Sunday January 22 2012

2012: Yet another lost year for Uganda

A police officer blocks FDC’s Anne Mugisha (C) and Nabilah Nagayi Ssempala from holding a rally in Katwe on Thursday.

A police officer blocks FDC’s Anne Mugisha (C) and Nabilah Nagayi Ssempala from holding a rally in Katwe on Thursday. PHOTO BY FAISWAL KASIRYE 

By Timothy Kalyegira

On Thursday a scheduled Forum for Democratic rally called by the party’s Kampala Woman MP, Ms Nabilah Naggayi Ssempala, was broken up by the Uganda Police. FDC President Kizza Besigye, Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Ssempala herself were arrested and detained at police stations.

The fracas came days after FDC leaders visited Owino Market in Kampala to share a meal with market vendors and came at a time that the Action for Change (A4C) pressure group announced a new round of opposition-led protest “Walk-to-Work” events, this time dubbed “Walk-to-Work reloaded”.

All this came a week after the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) had staged its own protest, a shutdown of business premises in protest at the decision by the Bank of Uganda, the country’s central bank, to increase the lending rate to commercial banks, which in turn forced the banks to sharply increase their own commercial lending rate to the public.

The FDC and A4C activists, so far since 2006 and with varying degrees of success, have been able to sustain intermittent actions, demonstrations, show-downs and stand-offs with the state and its armed services.

Not enough threat
The opposition’s actions and demonstrations have not been enough to threaten the NRM government’s hold on power. The opposition has not been able to come up with a way to keep these demonstrations going in one continuous, unbroken stretch, as it happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

Often, these opposition protests require the physical participation of Dr Besigye. Whenever he is out of the country or is restrained at his Kasangati home by the police, the attempts at demonstration or walking to work either do not seem to gather momentum or fail to generate the dramatic news that usually follows Dr Besigye’s participation.

For its part, the government has for the most part acted in response to these acts of civil disobedience and protest. The heavy police deployment in Kampala that started in December 2010 and became noticeable in January 2011 was intended to display such overwhelming security force that this display of force alone, it was assumed, would send fear through the hearts of the usually cowardly Ugandans and thereby preempt any mass uprising. That this troop deployment is still on one year later indicates several things.

It shows that the national mood of resentment and opposition to the NRM regime has not subsided. It also suggests that the sight of policemen and military trucks all over Kampala in almost battle formation is no longer enough to deter Ugandans from protesting.

A year of teargas, shooting in the air and sometimes directly at demonstrators, frequent arrests of opposition leaders and threats to deny “economic saboteurs” bail for at least six months have all done nothing to instill fear among the population, at least the population of Kampala.

Secondly, the sight of heavy police and army deployment at roundabouts and street corners all over Kampala points to a regime that has lost the aura of legitimacy. If President Yoweri Museveni was elected with 68 per cent of the votes cast in the February 2011 election, it hardly looks like a majority government in power when this virtual siege of Kampala City continues one year later. What we see in Kampala today is similar to Kampala between 1981 and 1985, only without the panda gari.

If it had been hoped at the start of the year that there might possibly take place talks between Museveni and Besigye, the latest police arrest and detention of leading opposition leaders now means such talks will probably not take place or if they take place, it is unlikely it will be this year as the mood of bitterness at police harassment remains raw among the opposition.

Among some observers there is a common expectation that Western governments and their embassies in Kampala will come out and try and break this political impasse that looks set to leave Uganda with yet another dead year.

There had been a hint that the reported negotiations for Besigye-Museveni talks were quietly sponsored by these Western donor nations. Whether the West can play any real role in Uganda is now hard to determine.

Two weeks ago, the police launched a swoop on several FM radio stations in Kampala, Kyenjojo, Masaka and Mbarara and took them off air. The stations were said to either have illegally used the equipment and masts of the state public broadcaster Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) or used its electricity supply without paying for it.

Prominent among these stations were Radio France Internationale, France’s national public broadcaster and the BBC World Service, the international service of Britain’s public broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Ugandans surprised
Given the diplomatic clout that France and Britain have on the world stage and their economic and political muscle in Uganda, most Ugandans who took interest in the matter had assumed that within hours or at least within a day, the BBC and Radio France would have their transmitters put back on air.
While most of the Ugandan radio stations are now back on air, the BBC and Radio France are still off air. This is one of the most significant and yet unreported developments of the last five years in Uganda.

It would have seemed incredible 20 years ago to imagine that the British government, the British High Commission in Kampala and the BBC in London somehow would ever reach the point where they lack either the influence and clout over the Ugandan government or the interest to make the necessary phone calls and exert the necessary pressure for the BBC’s relay service to be restored in Kampala.

This much-diminished Britain cannot be one that will play much of a role in ending the political stalemate in Uganda, if it cannot even cause the BBC’s transmitter to be switched back on. And so, the picture of the rest of 2012 for Uganda has now become clear. It is to be a year in which the opposition will remain defiant but unable to topple the NRM government; the government itself will display force and issue threats but still be unable to smash the increasingly bold opposition and ordinary Ugandan protestors.

The NRM will continue to see scandal-after-scandal by its top officials and more and more in-fighting in the party; the opposition UPC party will also see many more months of in-fighting.
The economy will remain stricken by the prohibitively high interest rates, fuel prices and the struggle of the Shilling against major world currencies.

It will be a year in which nothing just seems to work anymore, a situation in which there are no steps being taken forward but no total collapse happening yet. It will be an irritating and frustrating year for the public, seeing their purchasing power steadily declining, reading stories of ever more outlandish corruption within the government, an exhausting and annoying year for the NRM, Museveni and his most loyal supporters frustrated at their inability to ever take control of Uganda again in the way they once did in the 1990s. Stagnant stability. Welcome to Uganda, 2012.