I knew the news from Kampala was a tragic-comedy when the SMS and emails couldn’t stop coming. Following the arrest of opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Dr Kizza, Democratic Party (DP) chief Norbert Mao, and other opposition leaders in Kampala on Monday as they walked to work to protest skyrocketing prices of fuel, Twitter, Facebook and all manner of instant messaging services were full of giggles about how “walking to work was now illegal” in Uganda.
A TV station in Kenya had a caption reading “Uganda opposition leader arrested for walking illegally”. You can bet that the video of Besigye being confronted on the road by soldiers and police and being told he had been banned from walking to work; him sitting on the road to protest his harassment; being bundled on the back of a police pick-up truck; and being hauled off it like a sack of potatoes is going to be big on YouTube.
You might say it’s unbelievable that a government can react in such an absurd fashion to a few opposition leaders footing it to town with rucksacks on their backs. However, if you know the history of strongman regimes in Africa, this is one of their signatures. In Nigeria, for example, during the rule of the military tyrant Sani Abacha, the state would send security officials to arrest editors, then two days later would come back and arrest their wives, their babies, their gardeners, cooks, and pet dogs and cats!
There is something bigger. The road has been the sharp edge of the clash between the despotic state in Uganda, and civil society and opposition leaders since, particularly, Idi Amin’s time. In many ways, the turning point for Amin’s regime was 1977 when, as we now know, he had murdered Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, Janan Luwum, at the infamous State Research dungeons in Nakasero. Amin, however, still felt that that was not complete. So he had Luwum’s body put in a car, and he stage-managed an accident, in which his regime claimed was where Luwum died.
Besigye was arrested smack in the centre of the road at Busega on November 14, 2005, three weeks after he returned from exile in South Africa. Now, again, they have done the same thing. There is striking similarity with the arrest of FDC official and Bukhooli Central MP-elect Wafula Oguttu, also being carried off the road.
In 2005, then Speaker Francis Ayume was killed in a road accident. Some of his supporters claim to this day that it was foul play.
In the lead-up to the last February elections, at least two presidential candidates – Bidandi Ssali and Norbert Mao – had close calls in car accidents. Of course, presidents too, from Amin to President Museveni have been involved in car accidents. And here is where we begin to understand the importance of the road. When our presidents, and sometimes their wives, are on the road their convoys spread across and force all other motorists off.
There are security reasons for this, but by travelling beyond the speed and hogging the road, the big men project power. That is because in our culture, and that of many other sources, we have this strong belief that the one thing that belongs to us all is the road. We accept it when we are chased off the lake, or when access to the airport is restricted. But the right to use the road, to walk it, even to dry cassava on its edges as the people do along Tirinyi Road, we consider that an inalienable right.
The presidential convoy pushes humble motorists because the president is projecting his power. Drivers of lorries and Land Cruisers intimidate drivers of smaller cars because they are bigger. Motorists splash pedestrians with mud water because they have more mechanical power. If a government takes away your possibility to walk on the road, it is a major blow to your citizenship rights and an act of humiliation. A Besigye insisting on walking the road is a claim on his wider rights.
And if the state can prevent you from using the road, or injure you in a car accident while you are on it and get away with it, then it has nearly taken everything away. That is why, for those who remember the Amin days, the ultimate show of power by his security goons was when they parked their cars in the middle of the street and chatted away as other motorists queued up behind them, terrified. If they honked, they would be killed. If they turned and drove away, it would be considered a protest, and they would be killed.
However, we might have arrived at this view of the road rather late. In 1965 Nobel laureate, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, published a little but telling play called “The Road”. I won’t spoil it for you. If you haven’t read it, or watched it being performed, please do. Soyinka’s take 46 years ago was that a road, is not a road, is not a road. Besigye and his FDC fellows have now learnt that too.