Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

Street view

The mood on the streets of Kampala as Yoweri Museveni was sworn-in for another term as president of Uganda today (12 May).

N.B. There are no pictures of Museveni supporters going to the swearing-in ceremony because police wouldn’t let me take any…

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Pro-Museveni graffiti

‘We’ve got freedom, don’t you see?’ said Julius, queuing today to enter the swearing-in of Yoweri Museveni as president of Uganda. Freedom was on the lips of many in the crowd, and so too was peace: a sense of a country liberated from the arbitrary violence of past dictatorships. No longer do people wake in the morning to find dead bodies on the streets, as they did in the days of Idi Amin.

But freedom and peace are elastic terms. Only yesterday, military police had beaten bystanders on the streets of Kampala after a surprise appearance by Kizza Besigye, the popular opposition figurehead. Besigye was arrested, and reportedly flown to Karamoja, in the remote north-east (the Ugandan equivalent of being exiled to Siberia). Other opposition leaders have been detained, in cells or in their homes. Social media has been shutdown – as it was on election day in February – and live coverage of opposition activities is banned.

A strange way, perhaps, for Museveni to celebrate the start of his seventh term. But these are strange times in Uganda. Like hardened steel, Museveni’s power feels strong but brittle. He crushes opponents with ease. But with every show of force, the freedom of which Julius speaks fades further into a tear gas haze.

Museveni pakalast

Museveni’s supporters thronged towards the Kololo Independence Grounds this morning. ‘Yellow!’, some chanted, in reference to the ubiquitous colour of Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Others carried banners, while one woman had embroidered her dress with the words ‘Museveni pakalast‘ (‘forever’).

‘I was born in this regime,’ said Takia, breaking off from a paean to the president. ‘I’ve got my education from this government. I have freedom to do what I like.’ She was not concerned that Museveni had already been in power for thirty years. ‘We need him even for fifty years,’ her friend chipped in from behind.

Patience is the cardinal virtue of Museveni believers. ‘Uganda is still a Third World country,’ mused Matovu, a street cleaner, ‘so everything can’t be fine.’ Many in the crowd stressed the ‘steady progress’ that had been made, rather than complaining about the work that was not yet done. And wisdom comes with age, said David, another street cleaner, undeterred by the prospect of a septuagenarian head of state: ‘At home, grandfathers will always lead.’

But not everybody at the ceremony was an enthusiast. Museveni is said to place great emphasis upon big crowds, and his fixers had worked hard to ensure a good turnout. Buses and open-top trucks ferried people in from suburbs and villages. ‘I don’t like him,’ said one teenager, ‘I’m just here for the food.’ Others simply nodded to fate. ‘He’s our president, there’s nothing we can do,’ said Patrick, shrugging, when asked why he had come.

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By central Kampala standards, this counts as quiet

Dictators only

A mile to the west, in downtown Kampala, it was a lethargic day. The government had declared a public holiday, and many shops were closed. Porters slept in their carts. Newspaper vendors dozed by unsold copies. Bored traders gathered round games of ludo.

A few TVs showed images from the ceremony. ‘Did you see the guests today?’ asked one jobless man, referring to the 14 heads of state who had flown in from other African countries. ‘Dictators only!’ Western envoys walked out of the ceremony in protest at the presence of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader who is wanted for war crimes, but it was Robert Mugabe that drew the ire of the street. Many see the Zimbabwean autocrat, fumbling on past his 93rd birthday, as the geriatric model to which Museveni aspires.

It was difficult to find anyone with kind words for Museveni in downtown Kampala (I spoke to twenty people, and heard none). In political terms, the city is an outlier – but an important one. When Besigye appeared on the streets yesterday, having evaded police who were holding him under house arrest, the security response was swift. Tear gas was fired, and military police beat people with sticks and clubs, for no greater crime than being there.

Besigye, who claims he won the election, had earlier been ‘sworn in’ by his supporters as ‘people’s president’, who released footage on the internet. By coming to the city centre, he clearly hoped to trigger some kind of mass protest. But, for now, police beatings are enough to quell dissent. ‘Here in Uganda, people are fearful,’ explained Naswif, a trader, from his shop selling motorbike batteries. ‘They don’t do like you saw in Egypt – we have not yet reached that extent.’

Still, people are unhappy, and many of the traders report that business is down. ‘Poverty is the order of the day,’ grumbled one woman in Kisekka spare parts market. Besigye’s plans for the economy are vague, but many are willing to give him a chance. ‘We don’t know Besigye,’ said Ziwa, who doesn’t have a job, ‘but we want to try.’ Others are more effusive. ‘Besigye is our saviour,’ said one man, selling mobile phone credit. ‘He’s the Magafuli of Uganda.’ (The no-nonsense approach to corruption of John Magafuli, the new Tanzanian president, has won fans across east Africa).

But the deeper problem for Uganda is that all its leaders, whether from government or opposition, share the same political inheritance. Besigye was once Museveni’s doctor in the bush, and a significant figure in the early years of the NRM. Both hail from the west of the country, as does Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and the third main candidate in February’s elections. ‘They were together,’ said Mpagi, a hardware dealer. ‘It’s their revolution, their struggle. Now what about those who didn’t come from the bush?’

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A soldier surveys the streets

Trump card

The current tensions could ease now that Museveni’s swearing-in has passed. But they are unlikely to disappear. Museveni came to power with the gun, and has no qualms about holding onto power in the same way. His supreme justification, for almost everything he does, is security: ‘the foundation of everything,’ as one of his supporters described it at the ceremony today.

Faced with overwhelming force, opponents hope for the deus ex machina of international intervention. ‘Tell your government to come and pull that man out of governance, like you pulled out Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein,’ said one woman today. ‘We are waiting for Donald Trump to come and save us,’ said Ziwa, idling on a bench downtown. An erroneous quote, in which Trump promises to lock up Museveni and Mugabe, has caught the imagination of Kampalans. ‘Trump is our Jesus,’ one man joked.

That is fantasy, of course. More realistically, Western donors may draw down their financial support. For now, Museveni doesn’t seem bothered. But the next five years will be crucial for Uganda’s economy, as big projects in infrastructure and oil near fruition. At the same time, a young population demands jobs, education and healthcare. How Museveni will navigate these challenges is not yet clear. ‘He’s like a lady who’s pregnant,’ said Dismas, a 67 year-old NRM member, ‘and we don’t know what he’s going to deliver.’

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This entry was posted on May 12, 2016 by in African Politics and tagged , , , .
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