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Despite the madness of walk-to-work crackdown, good has come out of it

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

It takes Museveni more men to stop Besigye from walking, than it took US President Obama to kill terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

After the recent violence-riddled weeks in Uganda as the government cracked down on the opposition-led “walk-to-wolk” protests, and crowned it by an unnerving savage attack on FDC leader Dr Kizza Besigye that was captured on TV for all the world to see, three previously fringe ideas are becoming mainstream in these social media platforms.

One, is a resurrection about alleged” atrocities” against the people in northern Uganda by government troops during the long-insurgency there. The argument is that if the Yoweri Museveni forces could still suppress demonstrators so brutally with the world’s cameras recording the events in Kampala, then they must have done worse “in the dark bushes of the north where were are no cameras” during the insurgency in the region, as one commentator put it.

The second extremely strange one, typified by a comment on Facebook, is that the extremes of Museveni’s regime should be blamed on Buganda! Why? Because by giving support to Museveni’s rebellion, and buying into the “northerners are murderous and the enemy” idea, they made it possible for the NRM government to win power on an ideology that justified the use of violence against such “enemies”.  Therefore, the harassment of wananchi around Buganda is a punishment for the kingdom’s bad judgement.

The third, intriguing view, is that because Museveni the president and the more public operatives who are  shooting and beating down protestors are mostly from the west, it proves that violence is “not a monopoly of any region or tribe in Uganda”.

There are elements of merit in most of these arguments. There are also several sensational arguments one develops around them, including trying to understand why the Museveni regime feels it needs to use more forces to stop Besigye from walking, than the special forces US President Barack Obama recently used to kill terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in far away Pakistan.

What interests us is what these arguments, sectarian as some of them might be, tell us about the likely play of politics in the years to come, and the current mindset among the more politically engaged.

One, we need to record that the shift of the Museveni regime’s whip south of the “Karuma Line” is about something bigger. It has offered a great opportunity to rewrite – accurately – more than 100 years of Uganda’s history and stereotypes and to begin a new cultural conversation and exploration of who we are.

There now seems to be a widespread acceptance among many Ugandans that, it is not true, as the late UPDF army chief James Kazini controversially put it once, that only “northerners are violent by nature” and the rest of Ugandans are not. Even westerners, southerners, and easterners are violent, as those who like to see things this way now have the evidence of the last 25 years. One hears incredible stories of Buganda professionals, especially in the Diaspora, going to apologise to their colleagues from the north for the negative attitude they took during the years of the war there. But across the board, these days you cannot visit any of the more popular Ugandan blogs without finding someone who acknowledges that one of the biggest mistakes we made as a country, is ignoring the pain of the north over the last 25 years.

That is generally a good thing for the country. Also we should welcome this opportunity to rewrite the broader stereotypical narrative of the “northerners are strong, less sophisticated, and more suited to manual labour”, and the “southerners are weak, but more cultured and suited to bureaucratic work, and easterners can only be clerks and work in the Prisons Service and railway”.

At the political level, it is good to see that many commentators are drawing the right conclusions. They are not new conclusions really, some are as old as the hills. Firstly, that if there are no strong instruments to rein in men, no matter from which region of Uganda they come from, they will eventually turn rogue and harm the people and, eventually, their countries.

Secondly, after trying all tribal combinations, northern rule, southern rule, Langi power, Kakwa power, Ganda power, Nkore power, all of them have failed. The conclusion is that we should go back and learn some lessons from the ill-fated Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) political set up of the first one year between May 1979 and May 1980. The UNLF was not well structured to rebuild a country emerging from war and years of dictatorship, but the one thing it got right was that Uganda’s greatness could only be found through inclusiveness and trying to harness all the available talents of the country.

So when people talk of electoral reforms, it should go beyond seeking integrity and fairness and ending chronic election burglary. We might borrow a leaf from the Kenyan reforms; make it mandatory for a candidate to win in the majority of the districts; require that candidates name their running mates at nomination; then go further and explore some form of proportional representation in our politics.

This country will only be salvaged by a “Team Uganda”. But will there be a country for Team Uganda to salvage? For all the shortcomings of the February election, they were different in one sense. It was no longer strictly a Museveni-Besigye two-horse race. One felt the presence of the other candidates, especially Norbert Mao, Bidandi Ssali, Beti Kamya, and Olara Otunnu. Although in the end when the vote cast it was still a horse race between Museveni and Besigye, in a few parts of the country the other candidates out-performed either Museveni or Besigye. In previous elections, the rest of the field received no attention. There is a glimmer of hope there, but it seems to be the only one.

In the election, the Treasury was allegedly turned into an election-petty cash office for one of the sides.  Now with the court appearances of the walk-to-work activists, we have seen a magistrate hopping from court to court handing out uniformly one-sided decisions. Outraged lawyers went on strike. Something is wrong here. It is the personalisation of power, or the use of every state institution to service the whims of one Big Man.

Nearly every issue in Uganda, from university lecturers demanding higher pay, the price of electricity, regulation of boda bodas, village disputes over land, police eviction of squatters end up in micro body-to-body contact disputes between the President and whoever is the opponent on the other side.

Everyone, from the Police chief Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura and other security officers, ministers, ministry officials all tend to line in everything they do to conform with the president’s wishes. It is very difficult in these situations to see a state institution that is above the fray and is not involved in murky partisanship.

This leads to the question, is it that the Museveni government has a country called Uganda, or Uganda has a government led by Museveni? It seems Uganda doesn’t exist. And the time when it seems not to exist the most, is when the state has to respond to an issue in which Besigye is involved.

If Museveni and Besigye disappear tomorrow, what shall be left? I doubt anyone can answer that question for sure. And that is our last point, the minutiae that consumes everything when these two men go head to head, is a warning signal that it is urgent for us to try and find the country Uganda in the rubble before it is washed away. Otherwise, there will be no country for Team Uganda to salvage.

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