The Story of a Booming Ugandan Protest and a Wannabe Journalist
To contextualize quickly, there is a major debate going on in Uganda over a constitutional amendment to massively overhaul the 1995 constitution. The biggest piece of this "omnibus" bill is to repeal term limits, allowing President Youweri Museveni, leader of the country for the last 19 years, to seek reelection again in the 2006 elections. Museveni, the leader of the Movement (the major dominant political entity/party in Uganda) has control of the army and loads of money, allowing him to dominate the political landscape. The truth is that he has certainly done much good for the country in 19 years, bringing economic growth and stability. Many of the people, conscious of Uganda's dark violent history pre-1986, support him out of fear of instability.
Yet, Museveni and the Movement have resorted in recent years to oppressive, corrupt and coercive practices stifling the political space in Uganda. A case can and is being made by some brave Ugandans that it is time for serious change. More than that, however, many argue (as I did in a recent editorial that you can see earlier in the blog) that changing the constitution to repeal executive checks and balances will only lead to dictatorship and further political oppression. The debate is now in Parliment and dominates the newspapers here.
The "third term campaign" (also called the kisanja - banana leaves as symbol of the third term) has received loads of support from the existing political establishment. Today, the protest I saw was a mass of a few hundred people, many draped in kisanja leaves, holding signs supporting Museveni. Many of their signs were calling for foreigners to stay out of African politics (in recent weeks, many in British Parliament have made strong statements against the constitutional change). Signs included some of the following messages - "Museveni is a Freedom Fighter not an Actor," "We Fought for our Freedom, we died as you looked on, keep off," or "We are tired of neo-colonialism." Interestingly, all of the signs were handed out to the participants by the organizers of the rally.
After gathering, the few hundred (called a few thousands by organizers of the demonstration that I spoke with), marched to the British High Commission near Parliament, where they submitted a letter of protest and demanded the British high official to address them. When they were refused at first, they threatened to storm the gates. Finally, an agreement of sorts was reached, stopping potential violence. The people moved to Parliament, where they rallied for some time.
The mob was highly passionate - they were dancing, yelling, holding signs and marching. The majority of the crowd were university and secondary students. Acting like a journalist, I interviewed a few of the university leaders as they marched. One told me, "Power belongs to the people...no other foreign countries should interfere in our affairs, power belongs to us and we will decide how our government works." Another leader told me with a fire in his eyes, "This is an independent state, and no state should intervene according to the UN charter...we will not sit back ad watch foreigners impose their will on us...We are people, we are the critical mass, and we will determine the direction of our state."
It was fascinating to be there to watch this event and talk to these people. Uganda stands in muddy political waters with a major contentious debate that is firing up people on both sides. Of course, only those kisanja supporters are given the freedom to protest and express their views publically. The opposition protests have been suppressed, violently at times. The Ugandan political space is highly oppressive with the powerholders exercising their will openly to ensure that their voices dominate the arena. If you want to know my take on the debate, read the article I wrote two weeks ago.
That was the highlight of the day. In other news, I am focusing my research on the question of how multipartyism is presenting (or not) alternatives to the current government military approach to peace in northern Uganda. I am really excited to get immersed in that starting next week after we finish Luganda exams this week.
Cheers across the rivers and lakes and seas.