Uganda: How Governments Have Dealt With Political Dissent Since Independence

Last week, the government came up with the kind of announcement that, these days, causes more amusement than alarm.

It was announced that henceforth, anybody seen wearing a red beret will be arrested.

The red beret is a cap worn by the army's police, or Military Police. Since mid-2018, the red beret has also been the official cap of the Opposition pressure group, People Power.

It was obvious whom the new decree targeted.

For more than a year now, People Power activists and leaders have worn the red beret in full public view during their official events, campaigns and protest marches.

Not a single voice was raised in government circles over this choice of head gear.

People Power was dismissed by the ruling NRM party as lacking ideas and competencies for running a country. Nobody drew attention to the illegality of their red beret.

So why this action, and why now?

It would seem that after acting as though People Power was at best a novel youth group that posed little threat to the NRM, subsequent political intelligence has brought it to the NRM's notice that People Power has much more support across the country than the NRM at first thought.

Grasping after straws

It is grasping after straws. People Power can just as easily switch to the cowboy hat or, even easier, to red baseball caps branded with their People Power logo.

The power is not in the specific design of cap, but in the symbolism.

Since this is the week during which Uganda marks its 57th independence anniversary, a journey back in time could put the ban on People Power's beret into context.

This is just one in a long list of draconian actions taken by various Uganda governments when they have run out of imaginative ways of engaging with the public or responding to political questions and pressure.

The government deployed the army to the Buganda royal palace in May 1966 to put down unrest in Buganda, abolished the traditional kingdoms altogether in September 1967, and imposed a state of emergency in Buganda in 1969.

Rajat Neogy, editor of the intellectual magazine Transition was arrested and jailed in 1968 by the Uganda government after a series of articles critical of the rule of president Milton Obote.

Upon taking power in January 1971, the army suspended all political party activities.

In 1981, the UPC government recently back in power resumed its old ways, banning five newspapers critical of the government.

During the 1980-1985 period it was in power, the UPC government tolerated the existence of the Opposition DP party, but publicly ridiculed its leader Dr Paulo Kawanga Ssemogerere and other party officials.

Soon after the NRM government came to power, it banned a newspaper called the Weekend Digest, owned by journalist Jesse Mashate.

A few weeks earlier, in what came to be Legal Notice No. 1 of March 1986, the new government banned all multi-party political activities.

Following the 2001 general election, Opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye fled into exile in South Africa from where he returned in October 2005 and to years of harassment by the State.

Daily Monitor, long viewed by the NRM government as hostile to it, was not exactly banned in 1993 but following a news article on the-then vice president Dr Samson Kisekka, ordered an advertising ban on the paper by all government ministries and departments.

The paper was twice shut down, in October 2002 and May 2013, only to re-open later.

Following the riots in Kampala and several Buganda towns and townships in September 2009, four private radio stations were closed but later re-opened, with the Buganda kingdom-owned CBS FM remaining shut for more than a year.

These and many more examples, too many to narrate, should shed light on the latest pronouncement on the People Power beret.

Not resolved

Uganda's political class has never found a way to resolve two things: The first, how to peacefully hand over power from one head of State to another, and second, how to accommodate the Opposition as an essential part of national political life.

Addressing the nation during his first swearing-in ceremony as President on January 29, 1986, Yoweri Museveni declared that "Any individual, any group or person who threatens the security of our people must be smashed without mercy."

On this, Museveni has been consistent over the last 33 years.

In a nutshell, the country's political culture is still underdeveloped. But when political culture is immature, it suggests that the culture in general is still undeveloped.

A certain philosophical outlook is required for a society to develop a mature political culture.

Following his defeat in 1991 in a general election to the labour union leader Frederick Chiluba, Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda said: "You win some, you lose some. That's politics."

One has to be circumspective enough to see the logic in such an attitude. The question some might ask, then, is why it took Kaunda more than 24 years to see this after having declared Zambia a one-party state years earlier.

The one-party state idea and mindset still runs through most African countries. Why the state is so attractive in Africa

This is because politics is not just one of those things in an underdeveloped country.

Most African economies are, for all intents and purposes, still centrally-planned and Socialist in operation.

The State is the largest producer, consumer, debtor and advertiser in the economy.

There are few institutions that consume as much fuel as the police and the army, few companies or organisations that can book say a 40-man trip by air as the State when booking a ministerial or parliamentary delegation or a national sporting team with its officials.

Where there is little meaningful economic activity outside of the State politics becomes nearly a life-and-death matter.

Only the State can secure a loan to build or expand an airport, build electric power dams or highways linking various towns.

Only the State can print or mint currency notes and coins, issue passports, arrange for national student exams and other operations that are national in nature.

Only the State can place full-page advertisements in newspapers without much concern, if a message must be delivered to the public.

And as Uganda, Kenya and other African countries have shown over the last decade, only the State via Parliament can pay relatively high and extravagant salaries such as what Members of Parliament earn.

Only the State can do such things, because it sits on the receiving end of taxes, getting passive income simply for being the State.

As a rent agent (for that's what taxes really are), the State can spend other people's hard-earned money without personally feeling it or being held to account for it.

The poorer a country or region, the bigger in proportion the State is and therefore the higher the stakes that go with controlling the State.

The president is not just the head of State in poor, underdeveloped countries. He or she is the main social superstar.

To take two examples, in both Uganda and Rwanda the person with the largest number of followers on the social media platform Twitter is the president of the republic.

Twitter is a free platform to use, outside of government control and so it is not that the large following by both presidents of Rwanda and Uganda is mandatory and State-enforced.

The reason for their nation-leading Twitter following is because they dominate national life, in visibility, power, prestige and name recognition.

This is what makes power so attractive in the Third World. The State offers a degree of luxury that few other areas of life offer.

With this background, we can better understand why those opposition politicians and parties that seek to take power are so rigorously fought off with every means possible.

Weakness of Opposition and civil society

Just as the State has been pervasive and authoritarian since independence, the bodies, institutions and individuals who were meant to check its powers and excesses have been weak and poorly organised.

Practically every major change of government since 1962 has been by force, most of it directly involving foreign powers and interests as Ugandans watched helplessly or indifferently.

The British and Israelis were at the centre of the 1971 military coup, the British funded Tanzania's 1978-1979 war that ousted Idi Amin, pressure from Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere was partly behind the removal of presidents Yusuf Lule and Godfrey Binaisa in 1979 and 1980.

According to Obote, in a series published by Daily Monitor in 2005, the July 1985 coup that overthrew him was masterminded by the British and several external forces, such as the British and Tanzania helped the NRA seize State power in January 1986 (which is partly why the NRM government is very careful not to confront the British and Americans).

Thus, the Ugandan situation since independence has been of a weak State but which is all-powerful relative to the population, with weak and poorly organised bodies to check and balance its power and all decisive changes of government planned or funded from abroad.

In response to the ban on the red beret, People Power leader Bobi Wine has, in classic Ugandan tradition, had to appeal to international opinion and media coverage as Ugandans watch the latest developments passively.

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