Uganda’s opposition leader was temporarily blinded after police fired pepper spray into his eyes and dragged him from his car at gunpoint, his lawyer said. Kizza Besigye had been leading a fifth round of protests against rising food and fuel prices. With his right hand heavily bandaged after being hit by a rubber bullet at an earlier demonstration, he waved to cheering crowds with his left…
This is the fourth time in three weeks that Besigye, the leader of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and runner-up to Museveni in a disputed February election, has been detained by police over the “walk to work” protests, designed to express solidarity with those who can no longer afford public transport. Museveni, in power for 25 years, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for local fuel costs, and has warned Besigye that his protests will not be tolerated.
Angela Kintu warns not to think “that this protest is about Kizza Besigye:
It is not. His party and mode of opposition entered my ‘Twakoowa’ list long ago. He is not going to win any elections tomorrow and perhaps you should have accidentally shot him in the knees for good measure so he can’t walk tomorrow. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; this protest is about reality, frustration and desperate times. I am buying a litre of Ugandan made and grown cooking oil for sh6,500. I am paying sh3,600 for a litre of fuel. A tomato has gone up to sh300 at the very least. I don’t know about you, but that is breaking my budget. No one is paying me any more money for my work – in fact, I am chasing debtors left, right and centre. In one short week, Easter and school holidays will be upon me. Three short weeks after that, I must rustle up school fees and requirements.
See also Andrew Mwenda, and Rosebell Kagumire; the latter reports that “President Museveni has gone to the extent of swearing to eat his opponents like samosas.” Or just go straight to Global Voices. The World Bank gives some numbers on the inflation and rising food and fuel costs that are setting the stage.
Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event. The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.
My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?
In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.
This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.
To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa. I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle. This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.
The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression. Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black…
Read the whole thing. Mamdani literally wrote the book on political ethnicity in sub-saharan Africa.