The army’s involvement in the protests left many unanswered questions. Col Felix Kulayigye says the police invited the army.
“Demonstrations are a police matter and we never involve ourselves. A concrete assessment was done and it was discovered the police was stretched. There were riots in Masaka, Jinja, Mbale and Kampala. How many police officers do we have? There is no way the CDF can say he is deploying to deal with riots. The IGP has to invite him in accordance with Article 212 of the Constitution.”
On why it was necessary to use live ammunition Kulayigye insisted no one was shot until this reporter showed him a section of an intelligence briefing from March 2012, where CMI confirmed 12 people had been shot by security agencies.
“The police was the lead agency while the UPDF played a supportive role. They (people) were not shot by soldiers but by the police so I cannot answer that. There were actions taken but the police should be the one to tell you. The only soldier who was found culpable was a military policeman who fired into the air at Nakivubo Mews. He was court-martialled.”
Kisekka market and rioters for rent
Kisekka market seems to be the epicentre of riots and during Walk-to-Work, it did not disappoint. Immediately after the 2016 elections, a walk down Kyaggwe Road from Equatorial Hotel to the junction was an eye-opener. Along the outer wall of Equatorial Hotel, rough-looking young men idled around, despite the heavy military presence.
“The police know every single one of those idlers,” a spare parts dealer intimates, on condition of anonymity. “They meet top police bosses. Opposition politicians also know them. Whenever tensions rise, the police gives them money to dissuade them from starting riots. But the Opposition gives them more money; so the riots get started anyway.” The trader adds that only fools believe Kampala riots are spontaneous because the right amount of money can buy you a riot.
Dr Besigye rubbishes this assessment saying there is nothing special between Kisekka market and himself. “Kisekka happens to have a high concentration of people living on the margins of society. But these kinds of people are everywhere because the regime has marginalised many. So every effort has been made to disband Kisekka market (since 2011).”
After the 2011 riots, Kisekka market was demolished and a new one is being built. Robert Kasolo, the embattled chairman of the market, rubbishes the claim that Walk-to-Work was a protest over high commodity prices. “The riots occurred because [of] politics. If it was about prices, why didn’t they protest against traders? After all, Uganda has an open market.”
Kasolo insists none of the traders participated in the riots; blaming them on elements who loiter along Kyaggwe road. He refuses to talk about what happened on April 29, 2011 when the Special Forces Group took control of the market. “Despite the teargas and bullets, no one died or was injured in this market during Walk-to-Work,” Kasolo continues, adding, “The traders do not have any problem with the security agencies. However, our businesses stalled because customers were scared to come to the market.”
Issa Sekitto, spokesperson for Kampala City Traders Association (Kacita) says politicians have objectives which do not necessarily follow business acumen.
“Politicians do not mind if businesses are closed as long as they get political capital. However, business people are also political. I would move around telling people the riots were harming our business. While others listened to me, some would say, ‘Besigye has said we should join him, now what are you saying?’ Look at the 2016 voting pattern; how people voted for Besigye and Lord Mayor Elias Lukwago in Kampala. Can I honestly say traders were hurt by the protests?”
Crimes against humanity?
On May 4, 2011, lawyers across the country went on a three-day strike to protest the “crimes against humanity” committed by the security services. Bruce Kyerere (then president of the Uganda Law Society), condemned the State’s brutality. The lawyers presented their petition then Deputy Chief Justice, Leticia Kikonyogo, at the High Court in Kampala.
The online version of The Wall Street Journal reported on May 4, 2011: “We condemn the indiscriminate beating of protesters…the indiscriminate shooting of peaceful protesters and the firing of tear gas in schools and hospitals,” Mr. Kyerere said, adding that the crackdown in the past three weeks amounts to “crimes against humanity.”
Lawyer and human rights activist Ladislaus Rwakafuzi participated in the strike. “We made our protest and filed the matter in the East African Court of Justice. We sought certain declarations against our police and the government.”
Only lawyers in private practice adhered to the ULS call. No one knows what happened to the petition, not even Rwakafuzi. “I cannot say how far those matters run. But we did our part, though nothing changed. The attitude of the State did not change. It continued to harass people and up to today nothing has changed.”
Erias Lukwago argues that the protests created immediate awareness about the economic crisis. “That was important. In any struggle, information is important, and mobilisation is anchored on it. We put the (economic) issues in the spotlight, both locally and internationally.”
One point of pride for the Opposition was that the protests were people-centered. “The masses coalesced behind the cause, appreciating that it was not driven by the leadership,” Lukwago says, adding, “That was the second protest of its kind, after the 1950s protests of Augustine Kamya, Ignatius Musaazi and the Bataka group.”
Undeniably, the impact of the protests on the government was huge. Initially vowing to crush the rioters, it was, in Lukwago’s words, “pushed to the wall, brought to its knees, and forced to make macro-economic interventions.”
The demonstrations though, had a heavy toll on lives and livelihoods.
However, Hon Ibrahim Ssemuju Nganda, FDC spokesperson, does not believe the cost of participation was high. “Was the cost higher than Luweero (during the 1981-1986 war)? If you want to participate where there is no cost remain in your bed and pray to the Almighty to remove the dictator. But even in the mosque, Museveni will find you.”
When this reporter asked Dr Besigye if his conscience is bothered by the fact that every time he stepped out of his home, someone died, was injured, or livelihoods were lost, he said he is empathic to the suffering of Ugandans.
“Of course, I am bothered; even looking at someone being beaten feels like I am the one being beaten. I know this suffering is being meted out by law-breakers, who are agents of the regime. They are maiming and killing to cause fear in the population so that we live in bondage. But the cost of participation is much lower than that of Luweero.
Anyone fighting for rights in a repressive regime must know there will be costs, especially human suffering. I see suffering even when we employ non-violent means.”
Much as the government was “brought to its knees” there are those who accuse the Opposition of being short-sighted and seeking short-term goals. Norbert Mao agrees with this criticism. “The Opposition plans tactical manoeuvres, instead long-term strategic goals. In 2011, there was a lack of an institutional anchor to strategise our actions. We talked a lot about an electoral coalition for 2016, but there is a lack of strategic leadership.”
Lukwago insists that those who think this way are naïve and simplistic in their assessment. “This is a multi-faceted struggle and you deal with a dictatorship using different approaches. To say that we pursue short-term goals is to discount and downplay the role of activists in any given struggle. Civic action takes a long time and does not bring dividends in a day.”
According to Ssemujju, everyone pursues short-term goals. “Museveni wanted to remove a government (in 1981), which was a short-term goal. The transformation of a country is a broader goal which you can only achieve or think of, after attaining the short-term goal. By nature Opposition campaigns are risky and have high demands.
Those Opposition leaders who dismiss our campaigns were asked to pay a price they were not willing to pay. In the end they were portrayed and judged in the public as weak leaders.”
Walk-to-work begins faltering
After Dr Besigye’s return, there was a noticeable decrease in the momentum of the protests. The public reception was lukewarm. Even Opposition leaders, like Norbert Mao, Kassiano Wadri, and Olara Otunnu, became conspicuously absent. In a bid to rebrand, Activists for Change (A4C), on May 23, 2011, introduced a five-minute hoot campaign. This newspaper quoted Hon Mathias Mpuuga as saying: “Every day starting Monday, from 5pm for five minutes, every driver shall hoot…And whoever cannot hoot…simply stop for a while, bang a table, a calabash, saucepan...”
The police declared car hooting illegal and any protester caught hooting would be arrested for engaging in noise pollution but in downtown Kampala and the outskirts, people adhered to the call. Inspector of Police, Collins Mukite, OC Kasangati police station was the first victim of this rebranding, when on May 24, he was suspended from duty for failing to deploy police officers. Due to this laxity, Besigye, who was under preventative (house) arrest, drove to Kampala to begin the hoot campaign.
Walk-to-Work had already received the death knell, though, because as the shilling stabilised, commodity prices went down. On July 26, 2011, at the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) offices in Kampala, Mpuuga announced that a re-launch of the A4C activities would take pace in Masaka the next month with a “Light a Candle Campaign” where a service would be held at the home of Nalwanga, the toddler who had been shot dead.
Dr Besigye drove to Nyendo on August 10, 2011 and as he began walking to Nalwanga’s home, a crowd escorted him. All roads leading to the home had been barricaded by the police. Besigye was ordered to drive back to Kampala, escorted by eight police trucks, a mamba, and a water cannon truck.
Speaking about the diminished momentum of the protests, Dr Besigye says, “It was due to a mixture of occurrences.
First, police brutality caused fear among the people. Brutalising me was meant to scare the population. Secondly, inflation was gradually coming down because government abolished tax on sugar and imposed high interest rates.”
Small pockets of the protests continued in Kampala, the most noticeable being at the start of the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examinations on October 16, 2011. Kololo High School, located a few metres above Kisekka market, was tear-gassed after traders blocked Kyaggwe Road.
In an interview with The Observer on October, 31, 2011, on a question about the absence of other leaders from the protests and there general decline, Dr Besigye told the newspaper: “One of the issues that came up was that the protests were dominated by individual leaders and that there should be a popular base that drives them…Some people even say they protested and got into trouble, and Besigye wasn’t caring about them, as if they were protesting for me...”
The highs and lows
People-driven. One point of pride for the Opposition was that the protests were people-centered. “The masses coalesced behind the cause, appreciating that it was not driven by the leadership,” Lukwago says, adding, “That was the second protest of its kind, after the 1950s protests of Augustine Kamya, Ignatius Musaazi and the Bataka group.”
Toll. Undeniably, the impact of the protests on the government was huge. Initially vowing to crush the rioters, it was, in Lukwago’s words, “pushed to the wall, brought to its knees, and forced to make macro-economic interventions.”
The demonstrations though, had a heavy toll on lives and livelihoods. However, Hon Ibrahim Ssemuju Nganda, FDC spokesperson, does not believe the cost of participation was high. “Was the cost higher than Luweero (during the 1981-1986 war)?