One Uganda, one people?
Opposition leader Colonel Dr Kizza Besigye flew into Entebbe airport after a two-week sojourn in a Kenyan hospital, where he received treatment for wounds sustained during an arrest in Kampala. Besigye had been blocked from boarding his flight the previous morning, but as he made his way from the airport, hordes of supporters waving freshly-cut green branches and posters of ‘the Colonel’ greeted him at a road-block on the shores of Lake Victoria, and marched alongside him as his convoy began an eight-hour journey down the 40-odd kilometre road into the capital city.
Heavy police and military presence all along the Entebbe-Kampala road heralded trouble, and the many thousands gathered around Besigye’s vehicle and on the roadsides were met with sticks, teargas, rubber bullets, and finally live ammunition as security forces sought to disperse them.
From an open-top rented van behind Besigye’s, I watched the crowd repeatedly re-form, hurling rocks that shattered the windows of at least two police and military vehicles. Hundreds of individuals walked tens of kilometres from Entebbe under gruelling midday temperatures, in defiance of the threat posed by the armed security forces.
With the convoy barely ever breaking walking pace, Besigye and his charismatic wife Winnie Byanyima, reported locally to be a former girlfriend of the president, stood out of the sunroof of a navy blue four-wheel drive, waving to dense throngs of dancing, cheering supporters.
‘So much money has been put into President Museveni’s inauguration,’ said a Besigye supporter who identified himself as Francis, ‘and yet, people are suffering.’
‘This is our president,’ shouted crowds from the roadsides as Besigye passed through towns and villages, and chanted this thrice-defeated presidential candidate’s campaign slogan, ‘One Uganda, One People.’
Political analysts say that since the start of the opposition-led ‘Walk to Work’ protest against rising fuel and food prices over a month ago, Besigye commands a much greater following than he did during the February elections.
Security forces’ response to the protests over the last month has been violent, with the latest of Besigye’s four arrests resulting in injuries, including temporary blindness, for which he has been treated in a Nairobi hospital over the past couple of weeks. Riots in Kampala and two other cities the next day were an expression of public outrage, and left nine dead and hundreds injured, according to Human Rights Watch. The view from my bedroom window that morning was streaked with columns of black smoke, striving skywards, as roadblocks of palm fronds, timber and garbage were set on fire all over the capital city. I heard reports from elsewhere in the city that police and military were ‘spraying bullets’ into the rioting crowds.
But on Thursday, security forces were noticeably more restrained in their use of live ammunition, preferring teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons and sticks.
By afternoon, the President and the foreign dignitaries invited to his swearing-in left the inauguration festivities in Kampala for a luncheon at his residence in Entebbe.
Security forces used, for the most part, nonlethal weapons to disperse rowdy crowds before presidential motorcades passed through. But at least one person – a motorcycle taxi driver – was shot and killed as he participated in stoning Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s car.
During his speech at an old airstrip in a central Kampala suburb, in the presence of at least 10 African heads of state, President Museveni made no direct mention of his rival Besigye, or of the protests that have been dominating Kampala’s headlines for the last month. However, he did refer to the food and fuel price increases that have been troubling Uganda, pledging to buy fuel in bulk from neighbouring South Sudan, and to introduce new irrigation projects for farmers.
President Museveni said, ‘I call upon those who have been pushing opportunism to join the national consensus instead of... embarking on disruptive schemes.’ In an oblique reference to his country’s recent troubles he continued, asserting that, ‘those disruptive schemes will be defeated just like the previous opportunistic schemes have been defeated.’
At the end of this new term, President Museveni will have been in power for a full 30 years. He has, no doubt, a great deal of experience forging a ‘national consensus’ and overcoming political challenges, but it hasn’t stopped his challenger asserting that his methods have cost him his legitimacy.
Kizza Besigye has pledged to walk to work again today, and if previous episodes in this string of protests are anything to go by, he’ll have the lively company of both supporters and police.
For me, this past month has been edifying: the burn and acrid taste of teargas has become so unpleasantly familiar that I always carry swimming goggles in my handbag. I’ve learnt to distinguish the crack of live ammo from the more muffled pop of rubber bullets, the staccato burst of a teargas canister from the mad bang of a stun grenade.