By The Independent Team
Uganda Peoples Congress party leader, Dr Olara Otunnu, speaks to The Independent about the Walk-to-Work protests and the opposition’s next move.
You have been an advocate of peaceful struggle. What is the overall strategic objective of these demonstrations?
When we started these public protests we did not begin with the spiraling inflation and the cost of living situation food, fuel. We began soon after the elections. The objective of the public protest campaign is to bring about democratic change to ensure we have a legitimate government that enjoys support of the people of Uganda. We started with walking to work as a simple gesture of public protests. Tomorrow it can be sitting down, hunger strike, hooting, or running. The overall objective of the protests and tool of struggle is positive non-violent resistance.
Do you want to see the government of President Yoweri Museveni collapse?
There is an entrenched structure of injustice, oppression, discrimination impunity and now terror against unarmed civilians that Museveni has put in place. We have come to a conclusion that procedural, elective politics under the present arrangement and processes which are almost entirely controlled by Museveni will not deliver democratic change in Uganda. We need direct action as we see in the social movement that is beginning to unfold in the country. This movement is non-partisan, pan-Ugandan attracting many sectors giving a weight to this oppression. All have a common interest in rejecting that oppression and bringing it down.
The government uses force through the police and army. They come with sticks, hammers and guns beat protesters, smash their cars and arrest them violently. How do you respond to this violent force in your struggle?
This is positive non-violent resistance. The tool used is political and moral. In the presidential campaigns I kept telling people that the way to overturn this regime is not a spear, arrow or gun, it is the moral political weapon. So you know in advance the regime will bring the kiboko squad, presidential guard brigade, and Special Forces. We will respond to this with bare hands; with justice in our hands.
Assuming they came with a stick and began hitting you, what do you do?
Recently we encountered the police as we walked on Kampala Road as we matched to the Constitutional Square. We endeavoured to explain to the police why we were not breaking any law. We did not get physical with the police. The police truck began to rain the dyed liquid on us. We remained still, we didn’t abuse them. We stood there until they were exhausted or were told to stop. We moved; completely soaked, to the press conference. We did not provoke them.
Do you take responsibility for what the people on your side do?
We are prepared to apprehend law breakers whichever side they come from. This method of struggle has many implications. It comes with sacrifice. Naturally when you are hit, the temptation is to hit back. But we made the moral political weapon as our choice of reaction; non-violence to defeat the violent and oppressive regime. On the other hand, we know that the regime will infiltrate protesters to undermine our cause, to make it look like we are violent; that we are throwing stones.
There have been cases where protesters have thrown stones at the security people and others. Doesn’t this mean the protesters have failed to heed these rules you talk about?
These rules were developed by a group of us in the opposition and I have been speaking about this since last year. Now there are groups which have joined in the public protests who maybe using other methods. Our appeal to all concerned whether they have been part of this Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) or not is; let us work uniformly in peaceful protests. .
There has been debate about that incident when Besigye got hold of a hammer that fell into his car. Some have condemned him for holding the hammer since he was participating in a peaceful protest. What do you think he should have done with the hammer?
A person who is operating under peaceful non-violence resistance by definition and nature of that choice doesn’t hit back, insult, throw a stone, or fire a gun. Violence remains the monopoly of the other side. It is not useful to argue about the hypothetical of supposing he used the hammer or supposing he didn’t pick the hammer. It is a fact that he did not use the hammer that fell into his car to hammer anybody. If he picked the hammer to show that look at what the police is using against me, there is nothing wrong with that. But I don’t speak for Besigye or FDC.
Will you take the security agencies to court for human rights violations?
We are open to all avenues that can be employed; the court of public opinion, direct action on the streets, to the extent that the courts can give independent decisions. We know that most of these institutions have been heavily controlled but we will use whatever little opening is left.
What do you think these protests have achieved?
First it was a march by defying Museveni; he had issued a decree that no one should go to the streets that they would be chewed like samosas. Two we have demonstrated to Uganda that it was legal to do what they are doing; Museveni said we needed his permission to demonstrate but we said it is our constitutional right to do so. We have been able to show Ugandans that it is possible to conduct a peaceful demonstration. If you come to walk-to-work specifically, I think it is transitory because Museveni has no choice but to intervene. I believe he will intervene or face the penalty. However deaf or indifferent he was before, I believe our activities have sent a message to him. The people of Uganda are hurting and are waiting the government to do something.
For how long will you carry on with these protests, especially considering that you are an international person? Everybody thought you would go back to New York after the February elections?
I had very agonizing time to decide to come back to Uganda to help provide leadership in the opposition. I knew how polluted the scene I was coming into. I could no long stand and watch the humiliation, ruination, absolute despair Ugandans have been living with. I will be part of the struggle to liberate our country from this, whatever it takes. For me this is a long term vision.
When you had just come you spearheaded the campaign that the US Congress had assigned Secretary Hillary Clinton to report about the democratic situation in Uganda but that campaign appears to have collapsed.
No it did not. That was a hugely important step by the US Congress. It was such a great gesture to the people of Uganda. Sadly, we in the opposition removed the carpet from beneath the US Congress. While having taken a clear stand on free and fair elections, we had agreed that we would not accept anything beyond a genuinely constituted independent Electoral Commission. But we then made an about turn. My colleagues in the IPC disagreed with me on this. Now at that stage the US Congress cannot be more Catholic than the Pope. It is unfortunate we had to come through the fire to confirm what we had been talking about when we participated in the elections.
If you knew all this, why did you participate in the election then?
I and UPC wanted to make free and fair elections an issue in the campaigns. Indeed, we successfully made it the issue. That’s why we had the blue book which collected over 5 million signatures. We wanted to speak truth to the Ugandans and international community to bear witness to the fraud. That’s why on the Election Day, I used my vote to bear witness to Ugandans and the world that this exercise was a sham, an abuse robbing Ugandans of their verdict. That’s why I did not cast my vote. Later Ugandans understood that I was right. For it was always clear from the beginning. All democracy loving opposition should have rallied to pressure Museveni on overhauling the Electoral Commission.
You seem to credit the successes of the opposition to your side instead of coming together. Your egos divide you as the opposition?
If our interest was who would take opposition leadership, we would have been less eager to say look let us just go and convince people. We, in the UPC, believe in the unity of the opposition. Why would I be reaching out to Besigye, Norbert Mao and others to say let us work together? We have been meeting after the election and that’s where these ideas about walking and hooting came from.
Five years is a short time, aren’t these protests that you are carrying out taking up valuable time for you to build yourselves at the grassroots for the next election?
Every political party needs to examine whether the last election was free or not, what were its strong points and the weaknesses, how did we mobilise or fail, and draw lessons. We have been doing exactly that in the UPC. But if we do that and stop there it will all come to nothing and will never lead to a democratic process, free and fair elections, or a legitimate accountable government. Parties have to realise that it is not possible to achieve democratic change working within Museveni’s systems, processes, institutions. We must challenge this system. What we are doing is a social movement, positive non-violence movement to bring all opposition together; religious, civic, professional, women, and youths to join hands for us to have democratic change. When we have democratic dispensation, we are going to have free and fair elections. We have decided to continue with our objectives under the new name Free Uganda. Free Uganda campaign is about freeing Ugandans from the sham election, corruption discrimination.
There are people who see a role for the ICC in addressing the atrocities that government agencies are committing against protesters and we know you have been recording this. How do you see this playing out?
When Ugandans walk on the streets to protest peacefully, the immediate face of repression that comes to brutalize them is the armed forces sent by Museveni. He is tempting Ugandans to think that the armed forces are their enemy. The police and army are not our enemy. They are among the multitudes of victims of the system. They face the same harsh conditions as other Ugandans do. We need to liberate them. I don’t want to see police widows, orphans because protesters have stoned their husbands to death. Our enemy is the edifice of oppression, injustice, impunity, nepotism, state terror on civilians, corruption presided by Museveni.
When we are recording, we distinguish between the police and individuals who are committing atrocities and brutalities. We are recording the names and places where these individuals are committing these atrocities. We are going to compile and submit that to the domestic bodies of justice and ICC. What has been happening are crimes against humanity violence, shooting, torture of unarmed civilians. This is in addition to the genocide in Northern Uganda and the September 2009 massacre in Kampala. Individuals responsible will be held accountable both in Uganda, and in other international bodies.