KAMPALA – The recent crackdown on pro “Free Bobi Wine” protesters in Kampala is not a sign of President Yoweri Museveni’s strength but vulnerability. This crackdown is being conducted by the police reinforced by the army. The soldiers have been excessively arbitrary, not distinguishing protesters from journalists. They brutally assault anyone they can land their brutal fingers on.
In one video, our former photo editor at The Independent, James Akena, who is also a personal friend to me is seen with his hands up in show of surrender as UPDF soldiers pound him with sticks (enkoni) as if he is a sack of potatoes. I have since called and talked to James and he told me he is still in excruciating pain. This blatant abuse of power is unacceptable! Will the president condemn these actions and bring the perpetrators to book?
Yet these protests are not as massive and as widespread around the country as the Walk to Work protests that engulfed Kampala and other towns of Uganda in mid-2011. So why is the state reacting with unprecedented panic, arbitrariness, and brutality?
The first reason is the huge hole created by the removal of Gen. Kale Kayihura as Inspector General of Police (IGP). This was made worse by the dismantling of the security and civic infrastructure he had put in place to detect and contain such protests.
Kayihura understood that these protests are primarily political. His response was therefore primarily to counter-mobilize politically. He had an understanding of trouble spots in Kampala and built a robust civil intelligence network to detect potential trouble and a strategy to reach out to leaders of these protests and literally buy them off. So most protests were nipped in the bud.
Where he could not nip them in the bud, Kayihura would plant his own civilian allies among the protesters. These would identify troublemakers and ringleaders and hand them over to police. He also ensured that protesters are handled while minimizing harm to bystanders and not assaulting journalists.
In doing this, Kayihura made mistakes, many of which were imposed on him by circumstances. He organized groups like Boda Boda 2010, which had criminal elements in its ranks. But they were highly effective in helping him contain protests in the city. So he had to make a tradeoff for which he is paying dearly. But this was not done for his personal gain but for the collective good of the government he served.
Secondly, he saw himself foremost as a National Resistance Movement (NRM) cadre, not as an IGP. He, therefore, defined his duty in a partisan way ie to strengthen and consolidate the NRM and Museveni’s power. This led him to divert his personal attention and police resources from strictly crime prevention and containment to reinforcing the ruling party’s fledging position not only in Kampala but the entire country. The opposition, therefore, hated him for the right reasons.
Kayihura did all this because the NRM is an empty shell. Its ability to function depends almost entirely on the state for both financial and human resources. It has little organizational infrastructure of its own to counter-mobilize against the opposition. Kayihura, therefore, assumed the role of Secretary General of the NRM, did the work of its Secretary for Mass Mobilization and at the same time acted as its Secretary for Youths.
Take the example of the elections in Arua which caused the current insurrection. Kayihura would have camped in the town for two weeks. He would have studied the mood there and infiltrated every group. He would have therefore been in possession of information about the planning of any trouble. He would, for example, have known about the stone-throwing mob along the route the president took and would have dispersed it long before the president passed by.
As a leader, Kayihura would have been visible everywhere, talking to ordinary people, giving interviews to the mass media, personally directing operations and taking full blame of and responsibility for the actions of the state. Yet Kayihura was hounded out of office as a villain and not as a hero. Worse still all the people he worked within the service of the NRM and the president were either fired or have been sent to jail.
That has set the example of how this government treats those who serve it with dedication and loyalty. It also explains why no one, including those who fought Kayihura, is willing to risk anything to save the smoldering edifice of this government. Finally, it explains why, when the state let the military loose on the people, there was no one to take care of the image of the government.
For the last one week, Museveni has alone issued numerous public statements about the situation as it unfolds. That it is now the president who issues statements on the matter is telling. He has become his own press secretary, the army spokesman, communications minister, police public relations officer, and director of the media center etc. This is a tragic situation of government by one man.
The tragedy of the Museveni government in the evening of its life is that no one believes in it or the president anymore. Only Kayihura did. Most people gave up on it long ago. No one cares about its image except the president. Yet his own understanding of image management is poor. No one is willing to fight for it or to defend it. Those who would like his minister for communication are powerless to act.
It is ironic that in spite of this, opposition activists make wild claims that Museveni has paid or pays many people to speak for him. If such allegations are true, then whoever Museveni pays, he must be paying the wrong people. Last financial year State House spent Shs 300 billion on “donations.” Yet there is no one online or elsewhere fighting for the president. The few who do and whom I know have not met Museveni and support him purely out of personal conviction.
Meanwhile, government officials seem too busy involved in the anarchical grabbing of public resources and squabbling among themselves over their loot to find time to defend the government or Museveni. It looks like the last days of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko of former Zaire.
It is therefore tragic that even in such moments of great opportunity, Uganda’s opposition activists are busy looking for real and imaginary enemies to fight rather than allies to win over to built a broad and united front of resistnce. They spread myths about Museveni’s large network of moles inside their ranks and retainers all over political society . This only helps the president, projecting him as strong and invincible while spreading suspicion and mistrust in opposition ranks. This makes it difficult to build a broad coalition of opposition to Museveni.
More than Museveni’s strength, it is the utter stupidity, intolerance, virulence, self righteousness and divisive politics of the opposition that sustains Museveni, the NRM and the government. This is a group that lacks strategy, does not reflect and is intolerant to all criticism however well intentioned and constructive. That is the tragedy of Uganda. Museveni’s government may be in disarray but it won’t fall. Reason? The opposition are propping it up.