Thursday, April 14, 2011

Uganda tense as opposition leaders are arrested

Posted on Tuesday 12 April 2011

Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi, AfricaNews reporter in Kampala, Uganda

As preparations for the swearing-in of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on May 12 gather steam, the country has still to shake off the tenterhooks resulting from the Feb. 18 election. On April 11, the police were once again called into action and by the end of the day they had brought various opposition leaders, including Museveni's stiffest challenger Kizza Besigye, to appear before different courts of law.

The opposition leaders organised a “walk to work” campaign in protest against rising prices of fuel and commodity prices. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics says inflation has leaped from six percent in February to 11 percent presently, against a government target of five percent.

The opposition blames the rising inflation on the ruling party’s excessive spending during campaigns, put by some estimates at about US $ 600 million in an economy of an estimated gross domestic product of US $ 17 billion.

The opposition charges further that Ugandans are suffering at the hands of a remorseless President who they accuse of disregarding the people’s priorities. The government recently spent US $ 744 million on purchasing fighter jets which critics say are unnecessary since Uganda isn’t engaged in any serious war currently.

The President is also expected to name an increased cabinet after inauguration. Uganda, at 69 ministers, is said to already have the third largest cabinet in the world after North Korea and Kenya. But the number of ministers is set to rise to 75, which critics say is too big for a poor country of just over 30 million people.

Critics were also angered by the government’s decision to increase the budget for the swearing-in ceremony by over tenfold to over US $ 1.3 million. The increased inauguration budget was the subject of a second supplementary budget application to Parliament in a space of less than four months. At the end of last year and in the middle of campaigns, government passed through Parliament an unprecedented supplementary budget of about US $ 260 million.

Most of it is said to have gone to support Museveni’s re-election efforts.

But Information and National Guidance Minister Kabakumba Masiko says government isn’t responsible for the price rises since the rise in oil prices is international and largely caused by the political disturbances in the Arab world.

She adds that in a free enterprise economy like Uganda’s, government can’t do much about price rises.

The “walk to work” campaign is part of the array of activities of civil protest that the opposition have announced under a new campaign dubbed “Activists for Change” (A4C). The other activities include prayer and boycotts.

Concerned that opposition leaders would gather supporters on their way as they walked to work and probably touch off a Tunisia/Egypt situation, the Uganda Police heavily deployed at all the junctions leading into the city to block the match.

Besigye, Museveni’s leading challenger who has finished as runner-up in the last three elections, was the biggest centre of attraction as police deployed heavily on the road from his relatively far-flung residence (about 20 kms) in the Kampala suburb of Kasangati.

Having failed to convince him to abandon his match, Police blocked him by forming a ring around him and later bundled him on to a pick-up truck to a police post. He was later charged in a Magistrate’s Court for “Failure to obey Police orders” and “Inciting violence” before being granted bail.

Four of his party’s officials who were moving a different direction were also charged and released on bail while Norbert Mao, the Democratic Party President who finished third in the election with 1.6 percent of the vote was released along with his party officials with no charge.

Museveni was declared winner with 68 percent of the vote against Besigye’s 26 percent but the opposition roundly rejected the process and the outcome of the election saying it was a sham. They have since threatened to call people on to the streets, touching off panic from security agencies that have decided to maintain a visible presence on the streets. Armored cars are stationed at every junction leading into the city centre, uniformed officers are regularly on patrol and demonstrations are practically banned. Police will likely be called into action again on Thursday April 14 when the opposition leaders have vowed to walk to work again.

Police Chief Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura insists anyone seeking to demonstrate must inform him first and get permission but the opposition say this is unnecessary since the right to demonstrate is inalienable.

Museveni, who shot his way to power in January 1986, has been criticized even by his five-year bush war colleagues for derailing the “revolution”. Having started off well by rebuilding the shattered economy and restoring political stability, he has now been branded as power hungry by many. In 2005, he engineered a constitutional amendment that lifted the two-term limitation to the presidency, giving him chance to contest the 2006 election for which he would otherwise be ineligible.

The opposition, led by his bush war physician Besigye, is now bent on civil protests having reached the conclusion that Museveni cannot be defeated at the polls due to what they say is rigging. In both 2001 and 2006, Besigye challenged Museveni’s election in court and Justices agreed with him that the elections fell below acceptable standards but declined to annul them arguing that the extent of irregularities wasn’t grave enough to alter the final outcome.

After the Feb. 18 election, the opposition resolved not to challenge the election in court but to resort to civil protests. The situation has thus remained charged and potentially explosive.