The government response to Uganda's ongoing "Walk to Work" protests took a sinister turn today when opposition leader Kizza Besigye was violently dragged from his car and arrested. Security officers first broke the windows of the car, and then sprayed in pepper spray and/or tear gas to force the occupants out.
This is the fourth time Besigye has been arrested since the protests started on April 11, encouraging people to walk to work in solidarity as a protest against rising commodity prices and a lack of government response. At least five civilians have been killed as the government responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and, often live fire. Besigye himself is still wearing a cast after being shot in the finger with a rubber bullet during the first protest. This arrest, however, was by far the most violent.
The first three times, Besigye was actually walking when arrested, though after being arrested the first time immediately outside his house, he used his car to drive closer to downtown Kampala the second and third times. According to the Associated Press, today, Besigye got out of his car briefly and then got back in when police and military officers rushed toward him, precipitating the scene in the video.
Besigye, head of the FDC political party, has been the leading opposition candidate against President Yoweri Museveni in elections in 2001, 2006, and 2011. In the elections this February, Besigye received 26 percent of the vote to Museveni's 68 percent. Museveni, now in his 25th year at the helm, was widely expected to win the elections this year, but took no chances. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state resources seem to have been diverted to Museveni's campaign, and despite U.S. requests to the contrary, Museveni reappointed the same Electoral Commission widely regarded as either biased or incompetent after Uganda's 2006 vote.
Fearing protests like those in North Africa, the government directed mobile phone companies the day before the election to block text messages with words or phrases they feared, including Mubarak and Egypt. Massive army deployments, allegedly to protect against a terror threat like the Al-Shabab bombings in Kampala last July, were also used to suppress any thought of opposition demonstrations.
Though Besigye did indeed call for mass protests after the election results, they did not materialize, probably due to the military intimidation. Now, however, Uganda has had sharp increases in fuel and food prices due to drought and international oil fluctuations, and the opposition seized the opportunity to mobilize public dissatisfaction. The design of the Walk to Work protests also makes it harder for the government to vilify than protests rejecting election results. Each time Besigye is on foot, however, massive crowds gather and the government has used this as the reason for arrest, saying he was blocking traffic.
During the first week of protests, the government itself tried to take a page from the Egypt handbook and sent a letter to internet service providers on April 13 instructing them to block Facebook and "Tweeter (sic)" for 24 hours. TV stations were also ordered not to carry live footage of the protests. Before this most recent arrest, the U.S. State Department issued a statement of concern about the violent response to peaceful protests and the attempt to restrict access to internet or other media.
But while the protests are getting more attention for the opposition, they don't necessarily mean progress. Melina Platas points out the opposition's lack of cohesion or ideology, and uncertain outcome of the protests:
[I]f the state (read: Museveni) appears in disarray, so too does the movement opposing it. Anger, not vision, drives people to the streets. Not one Uganda, one people, but one Besigye who has been brutalized. The campaign is still more anti-Museveni than pro-anything.Note that there is no exit in which Museveni decides to step down peacefully and retire anytime soon.
As Andrew Mwenda says, Uganda is barreling down a highway, facing four exits: Exit Saudi Arabia, where protests go to die, Exit Yemen where stalemate prevails, Exit Egypt with transformative revolution, and Exit Libya, where civil war reigns.
Follow Michael on Twitter at @MJWilkerson