Protests against soaring fuel and food prices in Uganda are entering their fourth week. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country in a “walk to work” campaign that began small but gained momentum when Ugandan security forces responded with violence.
What began as a series of peaceful demonstrations have turned increasingly bloody, with clashes between police and demonstrators leaving at least five dead, more than 100 injured and 700 in jail.
The government's use of police force against the protesters has already prompted local and international criticism of President Yoweri Museveni's actions.
The government says the demonstrations are illegal and are intended to disrupt the peace. It says they will not be tolerated.
The most prominent protester, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, has been arrested four times in the past three weeks. In one incident he was shot with a rubber bullet. Police have also used a gun and a hammer to smash the windows of his car. On one occasion they doused him with pepper spray and dragged him into custody. He was flown to Kenya for specialized hospital treatment.
This week hundreds of lawyers went on a three-day strike to protest against the violent crackdown.
“The government should take responsibility for the chaos and disruption that has taken place,” said Fred Golooba Mutebi, a political scientist and senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Uganda.
If the government had reacted differently, he said, perhaps the protests would have stopped within a few days, “But the government’s decision to act in the savage way that it did only added fuel to what figuratively would have been a small fire.”
Mutebi speculated that President Museveni may feel he has a personal feud with Besigye and the analyst wondered if that could have something to do with the violence. “I didn’t see the security forces or even Museveni himself react as viciously towards other opposition leaders as they did towards Besigye.”
He said the demonstrators do not start the violence, which he said breaks out only when protesters are attacked by the police.
Now that lawyers have joined in the protests with a three-day strike, Mutebi said it is becoming a bigger issue about the conduct of the government itself – what he calls its tendency to abuse the law, use violence against unarmed civilians, and try to manipulate the judiciary.
“What we see is the beginning of coming together of a wide range of groups and forces against the Museveni government,” Mutebi said.
Citing Uganda’s history, Mutebi added, “It took a coalition of several forces to bring down the Idi Amin government, as it did for the [Milton] Obote government, and we are probably witnessing the beginning of a process that will pit the Museveni government against a much wider front of opposition forces.”
Although it is difficult to predict how long that will take, “it seems we have reached that territory now,” he said.