Uganda Walks to Work

Ugandan police during the walk-to-work protests. Courtesy of author.

On the day of the royal wedding in Britain, my wife emailed from the other side of Kampala. “At least if I’m stuck at the hospital, I get to stream the royal wedding! Totally surreal to watch this with periodic bullets and tear-gas canisters in the background.” Needless to say, this was not the kind of thing you want to hear from your spouse: it’s always a shock to discover you’re sleeping with a royalist.

The bullets and tear gas were worrying as well. They were the most visible manifestation of the Ugandan government’s crackdown on a series of “walk to work” protests that have taken place twice a week for three weeks now. The demonstrations began as a complaint against a government quick to spend millions on Russian fighter jets and presidential inaugurations but seemingly unconcerned with a 30 percent annual increase in food prices and a headline inflation rate of 14 percent. Demonstrators have joined the millions of Ugandans for whom walking to work is a matter of economic necessity, abstaining from cars, shared taxis, and the motorcycle taxis known as boda-bodas.

The pattern of protest and crackdown settled into a rhythm early on. On Monday and Thursday mornings, Ugandans—opposition politicians, students, and regular citizens—would walk from their homes, and the police—regular, plainclothes, and military—would do their best to stop them. Crowds would defend the demonstrators with rocks, and the police would disperse them with tear gas and bullets.

By late afternoon the clashes between the demonstrations and police would ease into a nervous stalemate. Inevitably, the leaders of the protests would end up arrested on charges ranging from obstruction of traffic to unlawful assembly. They would spend a day or three in jail, and be released on bond, and the cycle would start again. As the weeks went on, the demonstrations met ever more stringent exercises of official force.

Kizza Besigye quickly emerged as the public face of walk to work. This was no surprise: Besigye is the dogged leader of Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change; in February’s presidential elections he lost a third straight contest to Yoweri Museveni, the incumbent who has ruled Uganda for twenty-five years. (All three elections were accompanied by widespread and credible accusations of bribery, vote-rigging, and government interference.)

Besigye’s leadership of the protests was helped, it seems not too cynical to say, by the government’s harsh response. On the third day of demonstrations, while scuffling with police, he was shot in the hand by a rubber bullet. The wound was minor compared with what he would suffer in later days, but photos showing Besigye in a cast up to his elbow supplied the protests with their first entrée into the international press.

The day before the royal wedding, April 28, the situation got more serious. That morning the police confronted Besigye at his ranch in the suburb of Kasangati and insisted he obey a court order prohibiting him from protesting. To everyone’s surprise, Besigye acquiesced. Instead of walking to work he boarded a white Land Cruiser and told reporters he would drive to his office in Kampala. Police and security officials, perhaps confused by his sudden compliance, stopped Besigye when he reached the capital and arrested him anyway.

None of Besigye’s previous arrests had been gentle, but this one was particularly violent. Unfortunately for the government, it was also particularly photogenic. The state had banned live media coverage early on in the protests, but that night the news showed footage of Besigye huddled in his SUV while plainclothes security operatives smashed the window of his car with a hammer and the butt of a handgun. Ugandans watched, horrified, as Besigye was drenched in a noxious spray, dragged from his vehicle, and bundled under the bench of a police pickup like so much scrap lumber. (Later they would learn that Besigye had to fly to Nairobi to treat the inhalation injuries and temporary blindness caused by the spray.)

Kampala erupted the next day. Around nine in the morning the first reports of riots, tear gas, and gunshots made their way onto Twitter. Ugandans arriving for work in the city center found the streets blocked by armored vehicles and patrolled by the presidential guard. Photographs of burning roadblocks and spiked police blockades filtered across the internet, despite the police’s informal threat to confiscate whatever cameras they could get their hands on. By the time my wife’s first email landed in my inbox, a little after one in the afternoon, police were attacking students at Makerere University with teargas and batons. By the end of the day, 360 people would be arrested, 200 reported injured, and at least two confirmed dead.

It’s been lost on no one that the walk-to-work demonstrations have come so close on the heels of the revolutions that set the northern edge of the continent spinning. Uganda is generally recognized as the source of the Nile River, and Besigye was not the only person to hope the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir Square would work its way upstream.

Prior to the February presidential election, there was some evidence to suggest it might. Political observers here noted that Uganda has a large population of educated, unemployed youth, precisely the demographic that fueled the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. In 2008 the World Bank reported an 83 percent unemployment rate for Ugandans aged 15 to 24, and by some estimates only 150,000 of the 400,000 students who graduate from tertiary-education institutions each year can find jobs. The frustrations of finding work in such an environment are only compounded by an informal patronage system that reserves jobs for the best connected and most politically pliant.

Everyone watched the election season closely for signs that the North African uprisings might spread south. But any chance for a Ugandan revolt seemed spent by the end of February. The impotence of the few demonstrations that took place in the wake of the manifestly corrupt elections seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom that Uganda was too divided—along class, ethnic, religious, and party lines—for any meaningful opposition effort to emerge. By March, the Kenyan East African newspaper was suggesting that “any attempts to inspire serious protests now will have no consequence because most of the population has almost switched off.”

Walk to work turned everyone back on. The anthropologist and political theorist Mahmood Mamdani argued recently that the protests show the Ugandan government “losing [the] coherence and unity that it displayed during the elections, [while] the opposition is beginning to find at least a semblance of unity and vision that had evaded it during election season.” What Mamdani did not say, but seems inarguable, is that the shifts in both directions are largely attributable to the government’s overreaction to the protests.

No doubt much of this overreaction has to do with the government’s fear of another Tahrir Square. But at least part of it—the part that has to do with Besigye—is personal. Besigye and Museveni have a complicated and contentious history that goes back decades. Besigye was the president’s personal doctor during the civil war that brought the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to power in 1986. He served twice as a state minister and rose to the rank of colonel in the Ugandan Army.

In 1998 Besigye married Winnie Byanyima, Uganda’s first aeronautical engineer and Museveni’s former mistress, and the following year he authored a report that criticized the NRM as a dictatorship and a kleptocracy. In 2000 he formally broke with the party and announced plans to run against Museveni in the 2001 presidential elections.

Besigye’s opposition to Museveni has been obstinate ever since, but he was, after February’s defeat, beginning to look like an also-ran. In March, one regional newspaper argued that he “has been overexposed and now needs to take the backseat, to allow another politician to steer the [opposition] ship.”

Besigye’s brutal arrest on April 28 changed that instantly. By treating him so badly in view of so many cameras, the government created in Besigye what it should have feared most: a credible and sympathetic symbol for the Ugandan opposition to unite around.

Last week the Kenyan Daily Nation published a political cartoon that showed Museveni at his desk under a portrait of Idi Amin. The portrait announced to a grinning Museveni, “I must say I do admire your tactics.” The comparison stung, but despite CNN’s breathless announcement of “fear of a return to the brutal days of Idi Amin,” no one could seriously argue that Uganda today suffers anything close to the horrors it saw under Amin or former president Milton Obote. There are no sharp-suited executioners from the State Research Bureau, no mass slaughters in the countryside, no corpses clogging dams on the Nile.

Still, the walk-to-work crackdown is neither the first nor the most dramatic example of Museveni’s willingness to trade life and liberty for political calm. During the decades-long war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, his government ordered the forced relocation of 1.8 million Ugandans to internal displacement camps, an internment that some human-rights observers have described as nearly genocidal. And a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks cited “numerous, credible allegations of unlawful detention and torture” by several state agencies.

Time was—and not too long ago—that Museveni could count on the US and other donor nations to turn a blind eye to these and other internal dealings. When the NRM came to power in 1986, Museveni assumed control of a country that had, in Victoria Brittain’s words, “come to symbolise the continent’s spiral of poverty, violence and death.” Eight years of rampant state terrorism under Amin, and another five years of equally awful (but much less notorious) bloodshed during Obote’s second presidential term had left Uganda in tatters. Museveni all but literally put the country back together, an accomplishment that seemed nearly miraculous. For his first fifteen years in office, this achievement—along with his embrace of Washington Consensus economics and his frank handling of the AIDS epidemic—made him a darling of the West.

When fears of autocracy began to catch up with him around the turn of the millennium, Museveni managed to retain the favor of his Western patrons by promoting Uganda as a guarantor of regional stability. Ugandan military activity in the eastern Congo somewhat belies this claim, but it is nevertheless true that the US has relied on Uganda to fight its proxy wars in Sudan and more recently in Somalia. Since 2007, the US has supported AMISOM, the Uganda-led African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, to the tune of a quarter billion dollars. In 2009, the State Department said that Uganda was “one of our primary partners in the fight against terrorism.”

Uganda’s role in Somalia has caused the US government to keep up its support for Museveni even though it admitted, in a WikiLeaks cable from 2009, that “the NRM’s near total accumulation of power has led to poor governance, corruption, and rising ethnic tensions.” Last fall, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told a Time reporter that Museveni had been “elected openly and transparently in free and fair elections,” despite a 2006 State Department reported that pronounced the elections “marred by serious irregularities.” Now, of course, Uganda’s very public repression of the walk-to-work demonstrations has forced the US to play catch-up to its principles. On April 26, the Obama Administration declared itself “troubled by the tragic loss of life and injuries at the hands of Uganda’s security forces.”

Like most Americans living in Kampala, my wife and I live a very secure life. Our house is in a quiet part of town; it has a tall gate and an armed guard. Even during the worst of the clashes I have had no trouble visiting the supermarket down the street or the gym in our neighborhood. By contrast, our housekeeper Marrion goes home each night to a neighborhood under twenty-four-hour-a-day military surveillance. Her neighbors have reported an increase in theft since the patrols began; they are convinced it is no coincidence. Several evenings during the last few weeks, she has had to make her way home on foot through the rocks and the roadblocks and the smoking tires that litter the streets after the day’s protests are through. My wife and I are not invincible here, but we are safe. Compared to Marrion and her four sons, we are embarrassingly safe.

For the first two weeks of walk to work I’d been tracking the protests from home, watching the #walk2work hashtag on Twitter and reading whatever I could find on the websites of local newspapers. On April 21, a week and a day before the royal wedding, I went with a Ugandan friend to Besigye’s ranch to see the start of the day’s action. My plan, if anyone asked, was to take photographs. Mostly I wanted to get out and see for myself.

We reached Kasangati before sunrise. The police were already in place, their big blue trucks and the armored personnel carriers they call Mambas stationed all along the two-lane highway that connects the suburb with Kampala. Even in the gray of dawn, it was easy to make out the lines of men in riot helmets and blue camouflage trying to keep themselves awake behind clear plastic shields.

At the end of Besigye’s long driveway, an officer in an impressively starched police uniform asked which news organization I worked for.

“Pan American Press Association,” I said, quoting the fake press pass I’d put together the night before. I handed over the passport photo and laser-printed credentials that I’d laminated between two smartphone-screen protectors.

The man examined the pass, gave me a hard look, and told me I had to get permission from the local police station before taking photographs. This seemed like a pretty surefire way to miss whatever might happen, but my friend, deciding caution the better part of valor, suggested the officer might already have reported us by radio. He was sure all the men loitering on the road were police spies.

The police station, fortunately, was close, and when I got there it became immediately obvious that no one had any interest in me at all. I went back to the dirt road in front of Besigye’s compound and attached myself to a local television crew walking down the driveway. A wire reporter from Kenya who walked with us made no attempt to hide his disdain when I told him I’d come without agency or assignment to take photographs of the day’s events.

By the time we reached Besigye’s gate, the man himself was already well launched on an impromptu press conference. He wore a blue and purple dashiki and put his plastered hand to energetic exclamatory work. He said his neighbors had asked him not to walk from Kasangati that day. Previous protests had left the neighborhood suffused with tear gas, and this day, Holy Thursday, was the day that schoolchildren were due to return home for Easter vacation. Besigye told the scrum of reporters, some of whom wore helmets and body armor, that he would drive into Kampala and walk to his office from there.

The real reporters scrambled for their cars and followed him into the city, where the usual pattern of tear gas, standoff, and arrest would soon occur. Having no agency or assignment, I headed home.

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