Deadly day of Ugandan rioting follows opposition leader's arrest

The arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye set off riots across Kampala Friday in which at least two dozen people were killed.

Stephen Wandera/AP
Rioters burn tires and wood in the capital city Kampala, Uganda, on Friday, April 29, after riots broke out. Army troops and police faced off against rioting demonstrators in downtown Kampala on Friday, the first time the Uganda's growing protest movement had reached the country's capital, and Red Cross officials said at least two people had been shot dead and 143 were hospitalized.

Sitting outside his laundry shop in a usually tranquil suburb of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, David Ssentongo points at the smoldering ash of tires that locals set ablaze in protest and rage.

"The people are angry,” Mr. Ssentongo says. “They are angry because of the way the presidential candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye was arrested yesterday. But they are also angry because prices are rising, because they can’t afford to catch the bus to work, because they can’t buy milk for their children.”

On Friday, Kampala woke up to a day of rioting. From downtown markets to the suburbs, protesters set up roadblocks made out of rubble and burning tires and the police and military fired live rounds at demonstrators.

By the early evening, at least two people had been shot dead and 143 were hospitalized, including a 2-year-old child with gunshot wounds, the Ugandan Red Cross said. The internal affairs minister put the number of arrested at 360.

The main spark for the riots was the brutal arrest of Dr. Besigye, Uganda’s main opposition leader. For the past three weeks, Besigye, and other opposition leaders have been attempting to walk to work in protest of the soaring cost of living. In March, inflation on food rose to almost 30 percent and on fuel to more than 10 percent.

Police, who have banned all protests, arrested Besigye three times, jailed him for six days, and allegedly shot him in the finger with a rubber bullet.

On Thursday, the government’s heavy-handed reaction became even more brutal. After police stopped him from walking, Besigye got in his car and drove into Kampala. At first police showed restraint, stopping Besigye’s car at a roundabout and refraining from firing tear gas at growing crowds.

But as it appeared Besigye’s protest might be petering out, plainclothes police arrived, smashed the windows of his vehicle and sprayed him with tear gas before dragging him into a police pick-up truck. When Besigye appeared in court later that day, he was unable to see. A doctor who had seen him said it was too early to tell if the damage was permanent. Late Friday night, Besigye flew to Nairobi to seek medical treatment for injuries he received from the police on Thursday.

Analysts say Friday's violence and the government reaction will only exacerbate public anger over rising prices and the crackdown on the opposition.

“The disgust at the way the government has treated Besigye is sweeping across the board,” said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political analyst at Kampala’s Makerere University.

In February Besigye lost to incumbent president Yoweri Museveni for the third consecutive time. Besigye immediately rejected the results, calling the election a “sham" and calling for mass protests.

But nothing happened and many started writing Besigye's political obituary. Now, analysts say, the brutal treatment he has received has made him relevant again.

“Museveni has now managed to whip up so much support for Besigye, who had become marginal after the elections,” Mr. Golooba-Mutebi said.

With the protests tapping into discontent over rising fuel prices and perceived government inaction and corruption, the situation remains tense. While the Kenyan government recently cut fuel taxes to quell popular discontent, Museveni has so far failed to act and dismissed the protests as "idiotic."

“It is happening because of what is happening to Besigye, because of the rising prices, and because of the arrogant reaction of the government to anyone who complains,” Golooba-Mutebi said. “The situation is much worse than the government is admitting.”

Standing outside his laundry store, Ssentongo said that with the government reaction stirring more anger and that unrest is likely to continue. “The prices are only going higher and the anger growing,” Ssentongo said. “This is not going to end soon.”

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