because the rally has ended and the police have to accompany Besigye’s vehicle.
“We have to ensure he doesn’t stop over to address people and doesn’t pass through town (central Kampala),” the policewoman says in a conversation with this reporter, before she remembers that she is probably making a mistake. “Go and talk to the commander, you know we are not allowed to talk to anyone,” she follows up immediately.
This woman, who is probably in her mid-thirties, has to walk at breakneck speed or run as she accompanies Besigye’s vehicle, if necessary from Luzira to his Kasangati home (about 20 kilometres away). Luckily for her, the commander decides they should stop at Nakawa, about four kilometres away.
Besigye’s car, sandwiched between police vehicles, moves at snail pace despite Kaweesa, the Kampala metropolitan police commander, pleading with the driver to speed up.
Traffic police divert oncoming traffic to other routes as Besigye waves to his supporters along the way. But his supporters are not happy that police is following him. Stones are intermittently thrown, seeming to particularly target the police, by youths who take cover behind nearby buildings.
Who throws stones? A4C Coordinator Mpuuga says their activities are peaceful and it is the police that plants stone throwers to discredit the peaceful movement. Mpuuga says police has a “stone throwing squad” dressed in blue T-shirts with Besigye’s picture for this purpose.
But Kaweesa charges it is the politicians who incite the people against the police, by “consistently ridiculing and name-calling police officers”.
In a press statement issued on Jan. 27, Activists for Change Coordinator Mathias Mpuuga said Kaweesa had warned him that “we are yet to see the worst” if the opposition did not reign in their supporters.
Since April 2011, containing the protests has been a trial-and-error job for the police. The original idea of using brutal force has not worked. Protesters and bystanders were injured and others killed, attracting bad press for the government. Top security officers have been threatened with indictment by the International Criminal Court. Police commanders who failed to contain protests according to plan lost jobs.
Turyagumanawe was in charge of a bitter altercation last April when Besigye was assaulted by a gang of security officers led by Gilbert Arinaitwe. Besigye and other opposition leaders were arrested and charged in court but most of the cases have been dismissed and the remaining ones also seem poised to suffer a similar fate.
The learning curve seems to continue for the police because at the next rally in Kawempe on Jan. 26, more police personnel had head protection gear, but also the police seemed to move more decisively against stone throwers.
Nasty scenes resulted in which a number of people were injured, with at least a couple losing some teeth and others sustaining deep head wounds. A bodaboda cyclist reportedly died following a crash with a police patrol vehicle on their way back from Kawempe.
After the rally in Ndeeba on Jan. 27, Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Naggayi’s vehicle collided with a police van escorting Besigye, injuring the MP, who was standing in the car waving to her supporters.
Earlier the opposition politicians were exhorting their supporters to attend a major rally at the Kololo Airstrip originally scheduled for Jan. 28. But on the eve of the Kololo rally, permission for which MP Nabilah had haggled over since the grounds are directly controlled by President Museveni at State House, Mpuuga announced that the rally had been postponed.
Had they developed called feet? Had they failed to amass the numbers? These are pertinent questions because for a long time they have clamoured for this venue but had been blocked by the government. This was their chance to display the oppositions overwhelming numbers and they threw it. Will they get it again?
Initially, Jan. 28, appeared to have be carefully selected. On that day, visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met with President Museveni.
On the agenda, according to a statement from the American Embassy, was a range of issues including “helping Uganda strengthen its commitment to good governance and respect for human rights”.
As things stand, President Yoweri Museveni seems to need a makeover following the bad local and international press his government has suffered in recent months over the mishandling of Besigye and the Walk to Work protests, probably justifying the concession.
Over the same period, Uganda was also hosting Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki and Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema Obiang. Perhaps the government was anxious to avoid scenes from the last time when pro-Besigye protests coincided with a major national function, during Museveni’s swearing in on May 12, 2011. Several visiting dignitaries endured humiliation and scary scenes at the hands of the protesters. The commander on the day, Assistant Inspector General of Police Francis Rwego, was suspended due to failure to throw Besigye and his entourage off Entebbe Road. Besigye was returning from Nairobi where he had been treated for eye and other injuries inflicted on him by operative Arinaitwe during a violent arrest.
The man in charge this time, Police Commissioner Andrew Kaweesa, was determined to avoid a replay. He is approaching the job with an equal measure of diplomacy and force. “They (opposition) can hold a thousand rallies if they like,” Kaweesa told The Independent, but immediately added, “I will be very uncompromising with those who throw stones”.
But he knew he has the toughest job in Uganda today. He has to contain Besigye, the man who has most preoccupied the police over the recent years.
Kaweesa’s job is certainly harder than his predecessor Turyagumanawe’s. As Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander, Turyagumanawe only had to stop Besigye from walking or holding rallies. Kaweesa, on the other hand, on the first day of Walk to Work Reloaded, arrested Besigye and a number of his colleagues but later released him without charge. He has since let Besigye hold his rallies, regulate them and if necessary walk Besigye back to his Kasangati home. Noticeably, the police under Kaweesa uses less tear gas and very few of them are armed, with the majority carrying sticks.
Already, Kaweesa has had to confront stone throwing gangs, is facing accusations of operatives under his command ramming into Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Naggayi’s vehicle as they moved from a rally, and a score of opposition supporters have been injured.
Kaweesa says he sees no problem with letting the opposition hold rallies so long as they are peaceful. After all, he says, there is need to “demystify the myth the people have been having that we are against the opposition and we don’t want them to hold rallies”.
Whether Besigye’s new peaceful approach will work better remains to be seen. Two scenarios seem possible though – the government could be using the latest string of rallies as an experiment to justify future restriction on rallies, or it could have grown weary of stifling Besigye and decided on letting him hold rallies under ‘containment’.
But if the government’s plan was to let Besigye get exposed if he were allowed to conduct rallies and had nothing new to excite the public, they seem to have misfired. The opposition rallies have been well attended and seem loaded with excitement. The organisers suspended the Kololo rally to first roll out the rallies program to Kyengera, Katwe, Mukono, Wakiso, Nansana and other areas.