Uganda news update – My heart cries for my country


Rent-a-mobs, assembled and allegedly paid for overnight, descended into the streets of Kampala on Friday morning, and in fact some other towns upcountry too, to do the bidding of their political master, cause chaos, loot and steal and make Uganda look bad in the international media.

Alongside they spread false rumours that government had ‘killed’ three times election loser Besigye, further inciting the riotous mobs. Security organs responded robustly, more so when it became known that at least two policemen were shot and wounded and within hours the mobs were dispersed and order restored to the city.

Besigye, President Museveni’s personal physician during the 1981 – 1986 liberation war, and the one who arguably saved the life of Museveni’s brother Akandwanaho Caleb, aka Salim Saleh when treating him for a series of bullet wounds, was for long an ally and close comrade of Museveni, Saleh and other NRA/M ‘historicals’. After the war was won, and the various attempts by former regime troops to return defeated, Besigye continued to serve on active duty in the army, ranked a Colonel and held key positions as Chief Political Commissar, then as Chief of Engineering and Logistics and finally as Military Advisor, before seeking his discharge from active duty and was eventually permitted to leave the army, officially allowing him to enter elective politics.

Uganda in the meantime had written and enacted  a new constitution in the mid 90’s and embarked on a democratic course, which saw regular elections being held for local and central government organs.

Few, even in the inner circle understood fully, what REALLY prompted Besigye to turn against Museveni and stand against him in the 2001 election, although there were sources who ought to know who claimed it was a number of reasons, both prompted on a very personal level as well as by frustrations of remaining at Colonel rank while Besigye’s erstwhile colleagues had meanwhile been promoted to senior general ranks. Whatever the case, Museveni soundly defeated his opponents in 2001, again in 2006 albeit by a reduced margin and there was to be no third time lucky for Besigye, who again lost in the recent 2011 elections, and in fact by a wider margin than 5 years ago.

Frustration and anger must have gripped him and his camp, when the first opinion polls belied their public posturing of imminent victory, and even those opinion polls commissioned by the opposition, and then those arguably commissioned by ‘diplomatic and aid community friends’ all alarmingly showed Museveni holding a commanding lead with margins in the high 60 percent. The elections only confirmed this and the lackluster and angry campaign by Besigye, with little to offer but the objective to unseat Museveni, did not help their cause. Failing to unite the opposition, with many other candidates not trusting his true intentions and motives to run for the highest office in the land, was another reason why the opposition was once again trounced and the NRM swept into a two third majority in parliament and across much of the country in local elections.

With events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt however, the opposition, still reeling from the sound defeat at the polls, saw an opportunity arising and belligerent as ever Besigye is thought to have been at the forefront to plan a similar strategy, to still claim the presidency through unconstitutional and criminal crowd violence and riots a la Tunis and Cairo. In fact, in an act of self aggrandizement Besigye was reportedly planning to swear himself in on 12th of May, the day the official swearing in of President Museveni had been set.

Aided by the global rise in crude oil prices, which doubled inflation in Uganda from the low 6 into the low 11 percent range from February to March, and the resulting hardship for many Ugandans, Besigye and Co devised a plan to pervert the need of many to walk to work into an altogether more sinister political issue. Ugandans in their tens of thousands are walking daily to work, unhindered and unimpeded by police, because they have to in the absence of enough money available to pay for bus fares. Yet, they honestly walk to work every day, use their resources sparingly to feed their families and still found themselves mocked upon by the ‘Walk to Work’ politicians, who care not the least to improve the lives of those they pretend to care for but blatantly subverted the daily challenge life poses to the majority of fellow Ugandans towards their own reject politics. Besigye and a few, though notably not all recent candidates for the presidency, made a mockery of those who MUST walk by scripting and staging walks from their residences, with their media friends already in tow, in the process being joined by ‘rent-a-crowds’ which promptly blocked roads, became threatening as if rehearsed and of course soon brought the security forces on to the scene. Besigye was repeatedly arrested over the past two weeks for creating public disturbances, blocking roads and other public order offences, but was given bail to be released from remand and with alarming regularity broke bail conditions, a fact conveniently overlooked by the magistrates he appeared before who again set him loose only to continue breaking the law.

His latest arrest, under the spotlight of the media, was playing into the hands of the opposition as it was a bungled mess, where instead of towing his car which blocked a key intersection into the city, security operatives broke a window with the barrel of a handgun and then laced the inside with pepper spray and teargas, prompting calls for their own arrest and prosecution for using excessive force, however much Besigye might have invited that scenario and hoped for it to happen.

That night, under cover of darkness, Besigye’s lieutenants are now alleged to have used contacts into the criminal underground of Kampala, to get mobs organized and paid for, to disrupt morning rush hour traffic into the city at select locations, and then spread propaganda that Besigye was killed overnight by government. The combination of both triggered some sharp but in the end short interventions by security forces, using teargas, batons and rubber bullets, before at least two policemen were reportedly shot, triggering life fire in response. Unconfirmed reports speak of several dead, and this loss of life is deeply regretted and was also totally avoidable, but accepted as ‘collateral damage’ by those behind the riot plans.

Realizing that this latest plot to ‘burn the city’ had also failed, and that his designs and strategies had been revealed to security organs by informers, Besigye decided to call it a day and opted to fly to Nairobi for medical treatment, reportedly for conditions developed when being tear gassed and pepper sprayed during his last arrest. It is not known if this departure from Uganda to initially Kenya for treatment – which the Kampala International Hospital could have provided just as well – is the prelude of another self imposed exile, as witnessed before when Besigye had gone to South Africa a couple of years ago, but the robust response of police and other security services has surely dampened any taste by hooligans, professional looters and common thieves to return to the streets of Kampala, having been deceived and deserted by their political master.

The fall out though for the country has been negative, and inspite of the Royal Wedding in the UK taking up all the TV time and media attention, Uganda’s picture abroad has been soiled. Overzealous police and security operatives have shamed our country’s name abroad, and the propaganda pictures of foreign media specialists, avoiding the stone throwing crowds and the injured police and security personnel in their coverage but focusing on flames, tear gas clouds and sadly injured innocent bystanders, has done our reputation no good at all.

Those responsible for the use of excessive and at times grotesque force will face trial themselves, as it should be, but equally, those responsible for the breach of the peace, the looting and thefts too will face the music. It is their inciting political godfathers and equally political failures though who bear the greatest responsibility for the scenes in past days. Notably this comes at a time, when Somalia based Al Qaida associate Al Shabab has renewed threats against Uganda and when all eyes of our security services ought to be focused on preventing a repeat of the event of the World Cup final night last July, but here again, this seems of no importance to those who publicly profess to have the welfare of Ugandans in mind but privately only make use of them a ‘tools and fools’.

Word from the tourism fraternity has it that travelers missed their flights trying to leave for Entebbe on Friday morning while others arriving from the airport were considerably delayed in reaching their hotels, rendering the already limited marketing of Uganda abroad almost null and void. Trips planned to the main city markets for shopping and to mix with our friendly Ugandans in the streets had to be abruptly abandoned, leaving tourists stuck in their hotels and wondering what on earth was going on in the city. Already in the low season now, the sector has to brace itself for a possible market reaction to these pictures and reports making their way around the globe, wrongly portraying Uganda as a country in trouble, which in all fairness it is not.

Two passing thoughts in closing, aimed at the powers that be:

Let the next cabinet be an energetic and committed one, pruning old deadwood out so that the people who voted for President Museveni can actually see a change for the better and detect some credible seriousness in the fight against corruption – it can be done and it should be done, said by a faithful supporter.

Secondly, shift priority to tourism promotion and finally allocate the money needed, to allow the Uganda Tourist Board and the tourism private sector to go out and tell the world what Uganda is really all about – across the border this worked very well in Kenya after their post election violence in early 2008 and can surely be replicated here too. Tourism promotion is also generating good will for the country in many other areas of trade, investment and finance and it is time our president’s advisors put that fact of life to him, so that the forthcoming new term can deliver progress, stability and most important ‘Prosperity for all’. Tourism, as I often said before, can be the engine of economic growth for Uganda and even when oil production starts provide a lot more jobs and investment opportunities for many years to come, probably well beyond the country’s oil production days.

For God and My Country – for which my heart cries out in pain after the events of recent days.

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