Sunday May 1 2011

Museveni’s hour of reckoning

PHOTO BY ISAAC KASAMANI  Police clear Gayaza Road that had been blockaded during one of the walk-to-wo rk protests in Kasangati.

Police clear Gayaza Road that had been blockaded during one of the walk-to-work protests in Kasangati. PHOTO BY ISAAC KASAMANI  

By Timothy Kalyegira

The walk-to-work campaign started out as one of those many failed efforts by the opposition that the NRM government would easily crush and scatter and life would return to normal, with President Museveni and his aides looking forward to his May 12 swearing-in ceremony and another five years in power. However, it has not been the case, writes Sunday Monitor’s Timothy Kalyegira

In late February, shortly after the general election, the former presidential candidate Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali in a letter to Museveni warned the President that the conditions of 2011 resembled those that followed the bitterly disputed 1980 election.

“You are convinced that the situation is very much under your control and that every Ugandan will be cowered because of the presence of the military hardware and threats you keep dishing around. They remind me of a similar scenario by the Obote regime as you went to the bush!” Bidandi-Ssali observed.

This is exactly that it currently feels like. Unusual things have been going on in Uganda since the opposition announced that they were to lead a campaign dubbed “walk-to-work”.

The campaign was called to protest the high fuel and commodity prices in the country and to use this walking protests as a lever to pressure the government to do something about the crisis.

It started out as one of those many failed efforts by the opposition that the NRM government would easily crush and scatter and life would return to normal, with President Museveni and his aides looking forward to his May 12 swearing-in ceremony and another five years in power.

New diplomatic row
As it stands now, the political situation brought on by the walk-to-work protests is starting to feel like a threatening crisis for Museveni. It has metamorphosed into a referendum on Museveni’s human rights record. The key words in the news this past week have been “coup”, “Besigye”, “overthrow”, “foreign countries”, “western diplomats”, and “Museveni”.

Details are still sketchy but it appears that the Western diplomatic corps in Kampala, either acting alone or at the behest of their governments, have decided to weigh in, this time in favour of the opposition. What is more, they are making little effort to hide their open siding with the opposition.

The Museveni government is now on a collision course with the West and its diplomatic missions in Kampala in much the same way that marked the latter years of President Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya.

The West appears to be moving from its usually ambivalent, non-committal position to either an activist position in favour of the opposition or at least a watchful, counter-balancing stance toward the government’s actions.

On the very first day of the “walk-to-work” campaign on April 11, European Union diplomats in Kampala met to discuss and weigh the situation. The Dutch and Irish ambassadors visited Nakasongola Prison and held four hours of discussions with Besigye. The Norwegian and French ambassadors travelled to Nakasongola on April 26.

The head of The Hague-based International Criminal Court, Louis Ocampo, was scheduled to fly into Uganda two days ago, clearly to monitor the human rights situation in the country.

Every time the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has been arrested, it has triggered off international news coverage and a sharp western diplomatic reaction.

When Dr Besigye was arrested and detained in November 2005, the Commonwealth summit in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta two weeks later turned into a scolding session focused entirely on Museveni and condemning his actions.

During his press conference at his country home in Rwakitura on April 16, Museveni railed against the West and declared that he would defeat the West, just as Africa had defeated colonialism.

“A diplomatic row appeared to be brewing yesterday as government indicated it is protesting the weekend visits to Nakasongola Prison by diplomats from European Union nations,” reported the Daily Monitor on April 27.

When the public first learnt that Besigye and Mao had been taken to the prison at Nakasongola, their first thought was largely that this was a remote, probably run down prison and the two opposition leaders were being taken there to further humiliate them, amid harsh conditions.

Actually, the Nakasongola Prison is the best in Uganda. It was built in 2007 with Danish government funding and is designed and fitted with facilities that would satisfy the human rights-conscious Scandinavians.

Therefore, the decision to move Mao from Luzira Prison to Nakasongola, later joined by Besigye, can be seen in this light of a government that is coming under fierce behind-the-scenes pressure from the western donor nations.

Early last week, the deputy Principal Private Secretary to the President, Mr Kintu Nyago, issued a statement in which he said Dr Besigye was planning to overthrow the government.

“What Besigye wants is to mimic what happened at Tahrir Square; he wants to come and sit at the City Square and, using a rented crowd and hoodlums, cause fracas,” Nyago told the Daily Monitor. Addressing a news conference at the government Media Centre in Kampala, the Minister of Information, Ms Kabakumba Matsoko, said “[T]he Government is aware that there are foreign countries that are helping the opposition to disorganise Uganda, prevent the swearing in of President Yoweri Museveni and topple the Government,” the state-owned newspaper the New Vision reported on Wednesday.

In a Sunday Vision interview published on April 24, President Museveni indicated that he was ready to talk to the opposition while on Tuesday, Uganda Peoples Congress party president Olara Otunnu told journalists that the opposition was open to talks with Museveni but would do so only “on our own terms”.

Museveni having dismissed the opposition’s actions the previous week as acts of “idiocy” but now willing to hold talks with them --- and a confident Otunnu declaring as if from a position of strength that the opposition was willing to talk --- was a clear suggestion that a foreign power or group of powers was at work behind-the-scenes pressuring Museveni to accommodate the opposition.

A source at one of the western diplomatic missions in Kampala confirmed to this writer this week that this is, indeed, that is taking place. There appears to be a Western effort to force Museveni into some kind of Kenya or Zimbabwe government of national unity.

The source said there had been a threat of some sort by the West to cut off aid if Museveni did not show flexibility. Most analysts assumed the walking protest by the opposition would pit Museveni against the opposition. Very few would have expected that by the end of April, it would have turned into a Museveni-versus-the-donors confrontation.

Timeline of W2W campaign:

  • April 8, 2011: Masaka Municipality MP elect Mathias Mpuuga announces the formation of the Activists for Change (A4C) pressure group to protest against government’s opulence, corruption and skyrocketing prices of basic essentials including fuel.
  • April 11, 2011: Opposition leaders Norbert Mao (Democratic Party) and Dr Kizza Besigye (Forum for Democratic Change) are arrested in Gulu and Kampala on Day One of the Walk-to-Work campaign. Three people were shot dead in the Gulu demonstrations. The leaders and scores of ther politicians were charged with failing to obey lawful orders, obstruction of traffic and inciting violence.
  • April 13, 2011: Day Two of the W2W campaign – Dr Kizza Besigye is shot in the arm, arrested again, charged with inciting violence and given bail.
  • April 14, 2011: Politicans Kibirige Mayanja and Betty Nambooze are remanded after being charged in city courts.
  • April 17, 2011: Religious leaders urge government and opposition to talk.
  • April 18, 2011: Day Three of the W2W campaign – Dr Besigye arrested near his Kasangati home while Mr Mao and seven others are arrested in Ntinda on not very different charges from earlier ones. Dr Besigye is released while Mao refuses to apply for bail and instead asks for quick prosecution.
  • April 20, 2011: Press reports that security and intelligence plan to charge Dr Besigye with treason.
  • April 21, 2011: Day Four of the campaign – Baby Julian Nalwanga is shot in the head as police and the military fight protestors in Masaka. The shooting causes widespread condemnation of the government and security forces over the handling of the protestors. A group of Ugandans in London demonstrates at Uganda’s mission in the UK.
  • - Mr Mao is transferred from Luzira to Nakasongola Prison on account that authorities wanted to ensure his security and that of other inmates as DP youth threatened to demonstrate up to the prison.
    - Dr Besigye is charged in Nabweru Court, whisked to Nakasongola prison and spends his 55th birthday there.
  • April 22, 2011: A group of diplomats visits Dr Besigye and Mao in Nakasongola Prison, drawing strong condemnation from the government.
  • April 27, 2011: Court shifts to Nakasongola and Dr Besigye is given bail with stringent conditions, including “not to engage in demonstrations for at least seven mtoths.
  • April 28, 2011: Dr Besigye violently arrested at Mulago after being intercepted at Mulago round-about. He is beaten, tear-gassed and charged with unlawful assembly and assaulting a police officer. He is given bail by the Nabweru Chief Magistrate who went to Kasangati to preside over the case there. His lawyer and doctor say he is in poor shape to see due to the pepper he was sprayed direct in the eyes.
  • April 29, 2011: Spontaneous riots break out in different parts of the country, protesting the treatment of Dr Besigye by security operatives.

Compiled by Emmanuel Mulondo