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Women start 400 days of protests

By John Njoroge

How they plan to beat police with new ‘guerrilla-style’ protests

‘Surprise’ is their weapon of choice

Lumbe! This is to remind you of the Thursday 14th meeting at Christ the King; 8am please come with a list of your ’10’. Lumbe oye, Lumbe no change.’

This is just one of the three messages sent to over 300 women members of the Women’s League of the Inter Party Cooperation (IPC) between January 10 and 13.

On the face of it, the message seems to invite the recipient to a lumbe  (uneral meeting or vigil of sorts) at Christ the King church. The reality behind the message however is different. To those who understood its meaning, the message was mobilizing for a protest. 300 women were asked to participate in a protest march to the offices of the Electoral Commission to demand for the resignation of its recently reappointed chairman Badru Kiggundu.

Come January 18, the protest was harshly crushed by police. Up to 35 women activists, who also happen to be aspirants for positions in Parliament, local council and district administration, were harassed, beaten, tortured with dogs, arrested and charged with belonging to an ‘unlawful society’ at Buganda Road Court. On the day of their arrest, the 35 were accused of illegal assembly and trespassing on the grounds of the electoral commission.

The group, under the umbrella name Women for Peace, launched their campaign on January 7. Their intentions: to organize a series of protest activities countrywide. When they first declared their existence, these IPC women’s league members vowed to hold peaceful demonstrations, sit down and go slow strikes, mourning ceremonies to cry for Uganda and name/ shame ceremonies where they would name government officials who have misused public resources.

The ‘Women for Peace’ campaign

Following the Jan. 18 women-only Inter Party Cooperation (IPC) demonstration in which 35 of them were arrested, many have been asking who the protestors were and what their group, ‘Women for Peace’, really is. The Independent’s John Njoroge spoke to Ingrid Turinawa, the group’s current chairperson and the Secretary for women at the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party.

What is ‘Women for Peace Campaign?

Currently we are 300 women from different political parties in the women’s league under the Inter Party Cooperation. Most of us are our party’s candidates for grassroots elections, Member of Parliament and district council seats nationwide.

When was this group formed and why?

We launched on Jan. 7 and will be in existence for 400 days until the day the general elections are held. We intend to hold peaceful protests and demonstrations for these 400 days in various parts of this country for various reasons. Our primary objective is to force the electoral commission chairman Dr. Badru Kiggundu to resign. We believe that he is not neutral and should not be allowed to over see another general election. We also believe that if he is allowed to, the nation will degenerate into civil unrest and maybe war.

How are you funded? 

We are funded by our mother parties, by the Inter Party Cooperation and individual supporters.

What do you intend to achieve?

To begin with, the EC chairman must not oversee the next elections. So we intend to protest until he resigns. Secondly, we are calling upon the women of Uganda to get together and pray for a free, peaceful and fair general election. Prayer alone is not enough though. We are going to educate women from the grassroots to the urban areas on the power they have in the vote. We want to encourage more and more women to register to vote.

They also vowed to peacefully demonstrate until Kiggundu is compelled to resign. In a letter to him dated Monday, January 18 titled; ‘Demand for you to resign’ they wrote: ‘Uganda women have no confidence in you.’The mess and anarchy that characterised the elections of 2006 both presidential and parliamentary showed beyond reasonable doubt that you and your commissioners are not persons of high moral character and are gravely lacking in integrity. Your understandable desire to do the bidding of your appointing authority has led you to become incompetent and therefore incapable of presiding over a fair, free and credible election.’

In another part, the letter goes onto say; ‘A number of stakeholders including civil society, religious leaders, political organisations and numerous peace loving Ugandans have implored you and your commission to step down. You are aware that a fraudulent election in this country has ever been a cause of conflict that led to a five year guerrilla war and the effects and consequences were devastating especially to the women.’

With a high desire to show dissatisfaction yet aware of the challenges they would face in their quest, they have devised ingenious demonstration and mobilization methods.

The plan

Before the January 18 demonstration, Ingrid Turinawe, the group’s current chairperson, and her team formed committees and had four strategic areas of operation. ‘We had four areas; a meeting and briefing area where the participants were to receive instructions and material (T-shirts and placards), a camping area, a target area and a retreat area. We only managed to use three of these four areas. We did not retreat because we were arrested,’ Ingrid told The Independent as she and her colleagues laughed in excitement.

Known to Ingrid and her executives, two of the 300 campaigners leaked the information to the police, prompting them to call Ingrid. ‘We know our colleagues who sold us out. We don’t blame them for being weak. (The Kampala Metropolitan Region Police Commander Andrew) Sorowen and many others called me the night before,’ Ingrid says.

The meeting area, Christ the King church, was surrounded the next day. For fear of arrest, most of the women quietly retreated causing the numbers to dwindle from 300 to 50. Those brave enough entered the church where they were briefed, given placards and T-shirts and ushered out through other exits. When the police decided to swing into action, all they found were handbags, clothes and shoes. The women had disappeared. ‘Like Kony, they arrested our handbags,’ Ingrid says, her colleagues laughing away. ‘We had sent two of us normally dressed to the EC to deliver our letter to Kiggundu. They were told Kiggundu was not receiving any callers and were turned away.’

However, if the success of a peaceful protest is measured by its ability to attract attention to its issue through the media, then the Jan.18 protests partly succeeded locally but completely failed internationally.

Not even the BBC reported it and only one website, Women’s eNews, picked it up on the international scene.

Locally, the peaceful protest failed because the fact that the women were arrested drew more attention than the reasons for the protests. Part of the reason was that documentation, pamphlets, and banners expressing the reasons for the protest were not readily available to the media.

The group says they would not have made it to the EC without being tactful. ‘We knew we would be arrested before reaching the EC if we were not clever. In our own way, we quietly found our way to the EC. By the time the police realized, we were seated outside the EC gates.’The police tried to question the 35 women who refused to speak. Dressed in black T-shirts, trousers and holding placards, they sat in small groups quietly. Failing to get them to speak, the police resorted to another method.

‘They brought dogs on us because we refused to talk,’ Theopista Musiitwa, another member, told The Independent. ‘They begun to beat and lift us.’ ‘We told them they could cane us on the buttocks if they wanted to beat us,’ Night Eyoru Asara another member adds. ‘We lay down facing the ground. They beat and lifted us off the EC grounds.’ Asara now walks with a limp.

The women were thrown onto Jinja Road. They refused to move off the road so the traffic police were called in. Pictures of the crackdown speak volumes; women engaged in intense dialogue with police. In another picture, three female police officers can be seen lifting a woman onto a police truck. Next day, a newspaper had a front page picture of a female police officer beating a female protestor. Television footage of the crackdown showed women being humiliated at Jinja Road Police and Central Police Station.

Those at Jinja Road Police Station (they were only six) were forced to undress and had to sleep in close proximity with male detainees. At CPS, one female police officer identified as Ms. Mutabazi tried in vain to undress the rest. In frustration, she reportedly began beating the detainees. They were forced to make and sign statements in the absence of their lawyers who, on arrival at CPS, were turned away by the police.

Article 23(3) of the constitution of Uganda, under the chapter ‘Protection and promotion of fundamental and other human rights and freedoms’ clearly provides for the access to a lawyer. The rights of these 35 women were violated by the police. Also violated was article 20(2) which imposes an obligation upon all government agencies and all persons to uphold the rights enshrined in the constitution. So was the police acting within the law when they subjected these women to cruel and inhuman treatment?

In a letter to the Law Council Chairman, Justice J.W. N. Tsekooko, lawyers from Victoria Advocates led by Wandera Ogalo called upon the council to investigate the conduct of the police.

The images of women being battered showed the extent to which police has become the government’s weapon for suppressing the opposition.

Studies of police behavior during protests show that officers in democracies are more tolerant of protests while those in totalitarian regimes treat all protests as criminal and consistently display a repressive and frequently violent approach towards them.

Women demonstrations

According to an expert on such protests who spoke to The Independent the women protesters appear to have focused more in putting out their message to the EC and others who oppose it, than on gaining the attention and support of the general public.

‘Peaceful protesters must always remember that the media is the platform for their message,’ the expert said, ‘they must also be ready to co-opt on-the-spot support by carrying extra banners and T-shirts.’

‘We intend to demonstrate for 400 days until Election Day,’ Ingrid Turinawe told The Independent in an interview. ‘As women from different regions and parties under the IPC, we want a neutral electoral commission and Kiggundu has demonstrated that he is not a neutral chairperson. The courts have ruled that in the past elections, the commission did not perform its duties as is stipulated by law.’

The group believes that if Kiggundu is allowed to oversee another election, civil unrest and maybe war would be inevitable. ‘We are mothers, grandmothers, wives, aunties,’ they say. ‘We do not want our sons, husbands, brothers to end up in the bush. Remember, Museveni went to the bush because of elections. We are convinced that it may happen again after 2011 if Kiggundu oversees the elections.’

Arguably, Uganda registered its first ever all women demonstration mobilized, organized and executed by women alone. Although often wrongly considered a weaker sex, it is common knowledge that when their back is against the wall, females can be a formidable force. In Iran for example, women mobilised unique protests over the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the height of these protests, one woman, Neda, was killed by Iranian security forces.

In Kenya, Nobel Peace Prize win Wangare Maathai’s Green Belt Movement (GBM) has from time to time staged amazing demonstrations.  In the early 90’s, Maathai mobilised more than 100,000 women to form tree-nursery groups. She then organized numerous protests where women chained themselves to trees. In another protest, women threatened to undress themselves, forcing the police who had intended to disperse the group to retreat.

Unarmed women in Nigeria’s Niger Delta held 700 workers hostage for more than a week and blocked production of half a million barrels of oil a day using their most effective weapon: the ‘Curse of Nakedness.’

Sokari Ekine, the International Coordinator of the Niger Delta Women, says ‘the stripping off of clothes particularly by married and elderly women is a way of shaming men — some of whom believe that if they see the naked bodies they will go mad or suffer some great harm. The curse extends not just to local men but also to any foreigner who it is believed would become impotent at the sight of ‘the naked mother’.

In Uganda, as if to show that they are ready ‘for any eventuality’ police women actively participated in battering their fellow women.  A fellow woman, Information and National guidance minister Kabakumba Matsiko was also at hand to warn the IPC women against protesting. ‘We as government will not hesitate to arrest anyone who engages in illegal assembly, she said.

But the women are defiant. ‘Nothing or no one is going to stop us,’ Catherine Ddembe, a member of the group told The Independent. ‘We have devised tactics to help us hold peaceful demonstrations.’

‘After studying the Ugandan situation, we have realised that surprise is an important strategy,’ Ingrid adds. The group primarily intends to continue mobilising by word of mouth and coded mobile phone text messages. They are confident that with time, all peace loving women in Uganda will join them in their cause.

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