KASANGATI, Uganda — The bookshelves of Uganda’s top opposition leader reveal his ambitions: “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama. “Winning” by former GE chief Jack Welch.
Kizza Besigye’s books are mostly about grass roots mobilization and effective communication — skills which he is putting to the test as he tries to mobilize the masses against President Yoweri Museveni. These efforts have gotten him arrested four times in two weeks, most recently on Thursday when police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of his supporters.
Two months after official returns showed him losing elections for the third straight time to Museveni, Besigye’s popularity seems to be growing every day, and with every arrest.
A doctor who used to be Museveni’s personal physician, Besigye is tapping into anger in this landlocked East Africa nation over rising food and fuel prices. Written off after the loss in the February elections, Besigye is experiencing a political resurrection.
The price of maize here has risen 114 percent in a year, the World Bank says. Fuel costs have soared. Even the price of a bus ticket has risen, forcing poorer Ugandans to walk to work.
So Besigye began “walk to work” demonstrations.
“There is really a crisis that is deep in the population, a crisis of survival, where the greatest majority of our people are completely marginalized,” Besigye said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The health care system is completely broken down. Young people cannot hope to get a job at all. And so there is a state of hopelessness that has engulfed our people.”
They are some of the same issues that helped bring down leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
In Besigye’s previous marches, he began near his home on Kampala’s outskirts and walked toward the city. But after village women asked him not to walk because of violence and arrests that follow the marches, he rolled slowly toward Kampala in a car Thursday. Crowds of excited young men jogged alongside, raising their hands in the air and shouting. Women smiled. As the vehicle approached a major intersection, more young men poured in seemingly out of nowhere, swelling the crowd to perhaps the low thousands.
Police then moved in, firing tear gas canisters and unleashing rubber bullets with pop-pop-pop sounds.
Besigye, who turns 55 on Friday, was arrested forcefully as he exited his vehicle. The crowd dispersed in seconds as tear gas wafted through the streets. Besigye was jailed pending a bail hearing Wednesday.
In a similar action on Monday, one protester died after being tear gassed, according to the Red Cross, and a 6-month-old girl was taken to a hospital in critical condition. Besigye was shot by what he believes was a police rubber bullet in his right hand, fracturing a finger. He now wears a thick white cast but said there is no way to know if the police deliberately tried to hit him.
Last week during another walk-to-work protest, police fired tear gas into a hospital from which protesters were throwing rocks.
“Today we have a situation where the regime is actually terrified of its citizens. That is the very reason why we are being stopped to walk,” Besigye said during the interview at his home on Wednesday. He said he wants Museveni’s government to crack down on corruption that wastes taxpayer money, and to improve Ugandans’ lives.
Protests have spread countrywide. Angry Ugandans have poured piles of rocks onto roadways. Tires have been burned and shops looted.
John Nsubuga, a member of Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change party, said the opposition leader “cares about what hurts the people and that is the reason he is heading the protests. Prices of all items have shot up yet the government is doing nothing.”
Police spokesman Vincent Sekate said the marches create a public hazard and that’s why Besigye has been arrested. Sekate said Besigye and the walk-to-work campaign have not coordinated protests with authorities.
Besigye said the growing protests belie the claim that Museveni, who has been in power 25 years, is widely supported.
“The regime said it had 70 percent of the vote,” Besigye said, referring to February’s official election result. “Why would you be afraid of some miserable losers walking on the streets? Why would that cause a crisis? The real reason is that whereas you can manipulate election figures, you cannot manipulate people’s feelings on the ground.”
Besigye was the president’s personal physician before being dismissed for saying in 1999 the government was becoming a one-man dictatorship. In 2001 and 2006 Besigye ran unsuccessfully against Museveni. He appealed the losses. The Supreme Court agreed with some of his arguments that the votes were unfair but did not overturn the results.
In February, Besigye won 26 percent to Museveni’s 68 percent, according to official returns. Besigye calls the results falsified and believes he won more votes than Museveni. The EU’s election observer team said there were serious flaws with the vote and that state resources were used in favor of Museveni.
The chief of Uganda’s election commission rejected the claims. Besigye decided another appeal would be “futile.”
Museveni last weekend condemned Besigye for the protests, saying that the walks would not bring down prices. Museveni has vowed that there will be no Egypt-style overthrow of his government, and promised continued crackdowns on protests.
Museveni’s responses have not addressed economic problems that many Ugandans are suffering from.
Uganda is a young country, with half its nearly 35 million citizens under 15. An estimated 1.2 million have HIV/AIDS. The average yearly income is just $1,200, though many here have hopes — and fears — over newly discovered oil that will soon be pumped. An oil curse has befallen several African countries, providing more incentive for corrupt leaders to remain in power in order to steal from public coffers.
One political scientist, Aron Okello, who recently taught at Kampala University, said Museveni is mishandling the protests.
“The government panicked, thinking the protests were meant to overthrow Museveni,” he said. “If they had taken it easy from the beginning, by now the protesters may have grown tired and stopped walking.”