Who determines legitimate protest?

Saturday May 11 2019

Moses Khisa

Moses Khisa  

By Moses Khisa

Our ruler of 33 years, it has to be emphasised, now says only ‘legitimate’ protest is permitted. Evoking the word protest places Mr Museveni in the kind of scrutiny he would rather avoid.
There are Ugandans who strongly believe he is an illegitimate President.

I am one of them. Illegitimate because the manner of managing the 2016 elections and especially the aftermath, left a big credibility question mark. This is despite the finding and verdict of the Supreme Court in the presidential election petition filed by Amama Mbabazi.

Worse still, Museveni’s own former coordinator of intelligence services, the renegade Gen David Sejusa, is on record stating that his erstwhile boss did not win the 2006 election: The result was fixed at the behest of the security and intelligence apparatus overseen by Gen Sejusa. Add to that what retired Supreme Court judge, Justice George William Kanyeihamba, put on record in his memoirs, The Blessings and Joy of Being Who You Are.

Justice Kanyeihamba revealed pointedly that some members of the Supreme Court Coram in the 2006 election petition were intimidated into changing their verdict – the initial consensus on the bench was to annul the election because it fell short of the free, fair and validity test.

The long and short of this is that Museveni should be the last person to appeal to legitimacy in the political sphere because quite clearly, he lacks the legitimate right to be president. There are Ugandans who view his presidency as some kind of occupation, enforced by military prowess and not the popular will of the citizens.

But what exactly does ‘legitimate’ protest mean? Only the ruler and his courtiers can explain. But it is likely they mean protest that does not pose a remote political threat.

If we can hazard a guess of what they consider not legitimate protest, it must include actions that cast a spotlight on the ruler’s malfeasance, his failures and the fact that the country is headed in the wrong direction. He considers such arguments as lies that are toxicants to the public and therefore must be banned.

There is something else that accounts for the repressive actions against opponents which has increasingly extended to gagging the media: Even after more than three decades in power, or perhaps precisely because of that fact, Mr Museveni has an incredible phobia for competition and would rather that his challengers’ hands are tied before they engage in form of organising and mobilisation. Only he should freely go around to every corner of the country preaching his accomplishments and having all the airtime on especially public broadcasting platforms.

By contrast, he would rather that his opponents are subjected to the draconian Public Order Management Act that requires them to seek the permission of the police to convene any public gathering. There are a few rather ludicrous and ad nauseam arguments that we have come to expect as justification for limiting activities or even dispersing rallies and meetings by Museveni’s challengers.

First, that the Opposition peddles lies. It is him who determines this. But why not leave it to the public to determine? Second, that the chosen venue is not appropriate. That the Opposition is intent on convening in crowded, often market, venues thus disrupting and potentially causing loss to small businesses operating in such areas. For that reason, no Opposition rally is allowed in Kampala’s central business district. But Mr Museveni is not held to this same restriction. He can go and meet people anywhere.

Third, and very predictable excuse, that police received intelligence information indicating those planning a rally or meeting had intentions of breaching the peace. Good. Then arrest and prosecute them. We rarely get such cases in courts with credible evidence that indeed whoever was organising a political rally intended to commit crimes.

The bottom line though is that we have reached a stage where it no longer makes sense in Uganda to speak about what is legal and what is not as regards to national politics. As I have argued before, there is no minimum consensus for political engagement. The rules of the game are not embraced by all actors and the laws in place are selectively applied, often to favour the incumbent and disfavour the challengers.

We have politics that is contentious in the sense that it is confrontational and not constructive. There is little agreement on anything because those in power are seen as illegitimate while the rulers see their opponents as troublemakers to be contained if not crashed.

Dr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).