From Authoritarianism To Democracy: Students Can Play A Role In Non-Violent Uganda Regime-Change

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Students helped chase South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee

The role of students in Uganda

For three days in November 2013, Ugandans from home and in the Diaspora including youth and students met in The Hague, the Netherlands, to discuss strategies and methods of unseating the NRM government that has failed to deliver politically, economically, socially and ecologically as promised in its ten-point program that was replaced in mid-1987 by stabilization and structural adjustment program (SAP) to eradicate poverty.

The meeting was participatory and constructive. Uganda was well represented geographically and demographically. The youth including students made presentations about the challenges they face while at school and upon graduation especially unemployment.

It was agreed that regime change in Uganda should be by non-violent means in the first instance. It was also agreed that a road map should be prepared with clear strategies and methods for location and group specific application.

Following extensive consultations a road map was finalized in June 2014 in a document titled “The Hague Process for Peace, Security and Development in Uganda”. It was distributed to all participants at The Hague meeting and posted on face book for a wider readership.

Drawing on lessons from different parts of the world, the role of students in Uganda’s regime change was underscored. For illustration, lessons of student activities that have played a significant role in regime change are abundant and include the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

In 1948, Syngman Rhee was elected first president of the Republic of Korea after a longtime exile in the United States. Rhee’s subsequent political and economic policies were designed to keep him in power. Using the Korean War emergency powers, Rhee suppressed popular dissent, imprisoned lawmakers that were trying to curtail his powers and in 1954 forced the National Assembly to lift the two-term presidential limits allowing him to run for the third time.

During the 1960 elections, fearing that his running mate for vice president might lose, Rhee used various methods including ballot box stuffing. When the results were announced that the opposition candidate for vice president had been defeated, the students reacted through demonstrations and demanded Rhee’s resignation.

Police shot at students and killed eight; this only increased their anger and caused other anti-government forces including professors to join them. The demonstrations spread from the capital to other cities and even though security forces killed 15 more students there were over 100,000 in one march.

As the situation got out of control, Rhee declared martial law and ordered troops to impose order by any means necessary. The Korean army refused to fire at the students. Realizing that Rhee had become a political liability, the U.S. government withdrew its support. Rhee resigned and went into exile (H.C. Hinton 1983; M. Hart-Landsberg 1993 and S. Fardoust et al., 2011).

The year 1968 will always be remembered as the peak in the student movement. It was an international movement that initially developed in the United States and spread to other parts of the world.

The movement had various causes: In the USA and Western Europe, it was opposition to the Vietnam War and the demand for political and social reforms. In Eastern Europe it was a response to the USSR’s post-Stalin repression and the invasion of Prague as well as the demand for reforms in communist rule (Hartmut Kaelble 2013).

In the United States, the principle centers of youth rebellion were student campuses led by Berkeley, in California, starting in 1964. It spread to other campuses, disrupting academic routines. Challenged by American students and the intricacies of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson did not seek re-election (C.V. Findley and J.A.M. Rothney 2002).

In France, the student rebellion reached a peak in May 1968. Besides the war in Vietnam, French students were agitated by the changing nature of university system that expanded education, making the atmosphere on the new campuses oppressive.

In response the students occupied the University of Paris campus and were later joined by workers demanding higher wages, thereby paralyzing the economy. Police intervened to restore law and order – an action that discredited de Gaulle’s government, forcing the General to retire from politics (C.V. Findley and J.A.M. Rothney 2002 and Hartmut Kaelble 2013).

These three lessons demonstrate that when youth, including students, unite for a common purpose they succeed regardless of steps governments may apply.

The youth and students of Uganda are not different from their counterparts in the rest of the world. All they need to do to force Yoweri Museveni and his government to step down is to unite and rebel.

The Hague Process has already provided methods for non-violent dissent. Not least, studies have demonstrated that non-violent resistance is more effective in regime change than military violence (Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan 2011; and R. Guha 2014).


Eric Kashambuzi is New York-based international consultant on development issues.



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