Kizza Besigye, the main opposition candidate, was detained by police in Kampala yesterday (15 February); tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at his supporters. Though he is unlikely to win Uganda’s election on Thursday, his popularity is undeniable.
‘They are buying tear gas, but the hospitals have no medicines,’ said one man, as the first canisters were fired into the crowd. At a crossroads in Wandegeya, near Makerere University, several hundred police were blocking opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s convoy from passing into Kampala city centre. It was the culmination to a day of clashes in which Besigye was twice detained and at least one of his supporters was killed.
The first confrontation came as Besigye attempted to enter the city along the Jinja Road, the main route from the east. Tear gas was fired as police tried to divert him along an alternative road; he refused, and was detained for several hours. He was later released but made it only as far as the Wandegeya crossroads, where a second standoff ensued. As evening approached, Besigye’s car was towed away by police.
With just four days to go until presidential elections, tensions were running high. Besigye has lost three previous contests with long-time president Yoweri Museveni; his supporters allege that those elections were ‘stolen’ through vote-rigging and intimidation. In recent weeks Besigye has been drawing huge crowds, and polls suggest Museveni’s lead is narrowing. This year, Besigye supporters say, will be different.
‘This time round we will fight to the death,’ said one, climbing on a wall as Besigye drove past. ‘It will be like the French Revolution.’ Like many Besigye supporters he was young, male and jobless, disillusioned with the only government he has ever known. ‘It takes nine months for a woman to produce [a baby],’ he said, ‘but Museveni has been in power for thirty years and is still talking.’
Besigye himself is studiously peaceful, urging his supporters to remain calm. He has endured worse, including an arrest in 2006 on false charges of treason and rape, and being pepper-sprayed in the face during 2011 protests. Some worry that the non-violent message gets lost in his rhetoric of ‘defiance’; he has already said that he will challenge an unfair result on the streets, rather than in the courts. But on the evidence of Monday’s events, the greatest threat to peace is the state itself.
The pearl of Africa
At Wandegeya, the mood had been festive as the crowd waited for Besigye to arrive. Young men rode motorbikes garlanded with leaves; people climbed on rooftops to watch the convoy approach. ‘Besigye is our true president,’ people said again and again. ‘We want change.’ As their hero approached there was an eruption of cheers, and a crowd surged up the street to greet him.
Joy turned to panic as the first tear gas was fired. People scattered into side streets, holding dampened shirts across their mouths. Some inched back to the crossroads, only to be driven away again. Small groups of young men threw rocks at the police, and fires were lit in the road, but the majority remained peaceful. Besigye’s small convoy of cars was left motionless on the open street, facing a line of armed police some hundred metres ahead.
‘This is what happens in the pearl of Africa,’ said Alex, a Besigye supporter, sheltering round a corner. He gestured at the police. ‘Those men, they are our brothers. We paid with our taxes for those bullets they fire at people.’
Police chiefs later said that they stopped Besigye’s procession because it was disrupting traffic and city centre business. Nobody in Wandegeya was convinced by that explanation. ‘This is a dictatorship,’ many said. One man quoted a Luganda proverb: ‘When a growing tree becomes bent, it will never straighten: it will only break.’
Healthcare and jobs
It had all been so different in Busoga, eastern Uganda, just a few days before. Besigye had swept through villages and market towns in moving column of horns, motorbikes, music, cheering, and dust. In late afternoon he emerged onto the main highway into Jinja, waving triumphantly from his sun roof as a human torrent roared in his wake: it felt less like a rally, and more like a revolution.
‘One Uganda, one people,’ began his speech at each stop, raising two fingers to the sky in the gesture of his party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). It was a popular message. Many people in Busoga feel that their region has been neglected by Museveni, a westerner. Besigye too is from the west, but Museveni’s dominance there has forced him to look elsewhere for support.
‘There’s too much corruption and tribalism,’ said Patrick, a teacher, as Besigye spoke in the village of Namagera. ‘Only Museveni’s people get jobs.’
Jamie, a local FDC member, was more forthright. ‘People are just crying,’ he said, a Besigye picture pinned to his lapel. ‘There is no power, no roads, the hospitals have no medicine.’ Presidential candidates have been banned from visiting hospitals after a visit by Besigye to Abim hospital, in the impoverished Karamoja region, revealed the dilapidated facilities there.
Rachel, a health worker, had made similar complaints at an earlier rally in Kampala. ‘The salary is not enough for doctors and nurses,’ she said. She worried about the young mothers and their babies who came into her clinic. ‘I’m seeing so many young women delivering [babies], but afterwards they have no school fees for their child – we are seeing so many children on the street.’
Many also talk about jobs. There is no good data on youth unemployment in Uganda, but numbers are high. An oft-cited statistic is that 83% of young people are unemployed – this is almost certainly wrong, but the situation is such that many find it believable.
Benard, a young man from the east, came to Kampala looking for work. ‘Whenever I apply for a job, I don’t get one,’ he complained. ‘That’s why the youth want change.’ He would support Besigye, he said, because the opposition leader is ‘like us – a common man’.
‘The people’s president’
It is a claim made again and again by Besigye supporters: that he is ‘the people’s president’, a Mandela-type figure who ‘has suffered for us’. This image is bolstered by photos of Besigye pushing his own car out of a ditch on the campaign trail, in contrast to Museveni’s police escort and notoriously bloated convoy.
It is not the whole picture. Museveni’s strongest base, apart from the wealthy elite, is the rural poor. They are grateful for the peace and development he has brought to much of the country, as well as the patronage that the NRM machine can dispense.
But Besigye is popular with the young and disenfranchised in the cities, as well as the frustrated middle-class. Others, like Besigye himself, are former Museveni-supporters now disillusioned with his never-ending rule. ‘Museveni did not carry out the programme he promised,’ said Saul, who had fought for Museveni as a child soldier but was now supporting Besigye.
The concern is that the crescendo of hope will collapse into disappointment should another Museveni victory be announced. Many Besigye supporters think that it will be harder for Museveni to cheat in this election: they cite new computerised technology for voting, and the defection of Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who claims to know how votes were rigged in the past. But that faith may be misplaced. Already, some are questioning the location of ballot papers; one Besigye supporter in Jinja said that memory cards containing voters’ records had been stolen.
Previous elections have been followed by protests, often met with police brutality; tens of people were killed during ‘Walk-to-Work’ demonstrations led by Besigye in the months after the 2011 election. The highly militarized state is already gearing up for more confrontations (see ‘Power Play‘, 11 February).
So too are a variety of shadowy militia groups, mobilized by both sides. One man at a Besigye rally, wearing a military-style red beret, said that ‘Museveni is Africa’s worst dictator’. He claimed that he was beaten and tortured by security services after being kidnapped in November last year. ‘We have enough force to stand against this president,’ he added.
Many people are worried about the prospect of violence. At churches and mosques across the country, Ugandans are praying for a peaceful election. They hope that the events in Kampala on Monday are not a prelude to post-election clashes.
But not everybody is so concerned. ‘This is Uganda,’ laughed one young man in Kampala city centre. ‘Other countries have a riot for weeks. We riot for ten minutes, then go home.’ Ugandans hope that he is right.