KAMPALA, Uganda — Hunched forward on a wooden bench, a white cloth pressed to his eyes, Uganda’s main opposition leader Kizza Besigye appeared in court this afternoon after his fourth arrest in recent weeks for leading “walk to work” protests over the rising cost of living.
President Yoweri Museveni, who in February won an election to extend his 25-year rule, has banned all protests after Besigye called for an “Egypt-style” revolution. Museveni has ordered his security forces to crack down hard on any unrest.
Thursday’s was the most violent arrest yet and put a sudden end to a peaceful standoff between Besigye and dozens of police in riot gear that had clogged traffic in downtown Kampala for hours.
Two security men in plain clothes appeared from the crowd and smashed in the rear windows of Besigye’s SUV using a hammer and the butt of a pistol. They sprayed cans of tear gas into the car before dragging the opposition politician out and bundling him into a waiting pick-up truck. Police fired tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd of his supporters. It was over in a matter of minutes.
Afterward the commanding police officer insisted that the men had used “appropriate force,” a claim dismissed by human rights activists.
“Today’s arrest is another troubling example of the use of excessive force by security forces,” said Maria Burnett, Uganda researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
At least five people have so far died as police and soldiers have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to break up protest marches by unarmed civilians, leading to criticism from Washington this week. The United States, Uganda’s single largest foreign donor, said it was “troubled” by the actions of Uganda’s security forces.
“Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights and a critical component of democracy,” said Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman.
Besigye was taken to a police station close to his home in the suburb of Kasangati and then to the local magistrate court where he was released on bail until May 2 in order to visit a specialist eye doctor.
Besigye, a doctor, was Museveni's personal physician and friend, back in the 1980s but broke away from the president, charging that he had lost his way and was corrupt. Since then Besigye has challenged Museveni for president in the elections in 2001, 2006 and 2011.
This month Besigye launched the "walk to work" protests against the Museveni government.
“I am walking in solidarity with millions of Ugandans who cannot afford public transport, who cannot afford a meal a day,” he said as he tramped down a muddy track from his house in the drizzle.
High fuel prices and inflation across the continent have made life tougher than usual for Uganda’s 35 million people, many of whom are mired in poverty. Besigye blames the policies of the Museveni government.
“The circumstances that have led to this socio-economic crisis [are] the wrong priorities of government, the abuse of office and corruption in government, the insensitivity of the state to the needs of the ordinary people,” he said.
After Besigye walked just a few hundred yards, police blocked his way and forced him to drive to town instead. As he did young men from the poor suburbs began to run alongside his car, which was shadowed by pick-up trucks full of riot police.
A standoff began when police again blocked Besigye’s route. The opposition leader poked his head out of the car’s sunroof from time to time to speak to journalists or wave at supporters. It seemed as if the police had the situation under control, until the sudden appearance of the plain clothes men.
Besigye’s fourth arrest came just one day after he had been released on bail by another court in which he was charged with unlawful assembly and inciting violence. On Wednesday evening thousands of people lined a road running into the capital, Kampala, to welcome him.
A convoy of vehicles and motorbikes hooting horns and weaving precariously through the traffic and the darkness signalled the return of a politician who seems more popular now than he did in February’s elections when he won just 26 percent of the vote.
But by Thursday evening the euphoria of the previous night had been bludgeoned out of Besigye supporters.
“The government knows Besigye has support and they see what is happening in those Arabian countries so they have to shut him down as quickly as possible,” said Bill Ssekikubo, a morose-looking 30-year-old motorbike taxi driver who voted for Besigye in February.
“There is no more freedom here," he said. "They don’t let you speak your mind.”