Today Uganda celebrated 50 years of freedom from British colonial rule with a large, militaristic ceremony in the capital Kampala. In attendance was Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, plus 11 heads of state from across the continent and Britain’s Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who attended the original independence ceremony in 1962.
The president inspected a smartly-dressed guard of honour, speeches were made lauding Uganda’s progress, and crowds cheered with delight as Uganda’s small fleet of military jetfighters swept overhead, leaving trails of exhaust in the colours of the national flag.
But for opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his many supporters, there is no freedom to celebrate. Besigye’s house is surrounded by police. Police deny he is under any kind of arrest, but they are not allowing him to go anywhere. Kampala’s vociferous mayor, Erias Lukwago, is also stuck at his home, surrounded by police.
Besigye and Lukwago were both arrested and cautioned last week for defying a government ban on demonstrations ahead of the independence celebration. They have been involved in anti-government demonstrations since April last year, and have both been arrested on several occasions.
Last Thursday, the two opposition politicians simply travelled into central Kampala, attracting large crowds of supporters, which were promptly broken up by police using tear gas and live bullets. About 70 people were injured in the unrest, four of them with gunshot wounds.
The government and police say the opposition are stirring up unrest to gain political capital at a time when Ugandans should be peacefully celebrating. Besigye and his followers say they are being blocked from exercising basic constitutional rights to assembly because the government, and in particular President Museveni, is scared of the threat demonstrations pose to his 26-year rule.
Presidential elections were held in February 2011, which international observers criticised for being “commercialised”. On the ground, officials from the ruling NRM party visibly handed out cash for support. The opposition claimed the election was unfair and that Museveni’s victory was therefore illegitimate. However the elections passed peacefully, and turnout was low – many Ugandans appeared uninterested.
That all changed two months later, in April 2011, when thousands of protesters, led by Besigye, attended anti-government ‘Walk-to-Work’ protests over rising fuel and food prices. The demonstrations were met with a violent response from the police and military.
Besigye and the opposition have been holding anti-government demonstrations on and off ever since, albeit now with visibly less support than they drew during the heat of election year.
Uganda has successfully shaken off the exploitation of colonialism, and the turmoil of the subsequent regimes of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. Since 1986 there has been stable government under the rule of President Museveni, but opposition and human rights groups say that any dissenting voices are being increasingly squeezed. Since the late 1990s, the economy has boomed, and the population has too.
As Uganda celebrates 50 years of freedom from colonial rule, many Ugandans are living in relative peace and with slightly more money in their pockets than they had known in the past. But for political opposition and those who chose to criticise the current regime, the freedom they desire is still a distant dream.