Global Policy Forum

Ugandan Spring?: “Instability” Spreads to East Africa

Anti-government protests erupted in Uganda's capital, Kampala, on Friday April 29. Long-time Ugandan president and loyal US ally, Yoweri Museveni, has vowed that he will defeat any opposition to his rule, which is now in its 26th year. Hundreds participated in a demonstration on April 14 where security forces reportedly showed an “overpowering display of force” by beating protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arresting over 130 people. National demonstrations, thought to be driven primarily by the rise in fuel and food prices, culminated in the riots on April 29 when citizens burned tires and set up blockades throughout Kampala. The Museveni government dispatched security forces. Security forces violently suppressed the uprising leaving five people dead, 150 injured, and 350 arrested.

By Stephen Roblin

May 9, 2011

Deadly riots erupted in Uganda's capital, Kampala, on Friday April 29, a political outburst that is being called “the largest anti-government protest in sub-Saharan Africa this year.”[1] Terrified over the possibility of the political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East penetrating Uganda's borders, long-time president and loyal U.S. ally, Yoweri Museveni, has vowed that he will “defeat” any opposition to his rule, which is now in its 26th year.

Three weeks before Friday's riots, the runner-up in this year's February presidential election in Uganda, Kizza Besigye, initiated the “walk to work” demonstrations to protest rising food and fuel prices as well as government corruption and waste. Besigye was joined by other opposition politicians, including third-place candidate, Norbert Mao.

Uganda has been one of the nations hardest hit by the rise in food and fuel prices, the latter driven recently by the upheaval in the oil-producing regions north of the country. Last month, the Guardian reported that inflation now tops 11% after rising for five straight months, while food prices jumped 12% in March alone. In some areas in the country, the price of staples, such as soap, rice, and cooking oil, have increased by more than 40% since the beginning of the year, the New York Times reported. The price of maize has skyrocketed 114% over the last year, making it “the highest year-over-year increase in the world,” according to the World Bank.[2]

The opposition has charged the Museveni government with giving little priority to the harsh economic conditions that confront citizens of Uganda, a nation ranked among the poorest in the world by the UN.[3] In April, opposition politicians were pointing to the government's recent decision to spend over $720 million on Russian fighter jets as a symbol of the regime's priorities.[4]

The “walk to work” demonstrations started small, but the government's violent crackdown on the smallest displays of dissent has triggered “unexpected levels of activism,” writes David Smith from the Guardian, who adds that “[p]eople who used to bolt at the first whiff of teargas are losing their fear.”[5]

On Monday April 11, in two separate incidents, police arrested Besigye and Mao while they were walking into Kampala, the capital. Police also dispersed the handful of people with Bessigye and the estimated 100 demonstrators with Mao by firing tear gas at them.[6] This small display of dissent immediately resonated with citizens throughout the country. Growing numbers of citizens attended subsequent demonstrations, which drew an increasingly brutal and repressive reaction from the paranoid government.

Hundreds participated in the Thursday, April 14 demonstration, wherein security forces reportedly projected an “overpowering display of force” by beating protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arresting over 130 people. By April 21, it was reported that protests had spread countrywide, culminating in the riots on April 29 when citizens burned tires and set up blockades throughout Kampala. The Museveni regime dispatched security forces who brutally suppressed the uprising, which left five people dead, 150 injured, and 350 arrested.[7]

The riots were in large part triggered by the hospitalization of Besigye the day before when, during his fourth arrest that month, police smashed the windows of his car and sprayed tear gas directly in his eyes, leaving him temporarily blinded.[8]

The “walk to work” demonstrations are expected to continue throughout May, and other segments of the population are taking to the streets. On May 4, the Associated Press reported that some 300 lawyers gathered in Kampala to protest the government's brutal crackdown on demonstrations and demanded the resignation of security officials involved in Besigye's arrest.[9]

Despite the growing momentum against the Museveni regime – driven primarily by the rise in fuel and food prices – the government has refused to reduce taxes or consider food subsidies to ease the harsh economic conditions.[10] According to Elias Biryabarema from The Independent (Kampala), Museveni continues to advance Western-approved ideology at the expense of responding citizens' urgent needs. He writes,

“Government has obstinately rejected any suggestion of intervention in the marketplace, whether to control prices, reduce taxes or limit food exports, arguing that that would run counter to prevailing policy of a liberal, private sector-led economy, adopted in the 1990s under the IMF-World Bank-led structural adjustment programmes.”[11]

Museveni's economic policies, along with other services he provides Washington, ensure only a tepid response from his top-backer—ignoring all calls made to hold the regime accountable for its violations of various regional and international conventions.[12]

 U.S. Fears Confirmed 

 U.S. officials spoke out against Museveni's repressive measures when it became clear that these actions were only inciting further resistance to his regime. Speaking in Washington on April 28 (the same day of Besigye's hospitalization) Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, urged the Museveni regime to respond to peaceful demonstrators in a “responsible and civil fashion” and called on the government to reconcile its differences with the opposition through dialogue.[13]

Ugandan officials reportedly agreed to the State Department's call for Museveni to meet with opposition leaders on Tuesday, May 3, but opposition leaders refused on grounds that “there was no common agenda.” The opposition's conditions include withdrawal of the military from the streets, the unconditional release of all the “walk-to-work” detainees, electoral reforms, and the holding of new elections. There is no indication so far that Museveni will budge on any of them.[14]

What is taking place in Uganda confirms fears inside Washington. A leaked State Department cable reveals concerns expressed by Obama administration officials as early as October 2009 over the deterioration of Uganda's “image as an African success story” and cites Museveni's “autocratic tendencies” as the primary cause. The cable explains that the ruling party's “near total accumulation of power has led to poor governance, corruption, and rising ethnic tensions, a combination that threatens Ugandan 'democracy' and stability.” If Museveni's authoritarian rule and persistent human rights violations were to drive the nation into crisis, it would become “more difficult for the U.S. to continue as a strong security partner” with the oppressive regime, the cable warns.[15]

Like many authoritarian regimes throughout the world, Museveni's regime has garnered Washington's support (military, financial, diplomatic, and ideological) by serving as a loyal “counterterrorism partner.” In doing so, Museveni's foreign policy agenda is largely driven by his push to make Uganda “indispensable to regional stability.”[16] Here “stability” takes on what Noam Chomsky has called its “technical meaning” in international affairs: in line with U.S. geostrategic objectives. In recent years, the crisis in Somalia has offered Museveni an opportunity to pursue this objective.

During the second half of 2006, the Museveni regime was supplying arms to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), knowing full well that it was hated and considered illegitimate by the vast majority of Somalis. The arms deliveries—in violation of the longstanding Somalia arms embargo—contributed to Ethiopia's campaign against the coalition of Islamic courts and militias that liberated Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, and the surrounding region from CIA-financed warlords in June of that year. Having dispatched thousands of soldiers into the few TFG strongholds following the rise of the Islamic movement, Ethiopia officially invaded southern and central Somalia in December 2006 after receiving the “green light” from the Bush administration. That same month, Museveni assured Bush administration officials that Uganda would contribute troops to the AU “peacekeeping” mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a move that was hated by the Somali public but which won Museveni considerable favor with the Bush administration.

Uganda is currently the top troop-contributor to AMISOM, whose forces are responsible for protecting Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) against Al Shabaab, the Somali militant group considered by U.S. officials as the top terrorist threat in the Horn of Africa. According to the State Department cable, Museveni's “commitment to AMISOM . . . has made Uganda one of our primary partners in the fight against terrorism,” a status that explains Washington's favorable response to Uganda's recent electoral charade.[17]

Election Makeover

This February, Museveni won his fourth term in office, making him “one of Africa's longest serving leaders.” According to official results, Besigye and Mao polled 26% and 2% respectively in the presidential election; both challengers have rejected these numbers.[18]

The U.S. cable expressed hope that the February 2011 presidential election would “reinforce Uganda's image as an African success story.” It is important to point out that when the cable was written, Museveni was serving his third term since coming to power in 1986. Were Museveni an official enemy of Washington, his rewriting of the constitution to enable him to rule for life would have received harsh condemnation or even a U.S.-sponsored coup attempt, as in the case of Huge Chavez of Venezuela. But Museveni's client-status earns him hundreds of millions in “aid” annually—a significant portion of which comes in the form of military assistance—as well as propaganda support.[19]

In his post-election commentary, Carson reinforced the false image of Uganda as “an African success story” at the expense of articulating the real significance of the election as nothing more than an affirmation of Museveni's virtual dictatorship. On March 15, 2011, Carson referred to the electoral charade as “successful” and “an improvement over the last elections.” He added that they were “peaceful” and “largely reflected the will of the Ugandan people,” though granting they weren't “perfect.”[20] International observers depicted another image.

EU election observers were reported to have said, “the power of incumbency was exercised to such an extent as to compromise severely the level playing field between the competing candidates and political parties.” Museveni's preferred methods of subverting the “playing field” were bribery and state repression. Executive director at Transparency International Uganda, Robert Lugolobi, called the “level of bribery” during the lead up to the elections “unprecedented.” Human Rights Watch denounced the intimidation campaign carried out by state security forces against civil society activists who were exposing and condemning government corruption and foul-play during the elections.[21]

These repressive measures were part of a larger government effort to prevent the political unrest that has engulfed the Middle East and North Africa from inspiring Ugandan citizens to action. Along with threatening to “bundle” protestors in jail and arresting Besigye, the Museveni government “ordered mobile phone companies to intercept text messages bearing banned words, such as 'Egypt' and 'dictator',” the Financial Times reported.[22]

In stark contrast to Carson's depiction, Ugandan columnist Timothy Kalyegira described the post-election climate as follows: “People in Uganda are deflated and demoralized because another election has been rigged.”[23]

Since February, the government has ordered a ban on all political demonstrations. The brutal crackdown on the “walk to work” demonstrations in April are a continuation of this policy, which is guided by a universal state doctrine articulated by Uganda's minister of internal affairs, Kirunda Kivenjinja: “Once power is contested . . . that causes instability.” For virtual authoritarian states like Uganda, maintaining internal “stability” often entails unleashing harsh violence against citizens who dare organize peaceful demonstrations to raise their legitimate grievances.[24]

This strategy, however, appears to have failed to achieve the regime's goal of suppressing dissent. Though analysts argue that the conditions in Uganda are still not ripe for an “Egyptian-style uprising” that has the potential to overthrow the Museveni regime, the Obama administration is deeply concerned over the prospect of Museveni's repression driving Uganda into an unpredictable crisis, particularly as the citizen uprisings in the Arab world continue to disrupt U.S. global designs by challenging Washington's client dictators.

In the coming weeks, the administration will attempt to convince Museveni that pursuing dialogue with the opposition and passing minimal reforms are in the regime's best interest. While doing so, the usual noble rhetoric will accompany every U.S. diplomatic move, despite the fact that Washington has long underwritten Museveni's internal attack on Ugandan democracy.


[1] Godfrey Olukya, “2 dead: Riots erupt in Uganda after brutal arrest,” Associated Press, April 29, 2011.

[2] See Xan Rice, “Ugandan opposition leaders arrested after protest,” Guardian, April 11, 2011; Josh Kron, “Police Move Swiftly to Prevent Protest in Uganda,” New York Times, April 11, 2011; and Jason Straziuso and Tom Odula, “Kenya, Uganda Protest As Maize Prices Skyrocket,” Associated Press,, April 20, 2011.

[3] According to the UN Human Development Index (HDI), Uganda is among the “low human development” nations, ranking 143 out of 169 in 2010.

[4] “Uganda opposition: govt wrong to buy Russia fighters,” Reuters, April 7, 2011.

[5] “Uganda, unrest gathers pace despite bloody government crackdown,” April 29, 2011.

[6] Rice, “Ugandan opposition leaders arrested”; and Kron, “Police Move Swiftly.”

[7] See Josh Kron, “Uganda Opposition Leader, Besigye, Shot During Protest,” New York Times, April 14, 2011; Jason Straziuso, “Ugandan opposition leader arrested for 4th time as protests spread,” Associated Press, April 21, 2011; and Josh Kron, “Protests in Uganda Build to Angry Clashes,” New York Times, April 29, 2011.

[8] Smith, “Uganda opposition leader temporarily blinded.”

[9] “Uganda lawyers protest over government’s strong response to recent political violence,” Associated Press, May 4, 2011.

[10] “Govt 'Won't Budge on Food Prices',” IRIN, May 3, 2011.

[11] “Government Arrogance Fuelling Public Rage,” April 29, 2011.

[12] For various calls for accountability, see “Chaotic "walk-to-work" protests put Kampala in spotlight,” IRIN, April 29, 2011; and Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, “Citizens Abroad Condemn Police Brutality,” The Monitor (Uganda), May 4, 2011.

[13] Stephen Kaufman, “U.S. Concerned Over Uganda's Response to "Walk-to-Work" Protests,” United States Department of State,, April 28, 2011; and Gerald Bareebe & Agencies, “Government is Turning Uncivil, Says U.S.,” The Monitor (Uganda), April 30, 2011.

[14] Mercy Nalugo, “Opposition Rejects Talks With Government,” The Monitor (Uganda), May 3, 2011.

[15] “Uganda's president eroding 'an African success story',” U.S. embassy cable, Guardian, October 19, 2009.

[16] Katrina Manson, “Opposition rejects Museveni poll victory,” Financial Times, February 20, 2011.

[17] “Uganda's president eroding,” U.S. embassy cable.

[18] See “Museveni wins disputed Ugandan presidential poll,” Reuters, February 20, 2011; and Rice, “Ugandan opposition leaders arrested.”

[19] Lauren Ploch, “Countering Terrorism in East Africa: The U.S. Response,” Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report, November 3, 2010, 59-61.

[20] Reed Kramer, “Obama Will Promote 'Strong Democratic Agenda' – Carson,” allAfrica, March 15, 2011.

[21] See Barry Malone, “Museveni seen prevailing after disputed vote win,” Reuters, February 20, 2011; Max Delany, “Uganda opposition threatens Egypt-style protests,” Associated Press, February 12, 2011; and Press Release, “Uganda: Halth Pre-Election Intimidation Campaign,” Human Rights Watch, February 10, 2011.

[22] Katrina Manson, “Opposition rejects Museveni poll victory,” Financial Times, February 20, 2011.

[23] Malone, “Museveni seen prevailing.”

[24] See “Uganda urged to halt police attacks on peaceful protesters,” Amnesty International, April 21, 2011; and Kron, “Protests in Uganda Build.”


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