Will call for demos choke opposition?

Friday February 25 2011

By Tabu Butagira

Opposition chiefs yesterday poked the conscience of Ugandans by calling for “peaceful protests” against President Museveni’s “illegitimate” government. Their rallying call: Mr Museveni’s claim to victory with 68 per cent of the presidential ballot should be rejected because “the electoral process has been a sham”.

“We categorically reject the results of this scandalous process and will not recognise any government formed out of these elections,” Mr Kizza Besigye, Mr Olara Otunnu, Mr Norbert Mao and Mr Samuel Lubega declared at a joint press conference.

History of fights
In the past three months, the quartet who yesterday sat side-by-side at Nsambya Sharing Hall in Kampala, ironically maligned each other or disagreed acrimoniously while digging in for the 13.9 million votes up for grabs.

They have now come together forgetting the campaign sniping. Democratic Party’s Mao, while on the campaign trail, had said Mr Museveni, and his former bush-time personal physician Dr Besigye, are different sides of the same coin. So voting either made no difference.

Worse, Mr Mao outrightly rejected the political marriage baptised Inter-Party Cooperation for which Dr Besigye became the eventual presidential flag bearer. While Mr Otunnu jumped out of the IPC after disagreeing, among other things, over calls to boycott the ballot, push for re-constitution of the Eng. Badru Kiggundu-led Electoral Commission and accountability for crimes during bloodied history of independent Uganda.

Thus the three run lone races and collectively got votes less than half of the 5.4 million Mr Museveni polled. International election observers have separately documented buying of votes by the ruling NRM party, mass disenfranchisement of voters, intimidation by the military and incompetent EC staff.
So is the call for mass demonstration to fell President Museveni’s government justified?

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Academics and human rights activists doubt street demonstrations, previously ruthlessly put down by state security forces including the army, can succeed in today’s circumstances.
“It will be very, very bloody. Ours is essentially a one man’s army; they are loyal to their founder, Museveni,” argues Political Science Professor Ginyera Pinycwa. The UPDF is an improved version of the NRA guerilla force that Museveni commanded to capture power.

Mass uprising would not be feasible, said Prof. Ginyera, because “the forces are very badly stacked against the opposition”. Already the US, UK and EU have guardedly endorsed Museveni’s victory.
The police and the military weighed in last evening, warning of “firm action” if opposition supporters storm the streets to demand regime change.

“If you allege that the elections were rigged, how come some opposition candidates won (parliamentary seats)?” wondered Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, the Army spokesman. “Calling for demonstrations is selfish and unconstitutional. It is disrespect of the people’s democratic verdict. If anybody threatens constitutional rule, then we have no option but to fight him.”

The very Constitution he was alluding to guarantees the inherent human right of freedom of assembly, in this case peaceful assembly which the opposition politicians seek to exercise. Police Spokesperson Judith Nabakooba said they are not aware of any planned peaceful protests and are pre-occupied with hunting for and eliminating terrorists.

“It would be unwise to call for demonstrations and endanger the lives of innocent Ugandans,” she said, “I would advise the opposition leaders to call off the demos and use other constitutional means such as the courts.”

When the security forces violently suppressed the September 2009 pro-Buganda king uprising, at least 27 civilians were left dead, many from gunshot wounds. And in March, last year, when rioting youth tried to block President Museveni from accessing the ground of the burnt Kasubi tombs, suspecting the government could have had a hand in its destruction, presidential guards opened fire. Three people were killed and scores injured.

In an inquiry over the Kasubi fire, security chiefs denied knowledge of who pulled the trigger.
In the real world of Uganda, said Prof. Ginyera: “I would hate the idea of pushing our people, who have suffered for so long, into bloodshed when you cannot guarantee success of the protests.” And the opposition would be more than damaged if their supporters shun the planned peaceful protests.

If Besigye is arrested...
Other than pronouncements that their district chairpersons call on supporters to demand fresh polls under a new, independent EC, the political leaders kept to their chest details of how to implement the civil disobedience call.

That notwithstanding, security organs could arrest Dr Besigye, the main opposition figure and three-time Museveni challenger, and incarcerate him in Luzira Prisons as they have done before. That way, his counterparts and their followers would be scared dead to lead or participate in any uprising.
Which is why Mr Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, implores the opposition to seek legal redress, something Dr Besigye flatly rejects.

“If the court process fails, they would then be justified to call for protest,” said Mr Ssewanyana.
Going to court would mean the Group of Four now have an impracticable three weeks in which to assemble substantial evidence countrywide to prove the poll was stolen. The law under which presidential elections are held provides for a 30-day period within which a petition challenging an election must be heard and disposed of.

Observers say Uganda, unlike the crumbling North African regimes of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak - and now Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, enjoys the release afforded by the safety valve of relative freedom of expression, however inhibited.

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