The NYTimes and BBC have recently posted a flurry of poorly written articles (here and here, respectively) about a series of demonstrations in Kampala and Gulu throughout the last 10 days. After two months of near silence, several of the opposition leaders from the February election have staged a “Walk to Work” campaign ostensibly to protest the rising costs of food and fuel in the country. The participants in these walks / protests / demonstrations have numbered in the hundreds and have been certainly attracted the attention of the police and the army if not the wider population. One police officer was seen casually tossing tear gas canisters into residential compounds that happen to line the roads being used by protesters, so that’s no good. In the NGO neighborhoods (where I stay when in Kampala) the only indicator of unrest is the occasional siren and maybe a SMS forwarded from the UN listing roads or neighborhoods to avoid.
The headliners seem to want this to be a big deal: “On Thursday, a former presidential candidate and leading opposition figure, Kizza Besigye, was shot during street demonstrations in Kampala, the capital.” Thanks NYTimes, now the western world would likely assume Besigye is seriously wounded, if not dead, when in fact he claims to have been shot in the hand with a rubber bullet while he was sitting in a roadside ditch refusing to cooperate with the police (but check out the size of this cast!). As you can tell, I’m a little skeptical. Certainly I believe in the importance of civic engagement and the need for an opposition that has a voice and takes a stand, but the individuals leading this campaign and the methods being employed hardly seem appropriate.
Besigye has run against Museveni and lost in three consecutive presidential elections. In each contest he has failed to capture the imagination of the general public or in any way lead a passionate charge for change; I posted here about seeing him speak in Kamwenge. Yes, I and many other more credible observers believe that Museveni largely bought the election but at the end of the day if you manage to buy 70% of the vote, well, then apparently you win. Three strikes you’re out doesn’t translate too well but I’m disappointed to see the opposition party continuing with same old faces and same old tactics. I’m somewhere in the midst of reading Nelson Mandela’s very long “Long Walk to Freedom.” In it Mandela provides great detail of the slow but steady and thoughtful processes that went into all the ANC protests of the 1950s and 60s (I haven’t made it to the 70s yet). If the opposition parties of Uganda are in fact as thoughtful and organized as their southern predecessors they have certainly done a fine job of hiding these efforts from the public.
Yesterday my uncle emailed to ask if IPA has a policy on our employees participating in public demonstrations, with regards to protecting our reputation as an apolitical NGO and an objective body of researchers. In short, no, we don’t, but none of our employees are even the least bit interested in getting involved in politics at all, much less political demonstrations. Most of them view politics as a troublesome business that leads nowhere good in a hurry. In general most of the young and well educated Ugandans I’ve met would rather keep their heads down and take care of themselves and their families – hard to blame them, but obviously not an optimal situation for the advancement of good governance and democracy.
I should add that these are just some casual personal reactions to what I’ve seen and heard around town, not at all a researched post or representative of wider views in Kampala. Which, in reality, makes this no more valuable than the Times or BBC pieces but I hope that if I did this for a living I’d take the time to gather the opinion of some Ugandans before claiming anything about “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”