High fuel prices underpin Uganda protests, test Museveni government

Two months after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's decisive election victory, high fuel costs are prompting Ugandans to take to the streets, writes Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire.

Ronald Kabuubi/AP
Supporters of Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye walk towards Kampala protesting higher food and fuel prices in the suburb of Kalerwe, Thursday, April 21, shortly before police arrested Besigye and fired tear gas and rubber bullets, sending people fleeing. Police in Uganda have arrested the country's top opposition politician for the fourth time in two weeks.

Ugandan police have again arrested three opposition leaders as they tried to continue the Walk to Work protest campaign. The campaign was started by a group called Activists for Change protesting the high fuel prices. They called for protests every Monday and Thursday for a month, in which Ugandans would peacefully protest while walking to work.

On April 11, top opposition leader Kizza Besigye, Norbert Mao, and other opposition parliamentarians were blocked from walking to their offices, arrested and later charged with inciting violence and disobeying lawful orders.

Earlier this week, UPC’s Olara Otunnu and several other Ugandans from different political parties joined the protest.

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For the first time, Uganda’s opposition moved beyond the politics of attacking President Yoweri Museveni and chose an issue that concerns most Ugandans. The high fuel prices have driven food prices up and many of Uganda’s urban poor can hardly afford a meal.

The police blocked the protests before they began, and their brutality was once again on display as they arrested the politicians.

In the northern city of Gulu, three people died from bullet wounds when the government ordered the military to come in to stop Mr. Mao from walking in the streets of Gulu. The brutality with which the government reacted to Ugandans expressing themselves brought back the sound of the gun to Gulu, a place that for more than 20 years was the epicenter of the brutality of both rebels and government soldiers in the deadly war on Lord's Resistance Army.

Last week, Museveni’s regime used the cover of security to order TV stations not to broadcast live coverage of events and one TV station was reportedly switched off for 15 minutes. His regime also went an extra mile to order Internet service providers to block social media networks like Twitter and Facebook where people were reporting the events.

Museveni called the press to his home village miles away from the capital, Kampala – another unnecessary expenditure for newsrooms – where he never offered any solution to issues that the protesters are angry about. Museveni was quick to divide Ugandans into farmers and urban dwellers and then threw Mr. Besigye to the equation.

When food prices go up, yes people in towns suffer. But farmers are very happy," said Museveni. "Farmers are wondering what Besigye is talking about. That prices have gone up is good for them.”

Museveni, who is preparing a huge banquet for African leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony on May 12, didn’t see any problem with food prices. His reaction shows he is still stuck in 1986. Most of us in urban centers are sons and daughters of farmers he claims are benefiting from the current situation.

Most Ugandans I know who live in cities strive amid unemployment and high prices to send money back to villages where the farmers live.

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If you want to know this, visit a local mobile money transfer agent. People are sending as little as 5,000 Ugandan shillings ($2) back to their relatives who depend on them for healthcare, school fees, etc. The dependence rate is so high in Uganda that Museveni cannot deceive us that the problems of those living in the urban centers do not relate to those of a farmer.

I am a daughter of farmers who are interested in my well being, but even the money they earn from a farm is not enough for them to send a part to their daughter in Kampala and also cater for their needs. What affects those living in urban areas – especially the unemployed youth – affects the farmer, too.

With unemployment levels going up and Museveni’s government more interested in amassing wealth, the discontent will continue.

One journalist friend who covered last week’s protests told me some youth were yelling to opposition members: “Don’t even ask us to walk, give us guns.”

This kind of desperation must be turned into something positive and we hope the opposition will continue to cultivate the spirit of non-violent protests, which is very much lacking in our nation's history. It’s only through well-organized, non-violent actions that Ugandans will learn to stand up to their rulers.

I doubt Museveni can imprison all three opposition leaders although there are early indications that he may prefer more treason charges for Besigye, in particular.

Whatever Museveni chooses to do with the leaders of Walk to Work campaign, so much has changed since the election and the challenges facing urban dwellers will be a thorn in the side of the president for the next five years as long the opposition can continue to wisely choose issues that affect ordinary Ugandans and rally the masses.

--- Rosebell Kagumire is a Ugandan independent journalist who blogs at Rosebell's Blog.

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