Ugandan Uprising for Food And Fuel
WBAI, 99.5FM-N.Y.C., AfrobeatRadio News feature, broadcast 04.23.2011:
Ugandan opposition leaders have been arrested while peacefully walking to work to protest soaring fuel and food prices that have pushed many Ugandans to the edge of survival. Images of the first Walk to Work protest, on Monday, February 11th, looked much like those of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which resonated throughout the U.S.A. and sparked the African American Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. However, on Thursday, February 14th, police fired tear gas and live ammunition on demonstrators in both Kampala, Uganda’s capitol, and in Gulu, a commercial center in Northern Uganda’s indigenous Acholiland, where three protestors died. By the end of the Thursday, February 21st Walk to Work protests, at least 5 people had been killed, including a 2-year old baby girl killed by police gunfire, and an 18-year-old pregnant woman had been shot in the abdomen.
Norbert Mao and Dr. Kizza Besigye, two of the three opposition leaders who ran against President Yoweri Museveni in February’s presidential elections, are now in Uganda’s Nakasongola Prison, where opposition leaders Anne Mugisha and Olara Otunnu have not been allowed to see them.
AfrobeatRadio/Ann Garrison: Commonwealth observers reported multiple voting irregularities, voter intimidation by the military, and widespread voter bribery in Uganda’s February elections. Some observers then predicted uprisings like those in North Africa, but protests were quickly contained by the Ugandan Police, which has since banned demonstrations and used force to stop them.
Almost as soon as the election was over, fuel prices soared, triggering steep hikes in the price of basic necessities like soap, rice, and cooking oil. Opposition leader Anne Mugisha explained what the food and fuel price hikes have meant for the majority of Ugandans:
Anne Mugisha: The price of essential household items have become unaffordable for most Ugandans. The price hikes have meant that children cannot pay their school fees, and schools cannot give school children enough food. People who want to save a little money for a meal at the end of the day can only walk to work. Now this has inspired middle class Ugandans to walk to work, and walk to church in solidarity with all those Ugandans suffering because of high inflation. It was a simple way of demanding that the government intervene to lighten their burden.
AfrobeatRadio: You’ve said that President Yoweri Museveni already triggered inflation by printing money to buy votes in the February election. And that he just spent 740 million dollars, 25% of Uganda’s annual budget, on jet fighter bombers, and that he’s now preparing to spend 12 million dollars on his inauguration. Given all this, what would you ask him to do about food and fuel prices now?
Anne Mugisha: Well, if he can’t sell the jet fighter bombers back, he could at least spend a lot less than $12 million on his inauguration while some poor Ugandans are eating termites in desperation. All this fighter bomber jet and inauguration money should be going to buy food and fuel reserves so that Ugandans would not be so vulnerable to global price fluctuation. He should reduce Uganda’s fuel taxes, which are the highest in the region. They drive up the cost of everything, including food.
Ann Garrison: Uganda Daily Monitor editor Charles Mwangyusha spoke to AfrobeatRadio about government pressure on the media, and about why Ugandan agriculture is failing to feed the Ugandan people.
Ann Garrison: Could you tell us about the attempts to restrict the Facebook and Twitter accounts?
Charles Mwanguhya: We have gotten access to a letter that was written by the Uganda Communications Commission, written on the second day of the Walk to Work protests against high fuel and food prices. The letter was addressed to Internet service providers and it was specifically asking them to switch off access to Facebook and Twitter for at least 24 hours, starting at 3:30 our time, in East Africa, which is plus 3 GMT, for at least 24 hours, to avoid inflaming what was going on and they were saying that this was because of security concerns.
Ann Garrison: And what about pressure on your newspaper, your great newspaper, the Daily Monitor, and the broadcast outlets, including NTV-Uganda?
Charles Mwanguhya: It is not just about the Monitor and the NTV. It’s about all media outlets, including print, electronic, radio and TV. Government has been quite embarrassed by one end of the security forces, especially the military police, who have been beating up, brutally, some of the demonstrators, including those that have already been subdued, or surrendered.
We have seen complaints, especially coming to the Monitor, from the government media center, saying on Saturday, the Monitor ran three pages of commentary of readers, and that the government was uncomfortable that most of the contributors were from the opposition. Now, the challenge is that you want to restrict an opinion simply because you haven’t got any counter opinion from the government side.
Ann Garrison: Well, the government has its own newspaper, doesn’t it, The New Vision?
Charles Mwanguhya: Yes, the government has The New Vision, which is not just a newspaper, but has a big network of other media outlets, including television and radio spread out across the country. The government also has a government broadcaster which is the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation. Yesterday, President Museveni went to one of these outlets, the local language TV and radio channel, and spent hours trying to explain what is going on about these Walk to Work demonstrations. The major point from him is that these are not mere demonstrations; it’s a plan by the opposition to replicate what happened in Arab North Africa, especially Egypt and Tunisia.
Ann Garrison: How serious do you think this could get?
Charles Mwanguhya: It’s difficult to tell at this stage. Government is clearly in a panic mode, because it also doesn’t know where this will all end. For the first time in Uganda, you have had the opposition to rally around an issue that is not mere politics, that touches ordinary lives regardless of whether you support the ruling party or support the opposition. The Walk to Work campaign over high fuel and food prices is something that cuts across and concerns everybody. So government doesn’t really know how to react. And the fact that they have spread out beyond the capitol Kampala puts government under considerable pressure, so we will just have to wait and see.
Ann Garrison: You said that some sort of agricultural cooperatives Could you elaborate on that?
Charles Mwanguhya: Yes, there used to be very strong cooperative movements in this country before President Museveni took over power in 1986. One of the groups that still survives is the group that is producing Arabica coffee in eastern Uganda, the Bugisu Cooperative Union. You had these dealing with milk and beef production. You had others involved in coffee production, others involved in other crops that were being produced at a large scale—coordinated farmers that were able to survive and supply markets. Now those have been destroyed. Some experts here have said that, if the cooperative movement had been allowed to thrive, it would have been able to move from just organizing farmers to produce and sell together, to adding value to what they produce and also increase on the volumes that they produce.
Ann Garrison: Why were the existing cooperatives destroyed after Museveni took power?
Charles Mwanguhya: Because they were strong political forces on their own. To manage an African country, you need people who are disempowered, and I think President Museveni was worried about economically independent individuals that were organized into groups under the cooperative movement because there you have to be with group interests, not individual interests. If people are disempowered and disunited, then you can easily manipulate them.