Uganda: Long Walk To Freedom
The Ugandan peoplesâ€™ protest teaches several lessons. When people unite and walk together non-violently, â€œstrong menâ€ tremble. Predictably the government reacts with physical violence.
Much of the world has been transfixed by the nonviolent protests sweeping across the Middle East — all too often met by violent government retaliation. Outside the global spotlight, however, another nonviolent protest is gathering steam.
The movement, called The Positive Non-Violent Resistance campaign, is in Uganda. The Kampala regime is responding by tear gassing, beating, arresting and, in some cases, killing the nonviolent protesters. Nonetheless, the Ugandan freedom
movement could become a model of how to transform societies under autocratic rule, moving them toward multiparty democracies.
If the United States and other democracies stand up for the Ugandan people in their nonviolent resistance, they may be able to teach many other sub-Saharan Africans, who find themselves in similar circumstances, that challenging autocratic regimes can lead to democratic changes. Peaceably removing one autocrat at a time can lead to a more civilized international community.
In 2009, Uganda received nearly $2 billion in development aid, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States was the largest donor — providing $360 million. Annually, more than $500 million of this aid is reportedly ending up in the pockets of the politico-military clique around Gen. Yoweri Museveni.
If the Ugandan government continues using force against these nonviolent protesters, international donors like the United States must stop funding it.
Uganda, in the heart of East Africa, is a beautiful country, rich in human and material resources. Once called the Pearl of Africa, Uganda has fallen on hard times. The State Department Human Rights report for 2010 catalogs a long list of
human rights violations, often instigated by the Ugandan government, including torture, arbitrary imprisonment, violent intimidation of government critics and pervasive corruption.
Many neutral observers viewed Uganda’s February 2011 elections as deeply flawed — diplomatic language for rigged. But this is an understatement. The entire election was marked by widespread bribery by Museveni’s party, using public
funds, intimidation and threats of violence by the security forces. There was clear pre-ticking of ballots, as well as ballot stuffing, multiple voting, ghost polling stations, voter disenfranchisement, arrests and obstruction of
opposition polling agents and all manner of cheating. In short, the electoral process was a sham, as documented by the Commonwealth Observer Mission report.
The widespread, largely peaceful protests after the elections and the government’s use of force to repress displays of public dissatisfaction reflects a deep wound to the soul of Ugandan society.
At this critical hour, former Ugandan Peoples’ Congress presidential candidate, Olara Otunnu, has offered inspiring leadership. The son of Christian evangelists and an internationally respected human rights activist who previously served as
U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, Otunnu has been patiently teaching Ugandans how to apply principles of nonviolent direct action, as used by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Last year, Otunnu called for a national social movement, using nonviolent civil disobedience to protest government intransigence. He wanted a new, independent elections commission that would organize free and fair elections. This strategy, however, was not taken up fully by Ugandans until after the election.
Because that vote was so brazenly rigged, Otunnu and his other former presidential candidates came together under the Campaign For Free and Fair Elections. They channeled Ugandans’ frustrations and latent violence into positive nonviolent protest against the sham elections.
On March 9, 11 and 16, Otunnu and CAFFE leaders with their supporters peacefully marched through the streets of Kampala, as well as the industrial cities of Jinja and Iganga. Thousands of Ugandans reportedly participated in these peaceful walks and have now embraced this non-violent movement as the only option left to put the citizens’ demands before the state.
Every day, Ugandans have begun walking to work to protest high food and gas prices. They also walk together to pray on Fridays or Sundays — depending on religious affiliation.
Since these large crowds of ordinary Ugandans join to walk in support of the political leaders, the Kampala government now perceives the non-violent protesters as a threat. Its agents have attacked them with both rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Thursday, March 15, the police and army indiscriminately lobbed tear gas into homes and businesses along streets where peaceful demonstrators marched, to flash out occupants, who were then beaten with truncheons and rifle butts. A nursery school and hospital were tear gassed, and children and patients had to be evacuated by the Uganda Red Cross. That same day, one leading opposition figure was shot in the hand.
Otunnu himself has narrowly escaped two assassination attempts within the last year. Government security forces also forced his vehicle off the road – where it flipped over several times. In the last week of the campaign, he survived a horrible, inexplicable crash that critically injured his assistants.
Last Monday, April 18, Otunnu was arrested while leading a peaceful protest in Kampala. He was later released, and is due back in court May 12.
But without international pressure, the movement for peaceful people’s democracy in Uganda is likely to result in death of more innocent victims. Already, two people were killed in Jinja, five executed in Gulu and at least three died in Kampala, while scores have been injured — including a pregnant woman, 19, who was shot in the stomach by the police. That need not be.
The Ugandan peoples’ protest teaches several lessons. When people unite and walk together non-violently, “strong men” tremble. Predictably the government reacts with physical violence.
But that’s not the end of the story. Washington, which provides so much aid, has the duty to see that U.S. taxpayer dollars do not subsidize oppression. The United States also has the leverage to tell Kampala to stop interfering with these peaceful protests, drop phony charges against opposition leaders and allow both the Ugandan and international media to cover this non-violent movement for change.
Why should we care? For the simple reason that King gave while writing from a Birmingham jail, nearly 50 years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Charles Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko professor of law and the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Jonathan Stubbs is a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
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