Uganda's opposition marches again, this time violently

A protest march in Kampala by Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye leads to the murder of a police officer, highlighting how combustible Uganda's political situation remains.

Stephen Wander/AP
Forum for Democratic Change opposition leader Kizza Besigye , left, gestures the party sign before being arrested for holding a rally in Uganda's capital city Kampala, Wednesday, March 21. A policeman died in a violent clash between the police and supporters of an opposition party demonstrating in Kampala. Scores of demonstrators have been arrested, said Fred Opolot, a government spokesman.

As Kizza Besigye – Uganda's preeminent opposition politician – waved at his cheering supporters as he walked along the warren of rutted, dirt roads running through downtown Kampala, you could sense that things could go wrong.

For once, Dr. Besigye had given the slip to the police officers surveilling his home on the outskirts of the city and thousands of his supporters were cheering his unexpected appearance.

Opposition officials insisted that it was not a planned rally and that Besigye had been invited by the city mayor to inspect roadworks and drainage systems, but it quickly spiralled into a political demonstration.

After his 26 years in power, few in Kampala need a second chance to express their anger at incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. The ire was strongest among  the city's main Baganda ethnic group, largely over corruption claims and perceptions that the president favors people from his own tribe.

“You see our Uganda? Look at the holes in the roads, look at these streets – and this is meant to be the capital,” said one Besigye supporter. “Museveni has been here for so long – he must go.”

As police scrambled to control the situation, events spiralled fast. Police beat opposition supporters with batons and bundled Besigye into a van. Opposition supporters threw stones. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades.

It was all over in minutes but tragically, as debris was flung at the police, an officer, John Bosco Ariongo – a policeman of 26 years and father of eight – was fatally wounded.

“Uganda Police Force regretfully confirms that a police officer was killed in a violent assembly,” Judith Nabakooba, a spokeswoman for the Ugandan police, said in a statement.

Besigye could be charged

Besigye and 15 other opposition activists were shipped off to stations around town and Ms. Nabakooba hinted that they could be considered suspects in the officer's murder.

“Investigations are at a very early stage but the Uganda Police Force states its absolute determination to bring those responsible for the death to justice,” her statement said.

By evening Besigye had been released, and while opposition officials speculated that he could be charged with murder, his lawyer said he had been told he would be charged with "unlawful assembly."

Besigye is no stranger to the courts and commotion. Last year, during a protest campaign against rising food and fuel costs that cost the lives of at least 10 civilians, he was repeatedly arrested as security forces cracked down harshly on the demonstrations.  

At one point he was also temporarily blinded by police pepper spray in scenes that sparked a day of bloody rioting around Kampala. 

Policing had improved

But since then attempts by Besigye to restart protests this year have largely floundered, as police – with the help of Irish security consultants – have increasingly allowed opposition rallies to take place and dealt with them less heavy-handedly.

Now though the death of a police officer could see a backlash from the security forces keen to avenge the perceived murder of one of their own, analysts warned.  

"The killing of a policeman creates anger; it creates a desire for revenge among the police. If it's not handled professionally then it could lead to more cases of brutality," says Levi Ochieng, an independent analyst.  

Ochieng says that despite cosmetic changes to the security forces the public have a profound mistrust of the police, viewing them as a partisan force protecting a corrupt elite.  

"The police here is seen by many to be suffocating their freedom," Ochieng says. 

And opposition politicians like Salaamu Musumba, vice-president of Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change, say that opposition politicians are simply exposing that deep vein of discontent.

“People are just ready, they are just ready to defend themselves, they are fed up,” Mrs. Musumba says. 

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