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Walk to war

By eriasa mukiibi sserunjogi

Public anger greets Museveni even before he is sworn–in

Opposition politicians have vowed to continue with their walk-to-work campaign despite arrests and violent break up of their protests by the police.  Political pundits are puzzled on which direction the protests will take, especially in the run up to President Museveni’s swearing-in, about two weeks away on May 12.  The protests which started as a Kampala campaign two weeks ago have since spread beyond the capital and assumed a semi-national outlook and scope.

Makerere University’s Law Professor, Fredrick Jjuuko, says the current confrontation between the security forces and the protesters will “inevitably” breed more civil disobedience because people are being “increasingly radicalised” by the police brutality.

“What we have experienced since the start of the Walk-to-Work campaign are police riots. It’s like the police are telling the people ‘if you cannot riot then we will riot’,” says Prof. Jjuuko

He says the only way the current situation of inflation and high commodity prices can be resolved is through government addressing the grievances raised by the Activists for Change (A4C) campaigners who are leading the Walk-to-Work protests because of the escalating transports costs and food prices.

“The issue (high costs of living) is a political matter but government has taken it as a police matter. The matters that led to the crisis are real and will persist because the government has shown inability to deal with the root causes,” Jjuuko contends.

He says the militaristic reaction to the protests will escalate the violence and complicate the situation. He dismisses the government’s explanation that in

a liberalised economy like Uganda’s, the state has no control over market prices.

“If most of the services are liberalised and government’s role is very limited, then what explains the growing size of cabinet; what will the additional ministers do?”

He says such a government would have a small cabinet, instead of the 70 ministers, to take care of regulatory functions.

Addressing journalists at his country home on April 16, President Museveni said the Walk-to-Work protests would be stopped, and ruled out talks with the opposition, especially FDC President Kizza Besigye, to resolve the crisis.

“Now Besigye says he is going to demonstrate against inflation? Will the world prices go down because Besigye has demonstrated? We are going to deal with him; there will be no demonstration in Kampala,” Museveni charged.

Two days after the President’s remarks, Besigye, DP president Norbert Mao and UPC president were arrested as they walked out of their residences to go to work.  Mao and several others were remanded to Luzira Prison for two weeks after Mao refused to seek bail, saying he was tired of political witch-hunts. Besigye was arrested again – for the second time in seven days – and released again.

The protest leaders appear to have foreseen the government’s clampdown on its leaders. An A4C leader told The Independent that they consider spontaneity and absence of a central command as key to the success of the campaign. This, he said, was decided so that in case individuals are locked up, the campaign would not lose momentum.

If the organisers can maintain the momentum the protests have picked since April 11, they can amplify popular discontent and cause uncertainty over Museveni’s swearing-in.  Political observers say the seeming unanimity among the opposition leaders and violent retaliation by the state will only fuel the protests and galvanise them into a national uprising by rallying the affected population around one common grievance- economic hardships. Direct political demands are also being made.

“Our demands are clear – disband the Electoral Commission and replace it with one which is competent and bi-partisan, organise a free and fair election and remove the military from the electoral process,” FDC Secretary General Alice Alaso told The Independent after police intercepted Besigye outside the capital in Kasangati on April 14.

If the government does not yield, she said “we will work around those three demands every single day of our lives.”

The A4C national coordinator and Masaka Municipality MP-elect, Mathias Mpuuga, believes the “government must account for the irresponsible spending during and after campaigns and it must address problems resulting from the spiraling inflation it created.”

The government is still containing the situation but not without a price. The protests have been picked up by BBC and several other international media, gaining wider publicity. By the end of April 14, media carried pictures of Besigye heavily bandaged on the right arm after the military shot him.

Police’s strategy appears to be to block Besigye from leaving his home. On April 18, Besigye was arrested immediately he left his compound.

They possibly feared what happened on April 14, when Besigye was spotted after he had hit the main road. The officer in charge of the area police post at Kasangati only identified as Mukite was caught on camera running towards Besigye while seeking orders from his superiors on how to proceed. “Sir, he is walking, he is already on the tarmac,” he talked to an off-site superior on phone. It later transpired that he was talking to Deputy Director of Operations Grace Turyagumanawe.

“He has many people but I can stop him,” he added.

Besigye was walking with local politicians Kyaddondo East MP-elect Semujju Nganda, his aide Sam Mugumya and two others. A small crowd of curious residents was beginning to build up.

Mukite and his men dashed forward and blocked Besigye. “I have orders to ask you not to walk on, sir,” he told an indifferent-looking Besigye.

“I have a lot of respect for you sir but…” he continued before being cut short by Besigye. “You don’t need to respect me, respect the law.”

“Don’t you feel ashamed of yourself; do you have a conscience?” Besigye charged and reminded the police officer of his right to walk to work but Mukite would have none of that.

Besigye asked, “Is it my right to go off the road?”

“No,” replied Mukite.

Besigye shot back:  “You are going to make yourselves the most stupid Ugandans we have ever seen.”

With Mukite blocking his way, Besigye jumped onto a roadside trench where he held ground for about four hours until police reinforcements came.

By this time the crowd had grown and become violent.

At about 9.45 am, a tear gas gun went off. The now charged crowd blocked the road, started pelting the police with stones. Police responded with teargas.

This time the running battles between police and the protesters were taking place right in front of Kasangati health centre. The teargas affected babies and pregnant women. The Red Cross intervened and evacuated the victims to Mulago Hospital.

On April 18, the military reinforced the police to fight off protesters who threatened to attack Kasangati police post to secure the detained Besigye.

Various opposition politicians Erias Lukwago, MPs Issa Kikungwe and Beatrice Anywar, Nandala Mafabi, Betty Nambooze, and other officials Rubaramira Ruranga, Margaret Wokuri, Salamu Musumba, Asuman Basalirwa and Mayanja Kibirige were variously arrested in the city and detained at various police stations for “walking to work.”

DP President Norbert Mao chose to take the campaign to his home town of Gulu. Three people were gunned down in the protests.

The protests which began with Besigye and a few opposition leaders “walking to work” have now sucked in more opposition leaders and protestors. The UPC leader Otunnu has since joined the protests. Another opposition president of the People Progressive Party Bidandi Ssali, who is a devotee of non-violence, has indicated willingness to join the protests. “I will also join in the walk and we have advised our supporters to participate,” Bidandi said. Still, he added a caveat: He will only support the protests called by religious leaders for prayers on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The dimension of the protests is likely to change with the arrest and remanding of Mao especially in his home region of the north.  Otunnu’s joining the campaign is dramatic because his spokesperson, Robert Kanusu had told The Independent on April 13 that his party would not participate in the walk.

The Besigye-dominated A4C campaign also received support from unlikely circles. Uganda Federal Alliance President Beti Kamya also threw her weight behind the protesters. “When did it become police’s business to protect government and ensure that it is not overthrown by its own citizens?”

In a statement she issued at Parliament on April 13, Kamya added: “Uganda Federal Alliance condemns in the strongest terms possible, the highhandedness that police used to usurp the powers of the Constitution of Uganda by refusing the people to walk to work.”

What is clear is that the A4C campaign tapped into people’s simmering anger over the prevailing economic hardships and found willing participants. A young man, a resident of Kasangati, smeared his face with mud and repeatedly called on police to shoot him if they wished. “Twakoowa embeera embi,” said the man who says he dropped out of school in P.6, meaning “we are tired of these economic hardships.”

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