Organized youth and top-level defections threaten Uganda’s dictatorship

After a full day of darting around the congested Ugandan capital city of Kampala to meet with activists, civil society groups and community leaders, I gratefully swung my backpack off my shoulders and tossed it on the table. I sunk my body into the refuge of a few soft cushions and exhaled a deep sigh of resignation. My host eagerly dashed to his television to switch on the evening news, as if the physical, psychological and emotional beatings we absorbed that day had not diverted a single ounce of his energy.

“Haven’t you had enough political talk for today?” I asked him, popping the cap off a much-needed beer. “Don’t you want to rest so we can be ready to do it all again tomorrow?”

“No, Museveni must go,” he promptly replied. “The dictator is not getting any sleep. Why should we?”

He’s right. There’s no possible way President Yoweri Museveni is getting a good night’s rest with his 30-year military regime progressively imploding. When you’re a head of state for that long, no reality beyond lifelong monarchy seems safe. You have waged war upon your own people, you’ve stolen their natural resources, you’ve pillaged neighboring countries, and you’ve manufactured one of the most corrupt systems of governance in modern history. You cannot simply turn over the keys to the state house.

Internal defections cause paranoia

Dictators prefer to have a few allies they can trust, and for many years, Museveni was able to attract quite a number. His economic policies drove the Ugandan populace so deep into poverty that he was able to buy the votes and support of the masses with a mere bar of soap or a cup of water.

These days are different though. Two key long-time allies of the Museveni regime have defected since the last election cycle, causing many to question whether the three-decade ruler has the political infrastructure it takes to shield his power from the encroaching civil society movements.

According to inside sources, such as Museveni’s Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi, even the allegiance of Museveni’s closest kin — such as his wife and son — has become unreliable. However, the dictator was driven into a more severe frenzy in 2013 when General David Sejusa, the then-spy chief of the Ugandan military, decided he had enough after coming across a secret military plot to assassinate himself and other political leaders who had called for investigations into Museveni’s alleged plan to pass power onto his son.

Sejusa’s falling out with Museveni left him exiled in London, where he then established Freedom and Unity Front, a political movement provocatively abbreviated as FU. In December 2014, he returned to Uganda, which was a subject of much excitement for freedom-loving Ugandans, who were seeking a political figure not interested in occupying a high level office — an ambition Sejusa called “foolish … since Museveni has already stolen millions of votes for the upcoming elections.”

As if losing a member of the high command who knows all of the secrets behind his war crimes and political tactics was not enough to startle Museveni, his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, announced his intention to campaign for the presidency as the National Resistance Movement, or NRM, ruling party flag-bearer last month. Such intra-party competition is foreign to the history of the big shots in the NRM. Moreover, Mbabazi has been a driving agent of many of the most totalitarian laws passed in recent years, including the Orwellian Phone Tapping Bill and the Public Order Management Act, which renders unapproved conversations between more than three people illegal. Draconian partners are needed in a dictatorship and Museveni has lost the man who historically seemed to be his closest friend.

Youth organizing more strategically

The proverbial moat surrounding the Ugandan dictatorship’s castle is drying up, making it a perfect time for young unemployed people of the nation to launch their own offensive. Nonviolent civil resistance in Uganda is still a young phenomenon. Walk-to-work protests in 2011 pushed astronomically high food and gas prices down temporarily, followed by a successful peaceful campaign to protect Mabira Forest from deforestation by a sugar company later that same year. Teacher strikes have occurred annually to protest low wages in government schools. A few rallies and marches have been on occasion dispersed with tear gas. All of these efforts, however, have lacked continuity.

Police apprehend yellow pigs released by Ugandan youth activists in downtown Kampala on Feb. 16. (Kenneth Kazibwe)

Police apprehend yellow pigs released by Ugandan youth activists in downtown Kampala on Feb. 16. (Kenneth Kazibwe)

Furthermore, actions in the past year have been mainly symbolic. A group known as the Jobless Brotherhood has been releasing pigs painted yellow to represent the ruling party in strategic locations around the country, often placing a hat that resembles the iconic one worn by Museveni atop the pigs’ heads. Other conglomerates of unemployed youths have organized marathons through Kampala in protest of corruption and life presidency. Until now, these movements have been fragmented, their actions being short-term and somewhat short-sighted. However, with the recent establishment of politically ecumenical groups, such as the Interparty Youth Platform and the No More Campaign, some much-needed synergy is brewing in the world’s demographically youngest nation.

Arrested for criticizing arbitrary arrests

On July 9, former Prime Minister Mbabazi and opposition party leader Kizza Besigye were arrested without substantial cause or charges. With the help of the youth groups, the Democratic Alliance — which consists of leaders of various opposition political parties — convened a press conference the following day to criticize the government for making politically-motivated arbitrary arrests. At this event, seven members were arrested, loaded into police vehicles, and driven from court to court (even beyond the geographic jurisdiction of the alleged crime) until the business day ended, necessitating their detainment. Both male and female activists were stuffed in the same small cell with other suspects at a rural police post.

Four visitors came that evening to deliver food to the detainees (who are not given dinner or breakfast in Uganda). Those visitors were also gathered and thrown in the cell. The following morning, an additional seven visitors were also arrested and thrown behind bars after the police officers on duty felt threatened by their large numbers and fired bullets. Altogether, 18 activists, many of them high-profile figures in civil society, were victimized by police brutality over a single incident.

Youth organizer Daniel Tulibagenyi poses at the press conference he organized to criticize the government for arbitrary arrests, before being arrested himself. (WNV / Daniel Tulibagenyi)

Youth organizer Daniel Tulibagenyi poses at the press conference he organized to criticize the government for arbitrary arrests. (WNV / Daniel Tulibagenyi)

From symbolic one-offs to crisis-generating actions

There is clearly a fear that organized youths present a strong threat to Museveni’s interests. Now that the youths have finally strengthened their internal structures, police have been following them from meeting to meeting, cracking down at will despite the rights to assembly, association and movement guaranteed in Uganda’s constitution — something Museveni has publicly called “just a piece of paper.”

In some areas of the country, farmers who sell their products to multinational corporations aligned with the Museveni government are scheming to withhold their products and labor. Others are advocating for agricultural cooperatives in rural areas to spend a week without sending food to Kampala. Shutdowns of the transportation sector are also being planned. “We need to pin the dictator in a crisis,” noted one youth activist. “We have to present him with a scenario that hits him where it hurts and consequently undermines the assets that support his rule.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Wadulo, a civil society advocate in parliament suggested a different approach. “I think we should explore forgiveness as a tactic. Elections are just around the corner in early 2016, and Museveni is prepared for bloodshed. Is that what we want? Let’s move into the win-win quadrant. Let’s allow him to move out of power peacefully by appealing to his interests.” Wadulo acknowledged that this will necessitate appeals to bodies such as the International Criminal Court for Ugandan stakeholders to handle the terms of his exit from power. “He is a dictator, but he is our dictator,” Wadulo claimed.

“But will he keep the loot of 30 years?” asked Oyaka Makmot, one of my fellow board members at Solidarity Uganda. “Just because Mandela advocated for a flexible form of political forgiveness does not mean that such an approach should be replicated elsewhere in Africa. Reconciliation and healing is not authentic in the absence of justice.” Such comments echo the sentiments of youths throughout the country who are eager to witness an oppressive regime endure some form of payback.

Tilling the soils for war

The elephant in the room, as with many other dictatorships, is the United States’ military interests. Uganda is the key security partner in Sub-Saharan Africa for the superpower with the world’s largest military budget. The Uganda People’s Defence Force has fought proxy wars against the Al-Shabab terrorist entity in Somalia, as well as looted the mineral-rich Congo for raw materials sought by international companies that manufacture electronics and vehicles, among other products. When it comes to U.S. interests south of the Sahara, the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda is the jumping-off point. U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi has maintained a neutral role in Ugandan political matters, though he has failed to recognize the lack of a level playing field for political candidates. As a result, activists have accused him of being complacent with the fact that his government is funding, training and equipping a military that has a terrible human rights record.

Ugandan youths are at the moment discussing a push for a freeze of military support from the United States if Museveni is on the 2016 election ballot, knowing that in the event of election violence or similar political mayhem, Museveni will be quick to turn to the Pentagon for help.

At the same time, however, it would be erroneous to insist that Museveni’s regime is solely insulated by a foreign government. He has invested national funds in his own internal security strategies, arming informal vigilante youth groups with weapons only intended for soldiers. Recent government budgets have seen the line items relating to community policing and crime prevention skyrocket, begging one to question what the country’s not-so-distant future has in store. Uganda is already overridden with armed police in public areas and at private businesses, soldiers on buses, civilian spies, and tear-gas-dispensing machines stationed in public areas. Every aspect of public life is a reminder that Museveni — and Museveni alone — is the man in charge. After all, this is the man who once said, “I own the money in Uganda.” But as we practitioners of strategic nonviolent action know, resources such as money, weapons and sanctions will ultimately prove insufficient.

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