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With fresh memory of Tahrir Square , government keeps Walk to Work away from Constitution Square

April 22, 2011

On Thursday April 21, the fourth time that Uganda’s opposition leader Kiiza Besigye-Kifefe was blocked from walking,  Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research gave an important analysis of the events at a Rotary International District Conference at Munyonyo.

Besigye has today spent his 55th birthday in jail. Together with Democratic Party leader Norbert Mao are being held at a prison outside Kampala for participating in the walk to work campaign that protests current high fuel prices. Five people including two year old Juliana Nulwanga have been shot dead in the protests in different parts of the country in the last two weeks while dozens are nursing bullet wounds.

In reaction to these events Mamdani said

“Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event.  The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner.  For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

It’s the memory of the Tahrir that has driven President Museveni’s regime to allege that that the protests are aimed at removing a legitimate government. President Museveni told journalists that those using protests were committing treason but we have not yet seen this charge slapped on the opposition.

I have wondered why the government wouldn’t let people walk peacefully and then try to work against the campaign by addressing the issues that these people were raising. From what I gathered, the paranoia has been high that Besigye and the walkers might camp at the Constitution Square right in the middle of central business district thereby attracting more participants and international attention.

That’s why the government moved to put a walking ban on politicians who were taking part in the campaign . Kampala had seen unprecedented heavy deployments of forces even before the planned protest. Government has deployed security forces  at almost every corner in every neighbourhood in the city like never before and the reason we had earlier  been given was that of the frequent terrorism threats the country receives from the Somali militants.

However Prof. Mamdani says :

Matters have reached a point where even the hint of protest evokes maximum reaction from government.  So much so that a government which only a few weeks ago came to power with an overwhelming majority today appears to lack not only flexibility but also an exit strategy.  For civilians, supporters and skeptics alike, the sight of military resources deployed to maintain civil order in the streets, has come to blur the line between civil police and military forces as those in power insist on treating even the simplest of civil protest as if it were an armed rebellion.

President Museveni has gone to the extent swearing to eat his opponents like samosas. This paranoia about Tahrir possibilities in the country has made the regime put restrictions on media like never before. The Uganda Communications Commission and Uganda broadcasting council have come out to warn the media against messages that might be seen to promote “ethnic prejudice, civil violence and public insecurity”. The terms are broad enough to catch anyone that the regime wants.

Journalists have been threatened with phone calls, SMS while others have been trailed by security agents in the last two weeks. The steps that Uganda had made in the last ten years in press freedom and freedom of expression are slowly being washed away as we live the fear of Tahrir.

Today I went to Mulago to pay a visit to Brenda Nalwendo, a 19 year old pregnant woman who was shot in this week’s protests. I was ther upon a request by a Ugandan living abroad who wanted to help after seeing the horrifying photos of her shooting. At ward I identified myself as a journalist and the ladies on duty looked at me suspicious, exchanged glances before telling me they had to first inquire from some people.  They had even suggested I leave the money with them but I insisted on seeing Brenda’s mother who had no problem taking me to her daughter. By God’s grace Brenda has survived and now she can sit and her unborn baby is ok.  It is gruesome images of her intestines that hang out of her belly on April 18 that clearly showed what kind of brutality Ugandans have faced.

And it is such pictures and such peoples stories that the government is eager not to see them be told. But with some young Ugandans now using internet to give first-hand accounts of events as they happen, the coverage of these demonstrations has been very effective on facebook and twitter. That’s why the government was keen on shutting these channels down. These channels are the most uncontrollable unlike TVs and Radios which may worry about closure and hence give in to government directives. It’s because of the great role being played by youth in Uganda on these networks that internet freedom is slowly being threatened even before we have achieved much access. As of July 2010, only ten percent of the population in Uganda used internet. The numbers have changed I believe with more telecoms offering free facebook access and more affordable phones on the market with internet access option. As long as the social media is not blocked, the story of those protesting in a country where protests have become almost illegal, will continue to be told.

With opposition leaders jailed, we don’t know yet what the brains behind this walk to work campaign have in plan. It’s important for any non-violent campaign to deny those in power a target. In walk to work campaign, the regime was given targets in form of top opposition leaders and it will remain to be seen whether the campaign can continue without them. Museveni remains firm in refusing to put fuel tax cuts like Kenya did because this would show that the protests worked.

Like Prof.Mamdai said:

Whatever its outcome, ‘Walk to work’ must make us rethink the practice of democracy in Uganda…No matter how small the numbers involved in the developments we know as ‘Walk to Work’, there is no denying its sheer intellectual brilliance. That brilliance lies in its simplicity, in its ability to confer on the simplest of human activities, walking, a major political significance: the capacity to say no.

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