The Ugandan government has tightened its grip ahead of President Museveni’s swearing-in this week. The opposition will struggle to respond.
It was early on Thursday afternoon when the jet fighters first appeared, roaring low over Kampala, then twisting heavenwards in a balletic loop-the-loop. Necks craned back, fingers pointed, a murmur rippled across the city. A routine training exercise, was the official line. Look up, don’t look around, went the unspoken sub-script.
On the streets, a planned day of protest had come to little. Small gatherings of opposition supporters were dispersed with rapid arrests and a whiff of tear gas. Key opposition figures, including presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, were held under house arrest throughout the day. A scheduled march never materialised. Meanwhile the government banned live coverage of the protests, telling media organizations to comply or have their licences revoked.
With the swearing-in of President Yoweri Museveni this coming Thursday, official paranoia has reached new heights. On 29 April, the Constitutional Court banned Besigye and supporters of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) from ‘engaging in demonstrations, processions, other public meetings, media campaigns or pronouncements’ – for the next four months. The rushed hearing took place without any legal representation from the FDC, at the behest of the Deputy Attorney General. In a statement, the Uganda Law Society said that they ‘could not see any justification for hearing such a politically charged application’ in this manner. The FDC vowed to carry on regardless.
The first test of the ruling came on Tuesday. Since February’s disputed elections, the FDC has been holding weekly prayer meetings at party offices nationwide. But last Tuesday, the first since the court order, Bible-brandishing pastors were bundled into police vehicles as police and soldiers blocked access to the party headquarters. The Lord Mayor of Kampala, Erias Lukwago, recently re-elected with a 75% majority, was among those arrested for attempting to attend the prayer sessions.
Repression is not new in Uganda, but the tactics have changed. After the 2011 elections, ‘Walk-to-Work’ protests were initially allowed to go ahead, before a brutal clampdown in which at least nine people were killed and hundreds arrested. This time around, it seems, the government is trying a different approach: a heavy, intimidating security presence, backed up with court orders and the house arrest of key leaders, to deter demonstrations before they can even start. While the new way is less messy, it has not gone unnoticed: the US Embassy has been pointedly tweeting quotes about freedom of assembly and the press.
The official justification for all this is that opposition protests have a revolutionary intent, aiming to catalyse a ‘Ugandan Spring’ against a recently re-elected government. There is some truth in that. For all Besigye’s complaints, Museveni probably did win the most votes in February – albeit under cripplingly unfair circumstances. And the opposition are quite open about their hopes to ‘dismantle the dictatorship’. The FDC have recommended that its supporters read From Dictatorship to Democracy, a manual of non-violent resistance by American activist Gene Sharp which supposedly inspired the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Yet on another level, the government’s paranoia seems excessive. Opposition to Museveni is emotionally strong, but organizationally weak. The FDC’s power is concentrated almost entirely in the person of Besigye, the living symbol of defiance; when he is taken out of the picture, as he was last week, the party struggles to mobilize. Some of the most egregious measures, such as media censorship and the suppression of prayers, seem as unnecessary as they are unwarranted.
The opposition has plenty of support, especially in the cities. In an open system, they could pull hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets – as Besigye did in pre-election rallies, which brought parts of Kampala to a standstill. But they are fighting a military government, not a democratic state. They haven’t yet found a way to organize in such circumstances. Until they do, the biggest threats to Museveni will come from within his own party, rather than the opposition.
Expect more tensions, more arrests, and perhaps more fighter jets this week. And when Museveni is sworn in on Thursday, for a seventh time, do not doubt his determination to stay.