Both Uganda's protesters and its government draw lessons from Egypt revolution

Opposition 'walk to work' protests continue to test Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's tenuous commitment to democratic freedoms.

Ronald Kabuubi/AP
Supporters of Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye participate in the 'walk to work' campaign that protests higher food and fuel prices in Kalerwe suburb on 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.

Uganda’s top opposition leader Kizza Besigye spent his 55th birthday in jail last week.

Together with Democratic Party leader Norbert Mao, he was being held at a prison outside Uganda's capital, Kampala for participating in the "walk to work" campaign that protests current high fuel prices.

Five people, including 2-year-old Juliana Nulwanga, have been shot dead in the protests in different parts of the country in the past two weeks while dozens are nursing bullet wounds.

Last Thursday – the fourth time that Mr. Besigye was blocked from participating in the protests – Professor Mahmood Mamdani, the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, delivered an important analysis of the events at a Rotary International District Conference.

"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," said Mr. Mamdani at the conference. "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."

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It’s the memory of the Egyptian revolution spawned in Cairo's Tahrir Square that has driven President Yoweri Museveni’s regime in Uganda to allege that the protests are aimed at removing a legitimate government.

Mr. Museveni told journalists that the protests are tantamount to treason, but we have not yet seen this charge slapped on the opposition – yet. (Mr. Besigye has been jailed for treason by Museveni before, however.)

The government has deployed security forces on almost every corner in every neighborhood in the city, like never before, and the reason we were earlier given was the frequent terrorism threats the country receives from the Somali militants.

"Matters have reached a point where even the hint of protest evokes maximum reaction from government," says Mamdani. "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."

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.” Journalists have been threatened with phone calls and text messages, while others have been trailed by security agents in the past two weeks.

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Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Brenda Nalwendo, a young pregnant woman who was shot in this week’s protests. Her unborn baby is OK, but gruesome injuries she suffered were clear as she sat in the hospital bed, and they demonstrate the kind of brutality Ugandans have faced recently.

It is such pictures and such peoples' stories that the government is eager to hide. But with some young Ugandans now using the Internet to give first-hand accounts of events as they happen, the coverage of these demonstrations has been very effective on Facebook and Twitter. 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.

Mamdani summed up the significance of the protests.

"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."

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

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