Uganda's Walk to Work campaign, begun on 11 April, was to be a peaceful demonstration against steeply rising fuel and food prices. The government's heavy-handed response has resulted in the arrest of opposition leaders, a brutal crackdown on protesters and censorship of media coverage. But the protesters, ironically following in the footsteps of Museveni's earlier spirit of rebellion, are not giving up.
Before I scribbled the following words, I agonised over whether to write about the unfolding events subsequent to the Walk to Work (W2W) peaceful protest in Uganda. I was worried whether my views would bring more heat than light to the already tense and polarised Ugandan polity. I have already witnessed that the regime in Uganda is hellbent on preserving its power base rather than listening to public demands and finding solutions. I also feared the regime could easily thwart my good intentions and slap me with a pre-planned gagging order. Yet my nature overcame the doubt and fear, prompting me to ignore the draconian provision once again.
What clinched my resolve is the way Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye was re-arrested for the umpteenth time on 29 April. At the time, I was in Banjul, in the Gambia. On the previous morning, I had met a Ugandan who was also there to participate in the NGO Forum of the African Human and People’s Rights Commission. He told me about the release of Besigye on bail, while Democratic Party leader Norbert Mao remained behind in Nakasongola prison. The next day I learnt of the brutal re-arrest of Besigye.
Having seen the online graphic pictures of the cruelty dished out to him, I automatically developed the urge to critique. Too bad, the lousy internet connection in Gambia did not co-operate. Also that night, I had to start the journey back to Kampala.
The trouble is there is no one who has more business in the matter than me. Firstly, as a permanent resident of Uganda, both my family and I became victims of the tear gas that was being fired indiscriminately during the whole month of April. Secondly, I am an African to the core of my being and anything African is my concern – whether I am physically there or not. Thirdly, I am a human-rights defender who firmly believes in the universality and inalienability of human rights. Thus, invoking my belief and right, particularly the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of any frontiers”, I hereby challenge his President Yoweri Museveni and his media adviser Robert Kabushenga on the basis of their respective interviews on NTV Kenya and BBC Focus on Africa.
In his interview, Museveni tried to have us believe that the opposition planned to disrupt orderly life by demonstrating where “tomatoes are being sold”. As I know from following events closely, all the opposition figures declared beforehand that they were determined to walk to their respective work places every Monday and Thursday to show solidarity with the multitude of Ugandans hit by the skyrocketing cost of living. That is sufficient notice to the police to provide security for these Ugandans to enable them walk to their work peacefully. Instead, the police came up with a lamentable excuse to prevent them exercising their human and civil rights thereby provoking the wrath of Ugandans.
I saw on television that on the first day of W2W, Besigye had not attracted much public attention, nor had he any followers. But the public, who had seen how he was manhandled and bundled into the pick-up, came out en masse at the second W2W. As for disrupting “tomato selling”, Kampala has no orderly life where one can tell a sidewalk from a market place. In most areas of the city, one is forced to walk in the middle of the street jostling your way with vehicles and boda-bodas. All the sidewalks are occupied by all sorts of vendors. So what tomato selling has to do with it I don’t know.
Kabushenga for his part argued that what the private media showed us was the edited version that made Besigye the innocent underdog. However, on 3 May the Daily Monitor ran additional pictures that left no room for doubt as to who was the culprit here. On the other hand, regimes that opted to persevere in power are in the habit of planting their own agent provocateurs during peaceful protests. This has been noted and recorded time and again from the Horn of Africa to the Great Lakes Region.
Be that as it may, we should always bear in mind that the more the repression, the more the rebellion. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises this fact by acknowledging in its preamble that rebellion grows commensurate with the degree of repression. Our rulers in the region who worry about tyre-burning youths should revisit their days in the bush. They should never delude themselves that the spirit to rebel ended with their coming to live in state houses and palaces. FAM
- Ugandan media censored over walk-to-work protests at CPJ
- Kenyan press quiz Museveni on riots at YouTube