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Will protests propel an East African ‘spring’?

By Muthoni Karubiu

Increased demonstrations are harbingers of trouble for a region in transition

Blood runs down the street. Dark and menacing. Young men gather in a tight circle. Chanting. At the centre of the crowd are a large sow and her piglets. The animals do not seem to notice the chaos enveloping them and, confirming every stereotype about swine, they mindlessly devour the animal blood that has been poured on them.

It sounds like a strange tribal ritual but that was the scene outside the gates of Kenya’s parliament in Nairobi on May 13 as ordinary citizens attempted to ‘occupy parliament’.

The protestors were displeased that the MPs, whom they dubbed ‘honourable M-Pigs, were attempting to increase their pay to about US$120,000 a year. Kenya MPs are among the highest paid in the world, according to that country’s salary commission. Teargas and live bullets were fired. No one was killed, but a few were injured, and the protest quelled. Significantly, the Kenya MPs backed-down slightly on their pay rise demands.

A week later another group of protesters confronted police bullets and teargas. This group carried, on a stretcher, bark-cloth; a symbol of mourning, a pen and several copies of newspapers; the symbols of the media, and a cross; the symbol of sacrifice and murder.  With their mouth’s taped shut, they set up camp outside The Monitor newspaper offices in Kampala to protest against the government’s closure of two newspapers and two FM-radio stations.

The police closed down media houses for publishing a letter by a renegade army general, David Sejusa, an erstwhile advisor on security to President Yoweri Museveni, who has since fled into exile amidst allegation of attempts on his life.

Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, the head of the Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJU) which led the protesters says he was “excited this time around” because the protests “garnered support from all walks of life” and the international community, which is rare for Ugandan demonstrations.

“I think we have come a long way in Uganda,” Ssebaggala told The Independent in an interview, “the government had chosen to take us for granted.”

In the wake of the Arab Spring, it seems East Africa is determined not to be left behind.

“I must confess part of the inspiration was from the Arab spring,” says Mathias Mpuuga, an opposition MP who heads the outlawed but active group, Activists for Change (A4C). His organization counts the prolific protester-in-chief, opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye, in its ranks. Mpuuga says the Arab Spring inspires him because ordinary “people shook the foundations of these tyrants and they cracked.”

Earlier A4C protests were brought on by dissatisfaction with results of the February 2011 general elections and the brutal clampdown on the opposition that followed. The high inflation and spiraling high cost of living appeared to make Uganda ripe for revolution.

Then the security forces, reacted with what many observers said, was even more brutality. Teargas and live fire became an everyday thing as police and the military beat down unarmed protesters.  In one incident during the so-called Walk-to-Work protests, 12 people including two children were killed, and 480 were injured.

Al Jazeera, the international news channel, commented: “Being hauled before courts and jailed just because you have chosen to walk to work as a form of protest is something unimaginable in many countries. But in Uganda it happens.”

Enough of impunity

So in the face of this, why are more people deciding to protest?

‘We did our demonstrations for purposes of actually generating pressure- creating awareness and generating pressure,’ says Ssebaggala. He says they have had ‘enough’ of the impunity of the government clampdowns on media houses.

“We were like ok, this is the time we need to-whether they want to arrest us, whether they want to jail us, even killing us- it’s their choice, for us we would have put the message across.”

Bishop Zac Niringye, the influential and respected retired former leader of the large Anglican-congregation in the Kampala, has also become a passionate voice for the protests. His fight is against corruption and bad governance.

When we spoke, Bishop Niringiye who is the chairman of the Governing Council of the African Peer Review Mechanism, paused many times, leaned back deep into his seat, as if contemplating what he was about to say. His conviction was infectious when he finally explained.

“I am a man driven, inspired by faith,” he said. Then he spoke of how failing to equate the “injustice in the world,” with the “justice, peace, and joy” in the Kingdom of God led him to join civil society organisations and the ‘Black Monday’ movement.

Bishop Zac, as he is fondly called, says the knowledge he got through the positions he has held, including Chairman of the Uganda Joint Christian Council task force, and the exposure first hand to the plight of suffering people in Northern Uganda, South Sudan, Congo, and Rwanda, influence him.

“I realized the reason why the people, ordinary people, go through this is bad political leadership across the continent, across the world,” he says.

The Black Monday movement, organised by CSOs, wants the public to get involved in discussion on issues of corruption and bad governance and not rely on people in power positions to cause change.

They distribute the Black Monday newsletter around town, sometimes by young men on roller blades and other times by the Bishop himself, for which he was arrested earlier this year.

“It seeks to bring every Ugandan on board; the fight against theft must be every Ugandans business. I love Black Monday for that, it’s not an elite, it’s a peaceful process, it’s about mobilising Ugandans peacefully,” Bishop Zac enthuses.

No followers

But all protest leaders agree that East Africa is lacking when it comes to the critical mass seen during the Arab Spring.

Boniface Mwangi, an organiser of several Kenyan protests including ‘occupy parliament’, sounds infuriated when he exclaims “participation was very poor!”

“Nairobi has five million people but only 1000 were at the protest…they did a survey and 78% oppose the MP’s salary increase but they didn’t show up,” he says.

Boniface Mwangi describes himself as just a “concerned Kenyan.” The main difference between East African protests is that in Uganda, politicians such as Mpuuga, Besigye, and Norbert Mao; the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, are at the forefront of the action. Their presence appears to color the message of the protests as the government often paints their action as an attempt to overturn the political order.

Mpuuga is defensive: “Every cause requires leadership. It requires knowledge of how to handle the regime.”

“We should look to civil society for these matters”’ he continues but believes that strategy is untenable.

“NGOs owe their living to the patronage of the regime, some of them, not all,” he says, “I still believe that the masses hold the key to the change that we desire.”

“Of course the distinctions between ours and the Arab world are that the levels of civic competence are different and to cap it, levels of literacy are also different. Civic competence and literacy almost move in the same direction,’ he continues, “Why people do not question is that they do not even know what to ask.”

But Boniface Mwangi and Bishop Niringye think something more visceral is keeping the numbers away from these demonstrations: “fear”

“Sadly, government has instilled fear, instead of providing services; the idea of the presence of government in people’s hearts is fear. As a result, you have a problem releasing people from their fear to be able to recognise, we must take responsibility for the destiny of the country,” says Bishop Zac.

Additionally, the protest leaders complain, the educated middle class have been reluctant to join these movements.

“They are cowards!” Boniface exclaims.

“You have an elite that often is not just subservient, is complicit because there are sections of the Ugandan elite who are beneficiaries, collateral beneficiaries, of the greed. They give them a few crumbs, and the elite are happy with the crumbs…but really the majority of Uganda is left out,” Bishop Zac concurs.

Bishop Zac also points at Uganda’s young population, 50 percent of whom are below 15 years as both the challenge and hope.

“How do you mobilise kids?” he asks with parental concern then adds, “The kids will be mobilised soon, because remember in South Africa, it’s the kids that changed the story.”

He is referring to the Soweto uprising of June 1976.

Pigs and coffins

Meanwhile, to try to capture the imagination of the public, the protest movements have turned to symbolism.

‘Occupy Parliament’ came only a few months after protestors set fire to 221 coffins outside the same parliamentary gates following the attempt by the previous parliamentarians to award themselves US$110, 000 bonuses in a country where the average income is about US$1,700 a year.

“I am an artist,” says Boniface Mwangi to explain his belief in protesting in a visual way. “You can relate, whether you are illiterate or deaf, you can look and understand.”

“That’s how people make the connection between ideas. Because you see, some of the things are too conceptual, it’s bringing to the ground these conceptual ideas,” agrees Bishop Niringye.

While some of these images can be shocking, they spread an abstract idea and grab the attention of both the public and the media.

The scenes outside Kenya’s parliament were broadcast on the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, Daily Monitor, The Financial Times and others around the world.

Mwangi has been criticized online about the use of pigs but he is unfazed.

“These people are trying to trivialize it because they are beneficiaries of these MPs,” he says.

And when ‘occupy parliament reloaded’ came on the June 13, the numbers swelled from the reported 250 at the first protest, to about 1000.

Uncertain future

A protest is a public declaration, and questions are being about the role of the media since the public hears most things through it. The media drives the narrative and decides the fate of a campaign. If the media is mute the people expressing their grievances are mute too.

“The problem with Ugandan media is that they are observers, they’re reporters….it has not yet seen itself as a participant in the struggle,” says Bishop Zac, who sounds frustrated by what he sees as a weakness of the media.

Mpuuga agrees but, ever the tactical politician, he is not quite as harsh.

“Whenever we held protests they were well reported,” he says, “I think the media is operating in a very hostile environment.”

His indignation appears to seep through when he adds: “The media are the mirror of our society, they will not put the regime to task to explain the cold-blooded murders, they were reported fine, but we did not see questions.”

So far, the protests in Uganda have characteristically been met by a show of force. Participants are manhandled, arrested, beaten, tear-gassed and shot at. This exaggerated reaction, no doubt gets the protests more press coverage.

In Uganda too, the distinction between protests and riots has become blurred. The Ugandan constitution asserts the “freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed,” but there is a clearly varied response to this from both the public and the authorities.

A few weeks ago, as Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago was to attend a tribunal called by Kampala councilors attempting to impeach him, Kisekka market, a known hot spot, erupted in violence. This was a riot and not a protest.

Bishop Zac asserts in all cases, the responsibility of the police is not to use force to stop everyone. He says protestors, once they have informed police of their intentions, deserve protection from the rowdy crowds.

In Kenya, during the first ‘occupy’ about 17 people were arrested, tear gas and water cannons employed and beatings rained down on the few hundred people who had dared use their voices.

During the second demonstration there appeared to be a shift. Riot police surrounded the protestors, stood by and watched. They were allowed to continue the protest without major incident.

Mpuuga says things will change in Uganda too.

“You are not able to achieve this in a single go, but of course the attempt we made bears testament to the possibility. Because since these protests actually started I must admit that the attitude of the regime towards the people has since changed. The regime is no longer dismissive,” he says.

“Questions that we asked on governance have of course never been answered,” he adds, “However, you can see the panic button that we pressed.”

“This is definitely going to grow,” Mwangi is confident, “there is an uprising among young Kenyans. They are beginning to speak. We can get everyone on the street.

“Over time people are getting bolder, people are no longer afraid of their government.”

“The signs of the times are pointing in a direction of violence because the regime is adamant, the President is paranoid, he lives in fear of both himself and his surroundings,” Mpuuga says.

Bishop Zac says what worries him is that “the country is in a post Museveni mood. So the critical challenge this country faces is how to manage this transition.”

“I know one other truth; that this country has gone through so much turbulence and it’s all associated with transition from one president to the other,” he continues.

On June 24, Uganda witnessed the latest iteration of protest as traders for nearly a week refused to open for business in protest again a new government Pre-export Verification of Conformity (PVoC) programme. Unable to respond with its usual force, bullets, and teargas, the government soon agreed to negotiate and finally halted the start of PvoC – for a month.

Whatever the reason for the government’s concession to the demands of the traders, those marching for or against an `East African spring’ have in their rearview, events in Egypt where, just one year after they toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, put him on trial, and elected new leaders, the protesters are back in the iconic Tahrir Square. They want President Morsi out and some are ruing for a return to the Mubarak era.

It is clear people are choosing to speak out. It is up to the authorities to either listen as they did to the traders or walk into the uncertain future predicted by activists.

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