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The danger of the crowd mentality

By Dr. Jude Kagoro

Demonstrations versus socio-political order in Kampala

Renowned French philosopher, Gustave Le Bon once proposed that crowds are far less intelligent than the individuals that comprise them. When individuals come together in a crowd, there is a strong likelihood that their individual conscious personality and intelligence temporarily vanishes. Individuals may be different in their modes of life or levels of IQ but when they are part of a crowd they acquire, according to Le Bon, a collective mind of some sort which them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from the way they usually would.

The heterogeneous is swamped by the homogeneous, and the unconscious qualities obtain the upper hand, which is the very reason why crowds may never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence.

Once a crowd is constituted, it acquires certain characteristics including impulsiveness, simple-and-single mindedness and irrationality. Though Le Bon, like many great thinkers, has attracted several criticisms, I in part draw on his framework to weigh in on the political demonstration vs. socio-political order debate in Uganda.

In the past three or so years, Kampala city has become a stage show for the theatrical performances titled “political demonstrations.” Three central characters are at the heart of the theatrics.

When Besigye is the opposition

The first is the opposition that has increasingly taken to street militancy rather than building a sound ideology and alternative policy agenda with organisational means to advance it. However, it would be unfair to lump all opposition politicians together. In this article, I will mostly refer to Besigye as the embodiment of the opposition.

The Uganda police force is the second character. A sober look would uncover that the police under Gen. Kale Kayihura has strengthened its capacity to inhibit street protests.

Important to underline is that the police has not only strengthened its physical capacity but most importantly the intelligence arm and the systematic penetration of the Kampala society.

The third and perhaps the least understood central character are the poor urban youth. As I shall elaborate, the youth are mostly mistaken to be opposition diehards and mechanical tools for the benefit of fulfilling politicians’ interests. I argue that in the political demonstration theatrics these youth are also using the politicians and the police to stage their own game.

Following President Yoweri Museveni’s victory in the 2011 general election, many commentators completely wrote off his main rival, Kizza Besigye. However, a few months later Besigye unexpectedly recreated himself to get back into the political game.

Joschka Philipps, a political sociologist at the University of Basel observes that Besigye’s recreation process involved choosing disadvantaged and poor youth in Kampala as central supporters and symbols for those Ugandans who have not benefitted from the NRM system and are fed up with the status quo.

After realising that winning an election was close to impossible, Besigye resorted to street protests as a potential instrument to aid his access to power.

American political sociologist, Jack A. Goldstone, would have advised Besigye that for his chosen method to work three conditions must be in place. That is; the state must be in crisis, a reasonable number of elites must have been alienated from the state processes and in conflict with one another, and a significant part of the population could be mobilised for protest. None of these factors exist in present-day Uganda.

Moreover, empirical evidence across the globe shows us that post guerrilla war movements that capture power through a bottom-up approach; dismantling pre-existing state structures from below and replacing them with their own, hardly collapse. Such governments, including Museveni’s, usually construct a very firm foundation, especially in the rural areas.

So, Besigye’s chosen method was only important for the recreation of his political persona, but sadly, he over-stretched the limits thus irritating many potential admirers who are more interested in long-term socio-political order. Most likely, these potential admirers now look to Kayihura and his police forces as the defenders of a sense of order.

The street protests also drew all the attention away from the structures of Besigye’s party; the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) to an individual kicking and screaming on the streets of Kampala. In the course of the demonstrations one can clearly see a Besigye playing to the TV cameras and in most cases to the tunes of the screaming youth.

Le Bon would say that at those moments Besigye assumes the body and mind of the crowd and basically becomes emotional and impulsive. Le Bon would add that the screaming and kicking Besigye is far less intelligent than the Besigye addressing FDC colleagues at the party headquarters in Najanankumbi or that one appearing on different radio satiations coherently analysing issues.

I personally find a collected Besigye; such as that one who appeared on NTV’s “Life Stories” program on March 30, very intelligent and articulate. But the street Besigye is different and will not take any orders from the police because the general mood of the crowd commands him to kick them instead.

Besigye acts the “warrior” gratifying the shared attitudes and expectations of same crowd; the warrior is the ideal leader.  It is also true that Besigye tactics have contributed to the re-production of an image of a prototype African country in the eyes of the western world that needs help to achieve democracy. Every time Besigye and his cohorts are detained, several foreign envoys and members of international NGO frequent police stations to show concern.

Young and the Rambo factor

Worth noting is that the youth who are on the streets with Besigye have their own rhythm and motivations which could be far removed from those of Besigye. Police officers and some of the active young protestors spoken to reveal that oftentimes the youth participate in demonstrations without knowing the issue being demonstrated for or against—they simply join in. After talking to various youth groups in Kampala, Joschka Philipps discovered that the youth are attracted to the idea of demonstrations based on both the frustrations in their daily lives and the excitement of the moment.

Like their peers in many cities across the globe Joschka adds, some youth in Kampala are overwhelmed by the rapid socio-economic development that can be perceived all over the city but fails to arrive in their own pockets and to satisfy their enormous aspirations. What is more frustrating is that these youth have no single individual to blame for their predicament. They thus choose the easiest target, the government. He adds that both activist youth groups and criminal gangs drawn from the poorest and toughest slums of Kampala are paid by politicians to act as guards or to cause commotion in the course of demonstrations.

For many youth, the demonstrations are less about Besigye than about their own interests. More than anything, demonstrations offer them emotional and financial benefits. Besides the opportunity to loot and vandalise, the demonstrations are an avenue to express their bottled-up anger with myriad issues that bother them on a day-to-day basis. And these problems may be social, familial or personal. An individual youth may have quarreled with his father, or been dumped by his girlfriend or angry that the landlord kicked him out of the house for failure to pay rent. In participating in the demonstration, this youth is not expressing a political grievance but seeking personal therapy from his frustrations.

Moreover, these youth whom no one seems to care about, finally stand at the center of national attention. In the limelight, they grab their opportunity to act out their fantasies of power and prestige. When one critically looks at the video clips of these demonstrations the youth are seen performing push-ups or removing shirts showing their built-up muscles or imitating rap music gestures. The demonstrations provide them with the best means to “actualise” the fiction celebrated in popular culture and Hollywood movies. In those moments of rioting they become Arnold Schwarzenegger acting “Terminator” or John Rambo in the “Rambo Saga” or Bruce Lee acting the “Game of Death.”  Many of the youth want to be captured on TV screens. When that happens they become “super heroes” in their own social groups.

A middle level police officer intimated that the day after a demonstration, several youth are normally seen converging around their peers whose images were shown on TV, applauding them.  The demonstrations also provide these youth with a chance to enhance their identity as “strong men” and to be accepted as tough and loyal gangsters in their respective groups. Symbolising their newly gained sense of significance the youth liken their performances to the most notorious global hotspots diffused through audio-visual media. For instance, the youth in Kiseka market have proudly renamed the area Benghazi—the epicenter of the Libyan revolution. That said, Le Bon would argue that these youth also assume the psychology of the crowd and can easily become extremely violent.

To use their concept, most of these youth prefer “Kagwirawo”—an immediate benefit—and any promise of tomorrow is of secondary consideration. If this category helped Besigye take power—which is least likely—they would most probably be the same people to cause his downfall after a few weeks in power.

There is a real possibility of a Ukrainian or Egyptian situation where a new government fails to consolidate as its daily actions are shaped by the conflicting demands of the street mobs. Such situations are antithetical to democracy because when anarchy begins to rule, most people begin to yearn for order, a factor that creates a perfect invitation for a military intervention.

More critically, because youths in Kampala seek different benefits from protests from those who lead them, if Prime Minister Amaama Mbabazi or even Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh disagreed with Museveni who is his elder brother and took to the streets like Besigye has, the same youth would join them.

In short, those are not necessarily loyal supporters of Besigye, but individuals looking to fulfill their interests of the moment. They are hungry for quick profits and for continuous action and are not loyal to one single politician.  Were they to collapse one regime, they would feel unstoppable and regard themselves as the most important segment of society. Obviously, such a scenario would result in nihilism and socio-political anarchy.

Kayihura’s warriors

This brings me back to the other main character in the theatrics of political demonstration; the Uganda Police.  Much as one would disagree with the heavy-handedness that some police officers apply during the demonstrations, the police’s response capacity has improved compared to the past years.

In the past, demonstrations were curtailed by police, often supported by the military using live bullets which led to many deaths. Today the response to demonstration is purely a role of the police mostly using less-lethal weapons, such as rubber bullets, colored water, pepper spray, and teargas instead of the live bullets.

Moreover, the IGP, Gen. Kale Kayihura, has built a relatively strong intelligence arm of the police. This arm has systematically penetrated the urban poor youth groups some of which simultaneously work for both the opposition and police.

These youth provide detailed information on planned demonstrations, which in turn helps the police to prepare a relatively swift and better response. Several demonstrations that would have been potentially violent and destructive have been foiled before commencement.

As a norm police will not advertise how many demonstrations that have been foiled, but one officer notes that they quadruple those we hear, see and talk about. Ironically, these demonstrations also provide an opportunity for police officers to become TV celebrities. They wear their headgear, looking like warriors in the middle of tough situations. They proudly grant interviews to journalists converging around them. Through these demonstrations, officers’ names and images are inscribed in the minds and hearts of the populace, and some may even get a promotion for their hard work.

In a nutshell, the police force has relatively succeeded in the moderation of potentially dangerous crowds—as Gustave Le Bon calls them—that could have disrupted the socio-political order in Kampala city on several occasions. Before some readers quickly interpret my observations as too harsh to the opposition, I would like to state that I am only a firm believer in socio-political order. Crowd mentality is dangerous and shall not take Uganda forward.


Dr. Jude Kagoro is a Postdoc Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS), University of Bremen in Germany. or

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