Another Day in the Ugandan Police State

Kampala can be a tough place to be a dissenter. In the weeks before I arrived, there was quite a dust-up when the government shut down the country’s leading newspaper, The Monitor, along with other media outlets after a news story broke about government plans to ensure that President Museveni’s son succeeded him. You can read good summaries about the shut-down here and here.

The radio stations I’ve been researching up north have largely escaped this type of media crackdown, mostly because the programs I’m studying – come home messaging – helps the military by encouraging rebels to surrender, and the messaging is very pro-UPDF, labeling the campaign against the LRA as “a rescue mission.” But it hasn’t always been good: in the mid-2000s Mega FM faced intimidation after allowing LRA leader Joseph Kony to call in to a weekly debate show to discuss the war with civil society leaders and government officials. Broadly, though, respondents have told me they don’t worry about government interference, mostly because their work is part of the broader government project concerning the LRA.

But when it comes to dissent, the government’s response is more similar to the recent media clash. Yesterday, all hell broke loose in Kiseka Market (I was far away, concerned family and friends) when the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, waved at people from his car. Seriously. He waved at people, and it led to tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. According to police, he was planning on holding a rally.

Speaking of rallies, there’s not really anywhere to hold one anymore. There was a recent piece in AP about Kampala’s Constitution Square that’s worth a read. Here are some snippets:

The square’s popularity with opposition activists peaked ahead of presidential elections in 2011, around the same time Cairo’s Tahrir Square was becoming famous around the world as the center of popular protests against Hosni Mubarak. Since then Constitution Square has been closed to the public despite the protests of some lawyers and activists who say such action is illegal as well as unconstitutional.

[…]

Uganda’s parliament, which is dominated by lawmakers with the ruling party, is considering a bill that would make it hard for opposition politicians to hold meetings or rallies that the state does not want. The draft legislation -dubbed the Public Order Management Bill – assigns the police chief unprecedented powers to regulate public gatherings. Accordingly, public spaces such as Constitution Square will become officially off-limits to the general public.

“It must not be a place for idlers,” said Andrew Kaweesi, the top police commander for Kampala, referring to Constitution Square. “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.”

That last bit is just jaw-dropping. That people need to justify the desire to be in public in groups. Because the police must maintain order. I think that quote is emblematic of the global repression problem we’re having now, and it’s terrible to see up front.

I’ve walked by Constitution Square twice – yesterday and today – and both times it’s been completely closed off. There’s a police tow truck and two big police vans parked along the street. And an armored vehicle was there today. There’s nobody trying to get in, but the police station – across the street – has deployed 20-30 police officers anyways. And on the pristine lawn are about they are all lounging about, chatting and enjoying the sun. A few are standing around in riot gear, one had a half dozen of what looked to be tear gas grenades hanging from his vest, but most are laying in the grass. If you had a picnic party and the theme was blue camo, that’s what I saw. But why should those police officers be there as a group in the first place? The place must be free.

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