The Capital Offense of Walking to Work in Uganda

Ed note. I’m happy to welcome to UN Dispatch family Carol Gallo, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who does research on peace and security in Africa.  She keeps a blog here.

Human Rights Watch yesterday released a report calling for an independent inquiry into recent killings in Uganda, saying unnecessary lethal force has been used in at least nine cases.  The fatal shootings, along with a large number of injuries and hundreds of arrests, are part of the government’s recent crackdown on public protests.

Protests in the capital, Kampala, began on April 11 after the group Activists for Change called for “Walk to Work” demonstrations— asking citizens to walk to work on Mondays and Thursdays— in response to rising food and fuel prices.  The reaction of military police has been unusually swift and brutal, shocking even those in parts of the country affected by the decades-long civil war.

The likely reason for the government’s draconian response to the Walk to Work protests is the participation of the political opposition, most notably President Museveni’s losing opponent in the February presidential election, Dr. Kizza Besigye.

Reuters reported that the real catalyst for public outrage has been the treatment of Dr. Besigye during the demonstrations. Besigye was injured on April 14 and on April 28 he and others in his vehicle were attacked with tear gas and pepper-spray at close range, forcing them from the car in the process of Besigye’s arrest.  Both days saw sharp spikes in demonstrations and military violence.  On April 29, six people were killed and approximately 90 injured as military police indiscriminately fired live rounds into crowds and residential areas in Kampala.

Some of the country’s lawyers have gone on strike over what they say constitute crimes against humanity, and on May 1 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the use of excessive force by Ugandan authorities.  The government has tried to make the case that the Walk to Work protests constitute an “unlawful assembly,” and they have charged opposition politicians participating in the protests with “inciting violence while walking to work.”

Dr. Besigye is scheduled to return to Uganda on Wednesday after receiving medical treatment in Nairobi for the injuries he received during his arrest.  In an interview with the BBC today Besigye talked about the Walk to Work protests, saying there is no justification for the way government and security forces have reacted to the protests.

Demonstrations continue to be spurred by the sky-rocketing cost of living, perception of government corruption and misspending of public funds, treatment of political opposition, and harsh reaction by security forces. More than ten women’s organizations have joined the movement, and the Ugandan Independent reported today that Besigye’s return on Wednesday, when a number of international delegates are expected to be in town for Museveni’s official inauguration on Thursday, will pose another major challenge.

Ugandans appear to be ready to escalate their demand for change rather than be intimidated into silence; and the nearby Arab Spring revolutions can’t be far from Museveni’s mind.  With international attention focused elsewhere at the moment, it is unclear how or if the government will change course.