Two weeks ago, a late-night attempt to abduct me from my home during the lead up to Uganda’s election failed. The 30-year Yoweri K. Museveni regime’s desperation was reaching new depths with disappearances and mass arrests, and I was beginning to feel it personally, as I scrambled to put better security measures in place for my loved ones.
Yet, my personal troubles are a laughable matter for those who faced much worse circumstances earlier this week when Ugandan authorities killed at least two people and arrested dozens in the capital city streets who were supporting the most popular opposition candidate, Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change, or FDC. Besigye has been arrested more than 30 times since defecting from Museveni’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, or NRM. During the recent presidential debate, he accused the incumbent of warmongering and plundering neighboring nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.
We all knew what to expect during this election cycle, really. Past elections, during which Besigye’s support was not as strong as it is now, have revealed that Museveni’s regime is very capable of instilling fear in the population, harassing and killing dissidents, bribing very poor voters and rigging elections. Besigye’s latest message has been that of defiance. He and his wife Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, have been encouraging Ugandans to stand up for their rights and protect their votes.
There is a weakness in FDC’s messaging, however, when it comes to nonviolent strategy. The term “defiance” carries a strong connotation and certainly interrupts the trivial, passive messaging of civil society organizations and foreign embassies in Uganda that are merely endorsing “peace” during this election period. It is not that Besigye and his party have not done enough in terms of explaining that there are peaceful ways of resisting dictatorship and militarization. Rather, their messaging may not have been explicit enough to ensure exclusively nonviolent means of struggle, which would be politically strategic, especially in a nation where the president’s pillars of support are so obvious: neoliberalism, foreign aid, corruption, patriarchy and the like. Sometimes, FDC supporters carry tree branches; other times they carry fake guns. A rhetoric of deliberately nonviolent resistance could have been useful, but most of the FDC leaders and supporters I have consulted have kept the option of violence in their back pocket as a “just in case,” much as Museveni himself did in the 1980s, when he took to the bush to fight against leaders who overstayed their terms in power. Of course, he went on to do the very same after seizing it.
Surely, throwing a stone is less violent than insulating a violent and oppressive dictatorship with heavy-duty war machines and corporate sponsors, but onlookers — including the foreign governments that have enjoyed Museveni’s lengthy tenure — are often glad to turn a blind eye to state violence, as long as there is the moderately forgivable excuse of “They struck us first.” Ugandan authorities are known for their ability to infiltrate social change movements with imposters, including those who incite violence to justify state repression toward nonviolent demonstrations.
This week, as FDC prepares to challenge the lie that Museveni has won elections, the party’s ability to distance itself from violence may be crucial (especially since the NRM secretary general has threatened to kill the children of protesters). During Thursday’s voting, much creativity was exercised that indicates opposition supporters are headed in the right direction with determination.
Majority opposition areas witnessed delays in the arrival of polling materials, forcing some to stand in the queue for seven or eight hours — even in the rain — to cast their votes. At one such polling station, voters seized the ballot boxes and dumped them to the ground. At another, voters made placards for Besigye and Museveni, and asked people to form queues behind each placard to visually depict the peoples’ will. One lone young man stood behind Museveni’s name while countless others gathered patiently in the Besigye queue to wait for materials to arrive. Electoral Commission officials and voting materials were delayed many hours in Namuwongo, a slum in the capital city of Kampala, causing residents to erect roadblocks in protest of the state’s attempts to deny their right to select their head of state. When police removed the roadblocks, they were simply reconstructed by FDC voters.
Ballot-stuffing and fraud was leaked in various areas such as Kiruhura, and some voters bused in from other countries to vote for Museveni were identified by local residents and arrested.
Amazingly, despite a capital city full of tear gas, live bullets and a social media blackout overseen by Uganda Communications Commission and private telecom companies under the directive of the Electoral Commission, Ugandans did indeed remain defiant Thursday. It has been an opportunity that has engendered creativity and offered practice for those who wish to build a new Uganda. If the crowds that follow Besigye wherever he goes are any indicator of his level of support among voters, he is set to be a clear winner.
But is the defiance strategy too little too late? Having worked closely with activists and organizers throughout Uganda, I fear that there is too much mobilizing and not enough organizing. Mobilizing is short-term, but organizing looks at a long-term strategy that builds momentum, escalates conflict and is not reliant on individual tactics.
Perhaps Ugandan activists could learn something from this week’s struggle of organizers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is home to hundreds of tribes and an infrastructure more disorganized than that of Uganda, but they have been able to carefully plan and implement a nonviolent strategy about nine months ahead of their presidential elections. They expect president Joseph Kabila to extend his rule, which he began in 2001 and cannot legally extend without changing the constitution.
On Tuesday, the capital city of Kinshasa was nearly idle. A group of taxi drivers decided to pressure Kabila by pulling themselves off of their routes, which brought public institutions to a halt as government employees were not able to find a means of reaching their offices.
The strike’s effect also reached the DRC’s far eastern ends of Goma and Uvira, where activist groups were arrested for preparing leaflets announcing the action.
The actions of Congolese activists are not only useful for their media value and decentralized approach. Getting the gears of social change turning months ahead of the November presidential elections by implementing a tactic that cuts off Kabila’s power (tax revenue, political legitimacy, and work force) is also crucial. Uganda’s taxi drivers only recently held a meeting to plan a similar strike, but it was dispersed by authorities and Crime Preventers — an extralegal citizen militia trained and armed by the state, much like the Interahamwe of Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide.
The resolve for defiance of the Ugandan population is commendable, but willpower must be supplemented by strategic organizing, clear messaging and effective internal coordination — not only with the aim of ousting a 30-year dictator, but also with the broader goal of cultivating systemic transformation of the nation’s governance system. Perhaps Ugandans and Congolese alike can provide a strategic roadmap for other neighboring nations such as Burundi and Congo Brazzaville, whose people are more than ready for a change.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.
Uganda’s COVID-19 experience underscores the seemingly universal opportunism of authoritarians amidst crisis, as well as opportunities for resistance.