Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

Livin’ on a prayer

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye left home today (5 April), after 43 days of house arrest. He said he was going to pray, but was back in police custody by lunchtime. 

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Defiance in action

‘Besigye has become a pain in Museveni’s ass,’ said Moses, a local businessman, watching at a roundabout in Mulago, Kampala, this morning. Kizza Besigye, the opposition figurehead, disputes the results of February’s elections, officially won by long-time president Yoweri Museveni. He had brought traffic to a halt as cheering crowds followed him towards the city today – the first time he has left his home after 43 days of house arrest, which ended on Friday.

But police let him go no further. His car was blocked, and surrounded by riot police. Crowds were dispersed by plain-clothes thugs wielding pepper spray – more intrusive and more harmful than tear gas, and also easier to deny. Besigye was towed away in his car to a police station. Boda-boda (motorobike taxi) men were sprayed and beaten while attempting to follow, some after turning to drive away.

‘This man is a crowd-puller,’ said one fan as Besigye drove past. That, at least, is beyond doubt.

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Playing in the garden

Apart from one trip to church (see ‘Keeping the Faith’, 28 February), this was the first time that Besigye has been seen in Kampala since 19 February, the day after the election, when he was arrested at his party headquarters. Kale Kayihura, the police chief and a close Museveni ally, announced on Friday that he was withdrawing his men from Besigye’s home – a ‘token of goodwill’, he claimed, though cynics noted that it came the day after the Supreme Court rubber-stamped Museveni’s re-election, and just a few hours before a court decision on the legality of police actions.

Kayihura also warned Besigye to call off his ‘defiance’ campaign, aimed at mobilizing public protest against the ruling regime. Museveni, talking to reporters on Saturday, wasted no time on subtlety. ‘If you want to protest, go to your home, or to a playground and do everything you want,’ the Daily Monitor quotes him as saying, ‘but don’t attempt to play in my garden – I can kill you.’

Besigye, undeterred, has promised ‘defiance not compliance’. Today gave a sense of what that meant. His stated aim was to attend a prayer meeting at the headquarters of his party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC); the party has been holding weekly prayers as part of a ‘Free My Vote’ campaign. Besigye’s home is in Kasangati, ten miles north of Kampala. Party headquarters are in Najjanankumbi, a suburb in the south of the city. So, short of taking an absurd detour, going to prayers meant going through town – where Besigye has his strongest support, and where the authorities most fear to see him tread.

It was easy to see why. ‘This is our president,’ people said again and again, as Besigye’s car inched along at jogging pace. Their hero stood through the sun-roof of his car, waving the V-for-victory sign, the symbol of the FDC. Young men ran alongside him, and people passed up gifts of fruit and cooking oil. It could have been a triumphal procession – and that was precisely the problem.DSC_0628

Legality and legitimacy

Police later said that Besigye had been detained for holding an ‘unlawful procession’. Technically, they were right. Under the draconian terms of the Public Order Management Act, passed in 2013, police may break up a spontaneous ‘procession meeting’ where it interferes with traffic or ‘other lawful business’. On those terms, they were clearly acting lawfully by detaining him.

Whether the law is just is another matter. Busingye Kabumba, a lawyer, has spoken of the tension between ‘legality’ and ‘legitimacy’ in Ugandan politics. That is exactly the tension that Besigye wants to exploit. By waving from his sunroof, rather than huddling behind his darkened windows, he was inciting the kind of euphoric mayhem which he knew would force a response. He said he was going for prayers, but privately he probably didn’t expect to get there – his real aim was to expose, once again, the vindictiveness and brutality of Uganda’s security-state.

This, for the moment, would appear to be Besigye’s strategy, torn straight from the books of revolution and resistance that he is reportedly fond of reading. His party have called for ‘a sustained non-violent effort’, and claim to have organized a civic action committee to co-ordinate it. But it hard to see such a strategy succeeding, given the FDC’s organizational weaknesses and the nature of the Ugandan economy: people are poor, and there are few of the structures, like trade unions, that could organize them.DSC_0676

‘Tell Obama to come here’

The intended audience for such a campaign appears, in part, to be international. Museveni was for a long-time the darling of international donors: despite Western governments’ distaste for Uganda’s homophobic laws, he is still an important strategic partner in Somalia and elsewhere. But Museveni cannot take Western support for granted. ‘[The] US will remain committed to helping African countries build security capabilities, but not at the cost of jeopardizing freedom & democracy’, the American ambassador said on Twitter last week.

The FDC has asked for international backing in their calls for an independent election enquiry. Meanwhile, on the streets of Kampala today, people were more blunt: ‘tell Obama to come here with every type of army,’ one man said.

Neither of those things is likely to happen. The West may not be so generous with its aid in future, but it already has enough worries in the region, such as festering conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Diplomatic attention at present seems to be more focused on Tanzania, after recent controversial elections in Zanzibar.

For the moment, the Ugandan opposition is on its own. Besigye will need many more days like today to get attention. What should he do? ‘We don’t know,’ said one Besigye-supporter today. ‘Voting has failed. Court has failed. We don’t know.’

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2016 by in African Politics.
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