Starting late last year, Tunisia, then Algeria, then Egypt and eventually the Middle East were engulfed by major political unrest. Two regimes collapsed, several barely hang onto power, and much remains uncertain across the region.
Many analysts wondered why the tide of protests across the Arab world were not spreading to tropical, black Africa, a region itself beset by many of the political problems in North Africa. So it comes as a surprise that Uganda has become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to take the first tentative steps in the direction of Tunisia.
Certainly, that is the way the local and international media especially are interpreting events since the start on April 11 of the “Walk-to-Work” protests by a coalition of opposition parties and operatives, the Activists4Change (A4C).
Two weeks after the election, FDC president Kizza Besigye and UPC president Olara Otunnu had a meeting and addressed a joint press conference at the Sharing Hall at Nsambya in Kampala, where they called on Ugandans to rise up en masse against the Museveni regime. Nothing happened.
Two weeks later, Otunnu and the former independent presidential candidate Samuel Lubega staged a walk through Kampala in protest at the election results. It was a feeble effort but in it there was a sign of things to come.
Riot police deployed heavily around Kisekka market. Youths hurled stones at them, businesses in the area were hastily shut down, some protesters were arrested, and Lubega and Otunnu briefly made news headlines.
Meanwhile the FDC, angry that their attempt to tally their own election results in February had been sabotaged by the government, with what the FDC charged was the connivance of the mobile phone company MTN, the party met at their headquarters at Najjanankumbi along the Kampala-Entebbe highway and announced a boycott of MTN.
Even this effort largely failed to achieve anything. Whatever the opposition tried out after the election seemed like a pathetic attempt, doomed to failure.
So when the A4C announced the “walk-to-work” campaign on April 8, 2011, most commentators quietly dismissed it as one of many post-election efforts by an opposition desperately trying to remain relevant after their resounding election defeat.
By the beginning of May, not only had the Walk-to-Work campaign continued, it had actually become the longest-running civil disobedience campaign since independence in 1962.
Where previous demonstrations since 1991 had lasted a day or at most three, the walk-to-work campaign had lasted a month, itself a new national record.
Furthermore, one of the greatest areas of frustration in opposition politics since 2005 had been the inability to form a united front. Every time inter-party cooperation was announced, either it resulted in a dominant party joined by a handful of weak parties or the talks broke down altogether.
Most surprisingly, then, the Walk-to-Work protests, with no immediate prospect of an election and viewed as most likely to fail, became the one theme around which the Ugandan opposition finally managed to unite and effortlessly so.
By Ugandan standards, April and May 2011 have been remarkable in the national politics. What many Ugandans and detached observers are now asking is, can these protests be sustained and what is their medium-to long-term effect?
What differentiates the Ugandan protests from those in North Africa is that to the sense of political bitterness rife in Uganda has been added an immediate economic crisis, fueled by inflation.
But there are other notable differences that set Uganda apart from North Africa. This includes the absence of universally available free or low cost public healthcare, the collapse of the national school system and the increasing amount of fees that families must pay to keep their children at school and a state economic infrastructure that has progressively withered away from the countryside. What little economic activity left is concentrated in the capital Kampala.
Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Morocco might be ruled by autocratic governments, but compared with most of sub-Saharan states have well-developed infrastructure and a fairly high per-capita income. Television images of vast public squares and boulevards alone of the surroundings in which the Arab crowds have been protesting show an entirely different picture from Uganda.
In short, Uganda has seen the basic social and economic pillars of economic stability and public well-being eroded or collapse since the mid 1990s.
The crisis facing Uganda is an accumulation of years of mismanagement swept under the carpet by both the NRM government and the western donors who fund much of the human and economic activity that keeps the country afloat. It is systemic and long-term.
An example of the crisis facing ordinary Ugandans is in the area of food, an area in which Uganda is often portrayed as basically secure even in the worst of times.
As one observer noted last month, the description of Uganda as a mainly agricultural economy overlooks the fact that the part that is agricultural is based on cash crops like sugarcane, coffee, tea and vanilla.
“Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, employing over 80% of the work force. Coffee accounts for the bulk of export revenues,” notes the CIA World Factbook section on Uganda.
These crops are the only type in the country that produced on a fairly large-scale commercially. The staple food crops — maize, bananas, millet, cassava, beans, tomatoes, onions, mangoes and carrots — are still predominantly subsistence in production.
This means that as far as the current or future food price inflation is concerned, Uganda in real terms is actually no different from Saudi Arabia or Libya.
To withstand the effects of global inflation, Uganda would have had to be at its absolute best. It should have had fully-functional government hospitals. There should not have been any major roads in Kampala with pot holes. All streets in the city should have been fully lit. The national petroleum reserve tanks in Jinja and Kasese built by the Idi Amin government in the 1970s should have been full.
For the time being, President Museveni’s only options are to try and contain the national unrest by use of the security apparatus. He appears to have recognized that there is no short or medium solution to the problem and if it cannot be dealt with, then better to deal with the resultant anger and rioting.
A hugely symbolic and politically popular move the President could make would be to reduce the State House budget, cut back on the number of ministers and advisors in the next cabinet and somehow create the impression that he is trying to curb the level of patronage in the political system today.
However, this is much easier said than done. The large sums of money that were handed out during the general campaign were an indication that the tasks that face the NRM between now and 2016 is one it is no longer capable of meeting.
Patronage will continue to be an integral part of the NRM’s rule. It has to, if for nothing else just to guarantee a cohesive NRM party and government.
So far during the uproar over inflation, Museveni has at best given vague promises about discussing the problem and at worst, been his usual inflexible and insensitive self.
This means that the next five years, from 2011 to 2016 are guaranteed to be like the previous five. This means that should the opposition wish to foment or ride the wave of public discontent, the conditions will be in place, if not getting more desperate.
Observers who have followed the walking protests will have noticed the high level of international media interest in this campaign. Western journalists were there at each and every point of the walk-to-work campaigns and even during the royal wedding in London on April 29, there was still space on the BBC and Al-Jazeera TV channels for the violent protests in Kampala.
The western embassies in Kampala also got involved in the campaign, to the extent that the government started accusing them of breaching their diplomatic boundaries when they visited Besigye and DP President Norbert Mao in jail.
All western embassy and government statements since the first day of the walking, April 11, called for restraint on the part of the government and condemned the police’s use of excessive force.
What the opposition has going for it this time is the inspiration of North Africa; the lasting images of police and army brutality that have shocked even ardent Museveni and NRM supporters; the reality of a deteriorating economy and the desperation that comes with that; the unexpected ability of the opposition to unite when it really matters; and the surprising development by which the western governments and embassies finally seem to render a more sympathetic ear to the opposition than to their traditional ally since 1986, the NRM government.
This is all leading to new and uncharted waters.