analysisBy Simon Allison
Johannesburg — Two major opposition leaders were arrested in Uganda in the build-up to the Golden Jubilee celebrations, which is par for the course in a country where stifling expression has kept the president in power for 26 years. Some are wondering what exactly Uganda is celebrating.
Dr Kizza Besigye gets arrested regularly. It's an occupational hazard, you could say, for the biggest name in Uganda's opposition movement.
Ever since he defected from the ruling National Resistance Movement - where he was once a cabinet minister and personal doctor to the president - to start his own political party, he has been a thorn in the government's side and the subject of regular attempts to stifle opposition.
His latest spell in Kampala Central Prison began on Monday, when he was picked up in the capital's Kiseka Market while attempting to lead the first of several planned protests against the rule of long-serving President Yoweri Museveni. Security forces had earlier surrounded his home and attempted to prevent him from even attending the planned rally; Besigye, however, was too cunning for them, and was able to slip past their porous cordon.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Kampala, Erias Lukwago, was suffering a similar fate. He too had earlier in the day brushed aside security officials, angrily telling them to put down their weapons before driving off to a major taxi rank, where he was planning on doing his bit to encourage anti-government sentiment.
Neither Besigye nor Lukwago were permitted to complete their speeches before security officers bundled them away; a typical government response to any kind of popular unrest.
The government has good reason to be nervous. Besigye and Lukwago are both influential politicians with huge followings, as even the state-run New Vision newspaper acknowledges, and they're both part of a broader opposition umbrella movement popularly known as 4GC ('For God and My Country', a neat appropriation of Uganda's national motto).
4GC is the political successor to Action for Change, the opposition coalition comprised of many of the same names and faces that organized the enormously successful "walk to work" protests last year, where tens of thousands of Kampalans took to the streets in peaceful protest.
Action for Change was deemed to be "dangerous to the peace and order in Uganda" and banned by a very nervous government, a decision condemned by Human Rights Watch as "deeply troubling".
In general, an opposition coalition is the worst nightmare of any autocrat, who inevitably relies on "divide and rule" to keep the population in check. Just ask would-be President-for-Life Abdoulaye Wade, who unexpectedly lost Senegalese elections after a group of opposition parties banded together under the banner of the M23 movement and proved irresistible at the polls.
Compounding Museveni's concerns is the timing of 4GC's planned week of protests and strikes, which is no coincidence. Just one short week away, on 9 October, is Uganda's Golden Jubilee, celebrating the 50th year of its independence from Britain. Huge celebrations are planned to commemorate the occasion, and the government hopes the resulting public goodwill will boost Museveni's popularity (in much the same was as Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee this year created a groundswell of support for the monarchy).
"As you are aware, the country is busy preparing for the Golden Independence Jubilee, and as earlier advised, it is of paramount importance to scale down on such activities and gatherings in order to afford opportunity to concentrate on preparation for the national event without interference," said Kampala Police Chief Andrew Kawesa, justifying the arrests of Besigye and Lukwago. The chief may be confusing national "paramount importance" with somewhat the somewhat narrower political interests of his bosses. "We cannot entertain illegal rallies. We advised them not to hold any rallies until after October 9th. Whoever tries to address a rally will be arrested."
Such heavy-handed tactics aren't doing the government's cause much good.
An editorial in the independent Daily Monitor remarked that, in anticipation of the jubilee, there was a distinct lack of celebratory mood on the streets of Kampala. The paper wasn't shy to explain why: "While we should now be demonstrating to the world our political, economic and social gains of the past 50 years of independence, we instead see political polarisation where state apparatus are being used recklessly to squeeze space for people with dissenting views."
Still, this tight grip on political expression is one of the reasons that Yoweri Museveni has remained in power since 1986, and the president is unlikely to fix what hasn't broken. Besigye should expect to see the inside a few more prison cells before anything really changes.