Guns are falling silent in Kampala but at Mulago National Referral Hospital, the death toll from two days of public protests and rioting continues to rise as the injured succumb. By Friday, the national infirmary where the victims of the spontaneous violence were rushed, was reporting five dozen riot-victim admissions and half that number of deaths. Police acknowledged 28 deaths and 577 arrests.
Widespread and shocking as it might have been, the violence in Uganda was not completely unexpected. For months, the major contenders to the throne appeared to be possessed of a death wish. With executive powers, incumbent Yoweri Museveni has made rules that were sure to attract a backlash. Unfazed, an unprecedentedly youthful opposition was determined to challenge the status quo under any circumstances.
The non-profit Human Rights Watch bluntly described the current state of affairs in Uganda as a weaponisation of the Covid-19 pandemic to aid repression. The government has since March introduced many orders to curb the spread of Covid19. But their selective application has angered many and fomented disobedience.
Whatever appellation one chooses, the events in Uganda lay bare a disturbing if self-reinforcing regional trend. With the exception of Rwanda, all elections in East Africa during the past five years have manifested unacceptable levels of violence. For long the haven of peace and orderly transition, Tanzania shocked everybody this year with an election that was completely out of character.
Nearly 28 years after Kenya staged the first multiparty elections in East Africa’s post-independence history, the current contestations represent a resistance to attempts to claw back the gains of democracy. Citizens are pushing the boundaries in a quest to take the democratic transition to the next level. The Old Order is not giving up without a fight.
In a reaction that did not completely surprise those who know him, President Museveni endorsed the actions of his security forces and threatened even more violence. Vaguely blaming foreign forces for the fracas, he vowed to make the opposition regret.
Museveni’s threats must be taken seriously. He has a monopoly over violence and he may have no moral scruples about applying it to his advantage.
That, however, is unlikely to change much. Wednesday’s riots were shocking for their spontaneity and breadth. They also mirrored a social divide and painted an accurate map of discontent. Superimposed over Uganda’s poverty map, it was not surprising that they stopped in Masaka, just 83 miles southwest of Kampala. President Museveni and the region need to step back and revaluate why the youth are restive. East African has some of the youngest populations globally.
Amidst economies performing below population growth, it is not surprising that the youth are angry.
President Museveni’s reaction to youth protest is inimical to the way he should be responding. Protests by the youth are an expression of both anger and a desire to engage. Violent repressions often result in a missed opportunity to engage and find mutually satisfying resolutions.
As the incumbent, President Museveni is squarely responsible for the polarised and militarised politics in Uganda.
For harmony, his self-perception as the custodian of the next generation’s interests, needs to be reconciled with their own vision of that future.