About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic



Saturday, April 23, 2011

WHY BESIGYE'S PROTEST RESONATES WITH THE PEOPLE OF UGANDA.

ANDREW MWENDA.


After the February 18 presidential election, Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye looked like a spent force.
He had obtained a paltry 26 per cent of the vote, down from a high of 38 per cent in 2006.
When he rejected the results, claiming they had been rigged, he sounded like a bad loser unwilling to accept the reality of his electoral defeat.
To add insult to the injury of his diminished appeal, he called for countrywide anti-government protests against alleged electoral theft.
No one showed up on the streets. By the beginning of April, analysts were thinking of how to write his political obituary.
However, within just the past week, Besigye has bounced back from possible political oblivion as the most potent threat -- yet again -- to President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement.
Apparently, a combination of good timing and government misjudgment colluded to reinvent Besigye's magic.
The fount and matrix of his comeback are the escalating fuel and food prices that have left many people across the political spectrum of the country feeling the pinch.
Since January, prices of essential commodities in Uganda have been escalating at an astronomical rate, driven by the rising price of fuel and the appreciation of the US dollar against the Uganda shilling.
This combined with a prolonged drought from December 2010 to March 2011 and excessive spending during elections -- the government passed a supplementary budget worth Ush600 billion ($260 million) and pumped it into the economy -- has pushed inflation from under 5 per cent in January to over 11 per cent in April.
These developments have led to growing discontent across the country.
People have been demanding that the government do something. But the government has been silent about the problem.
Consequently, it comes across as indifferent to people's plight or out of touch with their concerns.
Secondly, it has been in the news all for the wrong reasons -- for spending Ush1.8 trillion ($740 million) on sophisticated fighter jets and debating whether to spend Ush4 billion ($1.3 million) on the swearing in ceremony of the president.In the eyes of many, including the staunchest supporters of Museveni, this highhandedness was uncalled for.
Besigye came across a man fighting for the people's interest and paying the price for it.
On the other hand, because of the complete silence on the growing concern over prices, the government comes across as indifferent to people's interests.
Instead, it is involved in expensive and unnecessary expenditure plans like to shower billions on the president's swearing-in. Instead of responding to people's demands, the government is seen as seeking to suppress those who are voicing them.
Even among the most ardent supports of the NRM, Besigye is being seen as a victim of highhandedness.
On Thursday, the second day of the campaign, the protests spread across the country into six districts. The possibilities are open.
An avalanche does not begin with a big bang -- but as small and isolated pieces of snow breaking up here and there.
But when they coalesce and gain momentum, they become a force that destroys everything in its wake.
What is beginning as a small consumer protest in Uganda is now spreading across the country.
If the opposition can sustain the momentum, they have the potential to force a critical situation.
If the government delays announcing ameliorative measures, the demands may grow from food prices to regime change.
The morale booster impact of the Egyptian and Tunisian examples cannot be ignored.
Museveni has always positioned himself as a generous patron who takes care of the needy. His absence from the scene during people's suffering has not gone unnoticed.
It is in this context that Besigye and his allies plotted the "Walk to Work" campaign.
They claimed that their aim was to pressure government to do something about the food and transport costs. It has been a masterstroke.
Because previously, the opposition had always sought to mobilise people in its struggle to wrest power from Musveni and thereby came across as selfish, power-seeking politicians.
This time, however, it is mobilising them around a grievance that touches their wallets and stomachs. The appeal is powerful.
Initially, the opposition led by Besigye called upon government to do something about the food and transport costs.
When government ignored their call, Besigye declared that all opposition parties would launch the "Walk to Work" campaign to force the government to do something.
On the morning of Monday April 11, the campaign began in earnest.
The government was caught up in a Catch-22 situation; the opposition was holding it by the short and curlies, every option it chose was wrought with high risks.
If the government allowed the leaders of opposition to walk to work, they would attract large crowds into the city.
What if the crowds became bigger? Then what? Is it not possible that Uganda can catch Tunisia and Egypt's cold?
If they stopped them from walking, that would seem a stupid thing to do. Would it not generate mass hysteria and resistance?
How long would the government keep stopping them? Should it arrest them indefinitely?
If it agreed to do something, would it not seem as if it were weak, being pushed around by the opposition? All these challenges came within a particular context.
Over the past 20 years, the Museveni government has set in motion policies that have fostered rapid economic growth.

The economy was liberalised, thus creating space for free market competition.
This has generated a get-rich-quick culture. A few people are making pots of money, reflected in fancy cars, magnificent homes, modern shopping malls and high-rise office blocks.
This has attracted large numbers of youth from rural areas seeking opportunities in cities.
However, the number of immigrants into towns far exceeds available opportunities, hence slums, unemployment and crime.
Uganda's growth has ignited a boom in education from both public and private institutions.
In January, the Daily Monitor reported that Uganda produces 400,000 graduates from tertiary institutions every year but the public sector can only take in 20,000.
Both education and urbanisation are liberating forces: Beneficiaries gain access to local and international media.
This expands their horizons, which in turn increases their expectations.
However, the growth in their aspirations tends to be faster than the growth in opportunities.
The mismatch between expectations and available opportunities leads to social frustration.
This context has changed the dynamics of Uganda. The free market and its accompanying get-rich-quick culture have made Ugandans increasingly tolerant of corruption.
On the other hand, increased education and urbanisation have made people hostile to violence.
Therefore, while people are willing to accept financial bribes from Museveni in exchange for political support, they do not accept him beating or killing them to secure political loyalty; they are willing to accept Museveni the corrupter, not the killer!
For example, in 2006, Museveni employed unprecedented violence against Besigye -- throwing him in jail, charging him with rape, treason and terrorism and killing a few of his supporters.
This demoralised the president's supporters while energising his opponents.
The result was that Museveni's vote fell by one million from five million in 2001 to four million in 2006.
Meanwhile, the opposition voters were so energised that Besigye's votes grew from two million to 2.6 million votes.
In fact, opinion polls had showed Museveni at 47 per cent of the vote, Besigye at 43.
The Daily Monitor tally centre had tallied 3.6 million votes and Museveni had 47 per cent against Besigye's 43 per cent when the army intervened and shut it down.
Some time late last year and early this year, it seemed Museveni had learnt this lesson: That violence works against him while bribery does the magic.
Where he had always sent the military, police and other hooligans to attack opposition politicians during presidential campaigns, this time he used money.

The absence of violence in the campaigns sucked the air out of Besigye's campaign while the infusion of cash in Museveni's campaign put the president on a rollercoaster ride to victory.
When Museveni employed violence in Sironko district against Nandala Mafabi, people turned out in large numbers to vote for the opposition candidate. The message was clear.
It seemed that Besigye, who had always attracted public attention and sympathy for being flogged, was on the losing end of the political process -- until Monday.
On that day, the government responded to the "Walk to Work" campaign with extreme violence and brutality.
Besigye and other opposition leaders were manhandled, pushed like chicken thieves onto police pick-up trucks and arraigned before courts and charged with fictitious crimes -- all in front of the television cameras.

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