Recently, a strike at Kyambogo University that was kicked off by lecturers’ agitation got the university shut down. In recent months, if teachers have not been downing their tools over an unresolved pay dispute, university lecturers and students have been demanding unpaid allowances or the ouster of vice chancellors.
Elsewhere, traders have protested increases in interest rates and the involvement of foreigners in petty trade, while people around the country are increasingly staging protests against land grabbers or suspected witches.
In a way, the September 2009 Buganda riots seem to have heralded a new dawn in Uganda’s political history due to the spate of organised protests that have followed in its wake.
Three years ago, in a spontaneous three-day reaction, youths in Kampala and different towns of central Uganda, rose up against the blocking of Buganda Kingdom Katikkiro (prime minister) John Baptist Walusimbi from going to Kayunga District .
Mr Walusimbi was leading an advance team to prepare for Kabaka Ronald Mutebi’s visit to the area, which is a county of Buganda Kingdom but a minority ethnic group, the Banyala, had enthroned a king of their own and opposed Kabaka Mutebi’s visit.
The youth felt that the government was backing the Banyala as a way of weakening the Buganda Kingdom in a long-running power wrangle between the two centres of power.
Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga, who was Buganda Kingdom minister for youth affairs at the time of the protests, says he has no regrets.
Just about a year before the protests, Buganda-Central Government relations had hit another low. Two kingdom ministers and Ms Betty Nambooze, then chairperson of the kingdom’s Central Civic Education Committee (CCEC), had been arrested and detained in different places in western Uganda due to their opposition to proposed amendments to the land law. They criticised the amendments, saying they were intended to grab Buganda’s land.
But even before September 2009, there were a number of protests, although most of them were not premeditated apart from the anti-Mabira giveaway demonstration of 2007. The others, like the one that followed the arrest of FDC president Kizza Besigye in 2005, were usually spontaneous responses to particular incidents and were neither sustained for long nor had clear leadership.
Mr Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political historian at Makerere University, says it is tempting to consider the September 2009 protests as a turning point in Uganda’s history, “especially given the number of casualties”. The official figure of the dead during the protests stands at 27, although many accounts say the figure was higher, with some estimates stretching it to more than 40.
But Mr Ndebesa says considering the September protests as a turning point may be missing the point. “If anything,” he says, “It could be Mabira (which was the turning point)”. To him, the anger exhibited during the so-called Buganda riots was a “culmination of a number of events and protests”. Apart from the Mabira and Besigye demonstrations, Mr Ndebesa cites the protests during the struggle to open up political space as “essential pace setters” in the development of the protest movement during Mr Museveni’s rule.
But even then, the battle for opening up political space was not waged as an organised movement but rather took the form of sporadic activities by different political actors in different places. The post September 2009 protests have distinguished themselves in this regard.
When Mr Mpuuga left Mengo, the seat of Buganda Kingdom and joined active politics, he became coordinator of the Walk-to-Work protests, which paralysed the country for over a year from April 2011.
Launched as a protest against rising commodity prices, the Walk-to- Work protests, especially since they came less than two months after the disputed 2011 elections and had President Museveni’s principal challenger, Dr Besigye, as the key protestor, took a political twist. They were widely viewed as an attempt to prod Ugandans into an Egypt-style uprising. If this was the objective, the protests failed.
Mr Mpuuga, who is now Masaka Municipality MP, however says that contrary to what some people think, the protests were “hugely successful” as far as emboldening the people is concerned.
“The country is now in protest mode,” Mr Mpuuga says, adding that Ugandans are attempting to replicate the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-20th century. He said Ugandans currently have legitimate issues against the government, just like “our fathers had genuine grievances against the colonialists”.
Mr Mpuuga expects an even bigger build-up of protests as the government “becomes more autocratic and corrupt”. In the end, Mr Mpuuga predicts, “This government will be ousted by protests before, after or in the middle of an election.”
The police has in a way been catapulted into prominence by protests. The political threat posed by protests seems to have heightened the regime’s survival instincts, resulting in what critics say is the turning of the Force into a paramilitary outfit whose primary instinct is to defend the regime against protesters.
Also, the profile of police boss, Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura has been enhanced, with President Museveni taking every opportunity to praise him, especially for quelling the Walk-to-Work protests. Lt. Gen. Kayihura has been declared a true cadre of the ruling party by the President irrespective of the legal prerequisite which provides that the police should be non-partisan.
The Force has also recruited more officers and men and in many cases younger officers have taken over command responsibilities from the older generation in a move that some have criticised as the deliberate unbundling of professional cadre and replacing it with regime functionaries. The police has also become relatively better equipped, with anti-riot gear and equipment accounting for a growing chunk of police expenditures.
But Soroti Municipality MP Mike Mukula, who is also the NRM vice chairperson for eastern Uganda, knows that the government cannot successfully bottle up dissent for good.
Mr Mukula says the level of political awareness in the country is now higher, given increasing access to education and a large proportion of youths, with 70 per cent of Ugandans estimated to be below 30 years. Mr Mukula says the government needs to exercise budget discipline in light of the current economic realities that have squeezed the private sector and made people angry.
And, ultimately, Mr Mukula sees an inevitable slide towards change of power. He says as FDC, the leading opposition party, looks to change leadership, “NRM is (also) looking at succession to Museveni; no one should hide from it now.”
“As a Muganda, you don’t even need to ask if I took part, simply put, it was a social call! I had earlier learned of the Katikiro’s visit to Kayunga. However through radio broadcast urging all Baganda to take up arms, I did so. I I closed my shop, made phone calls to some opinion leaders about the subject matter and when they confirmed it I felt compelled to do something. That was a lesson to government, because they messed with wrong person (Kabaka),”
Alfred Kaye, trader
“I was en-route from Bombo, tuning in to CBS and closely following events. The passengers were all heated up in tribal conversation. There was this Munyankole man who said something very bad and annoying to any Muganda around. When we reached Kawempe, I heard that Bwaise was on fire, I got out all the passengers and parked my taxi somewhere and proceeded to town on a boda boda. However, Police blocked us from going any further and there were a group of youth around who were roughing up anyone who was neutral. But because some guy had annoyed me earlier, I started from there. When police targeted us more with tear gas, rubber bullets, the more we got heated up as we proceeded to town, although we stopped after military resorted to shoot to kill. It was not imperative for government to ban the Katikiro from accessing what belongs to the kingdom and whatever the consequence to the government, it serves them right,”
Godfrey Kiberu, taxi driver
“After closure of CBS, and the whole frenzy thereafter, I picked up a boda boda to go home in Nateete. Around Namirembe Road, my wife informed me on phone that hell had broke loose there, all roads blocked and military deployed. I made a U-turn after all, there wasn’t anywhere I could go. But to show solidarity, I ended up picking up stones, hurling them at the police, who retaliated later with live bullets and tear gas, until we dispersed. But whatever you are looking for, the blame goes back to government,”
Hussein Kalyango, businessman
“I am a Musoga, but by all means stood with the Baganda on that day. The twist of the events caught me in Kalerwe; where police pulled me and my pasenger off the bike and beat us terribly before we were saved by an angry group of youth, who were moving fast in the direction. Afterwards, I parked by bike somewhere safe and joined, with the intention of seeking revenge against policemen who had beaten me. Government has a lot of things to do than poking its nose in cultural affairs. They created this so-called Sabanyala thing, for political seduction,”
Joram Kafuko, boda boda
“I am a Mukyankole. What I saw, I just pray that it never happens again. My business was looted and I was targeted for being among the Buganda adversaries. At 12pm, I began sensing danger from what I was hearing on radio but I had to soldier on, because I just couldn’t pour away or keep the food. An hour later, the situation was boiling, angry elements from everywhere rained on our stalls, ordered us to leave or be clobbered. Since life is more precious, I had to do as told. They destroyed our property,”
Rukia Kyalikunda, food vendor
“I took part in the strike, and will always support any good cause of Buganda. I was driving to Matugga via Bombo Road when Police blocked us, smashed my taxi window glasses and even terribly beat all passengers as they ordered them out. As we ran towards Kiseka market alley, the people were already in a fierce standoff with police. For what had happened earlier, I joined immediately, seeking vengeance.
Lukwago Mubatsi-Taxi Driver
By Frederic Musisi