After the arrests of opposition leaders Patrick Oboi Amuriat and Bobi Wine on 18th November 2020, widespread protests erupted all over in Uganda for 3 days. Furthermore, Ugandan diaspora protested in other countries such as Canada, Netherlands, Kenya as well, while #freebobiwine was shared by leaders such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But the strongest protest took place in central Kampala, which became the scene of frustrated and increasingly angry youth. These youth expressed their anger with burning tires on the streets, and tearing down symbols of the military NRM regime. The state quickly responded with brute force.
This was done through heavy deployment of the Uganda Police Force (UPF), and by unleashing non-uniformed local defense units (LDU’s) who have become increasingly violent during the corona epidemic in the last months. These LDU’s are heavily armed, seemingly uncontrolled, and claiming to be licenced to kill. Through a hail of bullets, killing protesters and innocent bystanders indiscriminately, the marginalized youth saw no other choice than to response with limited acts violence of their own, such as throwing stones and destruction.
Within some incidents, a simmering Buganda ethnic tension resurfaced, who started to rob and intimidate non-Buganda civilians. Although only few incidents, this increased fear among many other elements within society and expats, and played into the hands of the regime, who branded the protesters as ‘NUP hooligans’, even though 90% of the protest did not use violence themselves. This article will delve into why these protests, in particular in Kampala, turned violent, and how it can be prevented.
Although Ugandan opposition parties have consistently preached nonviolence, the regime have consistently responded to peaceful actions with extreme violence. Therefore, there is a real danger for explosions of violence among marginalized youth both in urban and rural settings when the status quo remains. In order to understand why the protests became so widespread among youth, and why it turned violent, two concepts are crucial are understand. The first is ‘identification’, and the second is ‘political society’.
Bobi Wine is just one person. But throughout the lives of youth in Uganda, who form 78% of the population, he has been a present factor using his platform as a musician to speak out against social injustice. His own roots within the marginalized youth, the so-called ‘outcasts’, led to his rise as the ‘Ghetto President’. A leader of those in the ghetto. When he contested for Member of Parliament in Kyadondo East, this campaign led to the ‘People Power movement’. For the first time, youth saw one of their own stand up, facing oppression, hopelessness, and their desperate cry for change. In this process, Bobi Wine became more than a person. He became the personification of Ugandan youth itself.
Therefore, his identity turned into a symbol. His continued defiance to the regime, who turned unable to stop his rise, made him a living legend among many of those who live in the ghetto. Therefore, when he is arrested, for them, it feels as if they themselves are arrested. For them, Bobi Wine became their voice of the voiceless.
They do not care about his academic or intellectual excellence. They have no problem with less articulated messages, as he speaks their language. As no other before him, they feel united by him as their symbol. He drafted political messages preached by other legends such as Dr. Kizza Besigye and Patrick Oboi Amuriat towards what his audience understand and identifies with best: through music. In this process of communication to the youth, simple symbolic messaging and acts are most important.
In most contemporary African countries there are four groups in society: national elite, civil society, rural society, and political society. In contrast to the well-known concept of civil society, organized in groups such as student associations, labour unions, religious communities, and many other NGOs groups, political society live at the most marginalized edge of society. In order words, political society are the urban lower class.
They are the ones facing extreme unemployment, poverty, and their focus is on daily survival. They have only two relations to the state: complete neglect, or extreme violence. Often they are neglected, increasing their marginalization. In contrast to civil society, who might be critical or in communication with the state in favour of reforms, the political society demands are always only met with brute violence.
Because of their extreme poverty short-term thinking within a survival mindset guides their actions. This makes NRM bribery of votes for small things like food or 5.000 ugs effective, a thing called ‘kitu-kidogo’, something small, something the NRM regime has effectively used to corrupt their political engagement.
On their own, political society can be easily oppressed through a combination of brute force and short-term economic benefits. As the constant language they have received from the state when they demand for change is brutal violence, the only method they know in their interaction with the state is violence of their own (Branch & Mampilly 2015). This is a strong difference from civil society protesting in Western countries, to which this sort of police brutality would be unthinkable.
Ugandan protests, 18-20 November
So when Bobi Wine and Patrick Oboi Amuriat were, they felt they themselves were arrested. They went to the streets and demanded change through the only language they know in relation to the state: acts of sabotage, burning fires, tearing down NRM symbols, throwing stones, and occupying public spaces through protest and occupation. As they are not organized by experienced protest veterans trained in nonviolent protest (such as those of FDC), they did what they could. As they stand isolated from the rest of Ugandan society, their own grievances were the main focus. Unfortunately, by protesting in this form, they played directly in the hands of a military regime.
Military regimes excel in using force, this is where most focus and resources are allocated to. So when political society uses violent elements in their protest, such as throwing stones, burning tires, and other forms of sabotage, they make it difficult to perceive who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys. Weaker parts of society, or foreign expats, become terrified for instability, and seek for safety and stability.
By using violent acts as peaceful demonstrators, the image becomes blurred, and when the image becomes blurred military regimes will directly exploit it in their propaganda. This can worsened by simmering ethnic sentiments, which also came to the surface in the violent Buganda riots of 2009. In 2009, non-Buganda Ugandans were halted and those that spoke Luganda with a dialect were robbed or beaten. This short eposide of ethnic violence created extreme fear among all other elements of society, which is still present. Any sign of Buganda violence therefore directly distances civil society, NGO’s, and the international community. When acts of violence are used by political society, all others become afraid, and instead of uniting society, it divided society.
A similar thing could be observed in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the United States. When the protests were peaceful, all of society, old people, parents with children, civil society, women, joined the protests in signs of defiance. However, when elements within political society used acts of violence and sabotage, fear spread, and they distanced the other elements of society. This is a shame, as all are united in that they agree on the reason for protest, but the method, acts of throwing stones and burning tires & buildings, is what then divides and eventually stalls a protest. Therefore, in the moment of protest that acts of violence were used, it resulted into the stagnation of the protests and can lead to eventual failure.
Of course, it is of extreme importance to have understanding for why they use violence. Almost always, it is the state, not the people, who start using violence. As a result, decades of oppression, fear, anger, loss of the oppressed, all explode into these moments of action. But it is instructive to not perceive youth as ‘hooligans’, as the regime narrative is now trying to do, but as political society who have only known the language of violence because of their brutal oppression. But successful protest can be done a different way.
Fortunately, the Ugandan opposition under leadership of FDC and NUP have never preached violence, or ethnic division. Their messages where of a constant focus on the liberation and empowerment of all Ugandans, not only certain ethnicities. They have called for nonviolence in all their actions. The several incidents of Buganda discriminating other ethnic groups during the instability have been condemned, and should be perceived as isolated incidents of a lurking danger when violent instability comes.
However, the opposition leaders understand the realities of the Ugandan political society, and the extreme desperation and anger that live among them. They try to prevent violence at all cost, but they are aware of why political society uses violence.
Therefore, there is a strong demand to maintain non-violence in opposition activities. In this, they are confronted by a military regime that uses extreme force, especially in the form of the illegal LDU units. Often, the regime uses incognito agents to provoke violence in protests, so they can use their own violence to most effect. When it are only state security forces who are using violence, the people can use their own suffering to most effect.
Using your own suffering as your main weapon will need training, but there is nothing more powerful than a defiant people, suffering injustice with dignity and continued defiance, and let the world see what is happening.
When they only use violence, while the people optimize only use their suffering, it becomes extremely clear who the bad guys and good guys are. This is the essence of peaceful revolution. This also what Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dr. Besigye, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, and Bobi Wine have constantly showed.
Alliances between political society and activists, students, and civil society
The answer to prevent political society using acts of violence again in protest, lies in forming alliances between the political society, and other elements of society. In particular, the experienced nonviolent activists of FDC, who have become used to optimizing their own suffering against violence, students, and civil society should connect and unite with political society in the ghettos. In this alliance, they nurture the importance of nonviolence, and training in how to show defiance without throwing stones and burning tires.
Successful peaceful protest
An effective form of peaceful protest can be marches and vigils, using chants, music instruments, and singing, in showing desperation and demand change. This was also effectively used in the successful protests of Sudan in 2019. The Sudanese were also met with extreme violence, but they maintained their nonviolent nonetheless, and achieved victory within a matter of time. The following video’s illustrate their protests.
Although the regime now tries to create a narrative of protesters as ‘hooligans’, as this benefits them in portraying the peaceful opposition groups as ‘terrorists’ to the international community and civil society, this is incorrect. In contrast to the incidents of violence and sabotage, Ugandans also protested in very effective ways.
Walking together massively, chanting freedom, using singing and music, they became an inviting sight. It inspires those that see it, create a feeling of joy instead of fear. As you can see in these video’s you see children, elderly, and parents joining these inspirational marches. It creates in the two most important goals of peaceful protest: uniting society against injustice, and nurture joy & hope instead of fear.
This form of protest should be used in all following moments of mass action in Uganda. This can be achieved by efficient organization of activists in their relation to political society, and the inclusion of students and civil society in community works and charity.
Uganda is one of the most fertile countries in Africa, focus opposition resources on providing a lunch of posho & beans for political society by these groups of FDC activists, students, and civil society. With a full belly, this gives an excellent opportunity to create understanding for nonviolent action, and the training for protest. United, where students, activists, and civil society provide ideology and training, and political society provide strength and mass, protests will become so huge that it will be impossible to counter.
It is a good idea to prevent police confrontation during demonstrations. In this a barrier of attractive (and brave) Ugandan women between the police and the angry young men can be used. These are the Female Commando’s. As the young men are most eager to clash with the police, and police will earlier use force when they are afraid, it can be effective to provide a ‘wall’ between both groups. Let these women fraternize with the police officers, let them hand over short leaflets of opposition goal directly targeted towards police officers, give them food, easy tensions. Police officers who are not afraid that they will be attacked by violent protesters, will be more hesitant in using force themselves.
Huge crowds often attract criminal elements that love the opportunities to create chaos and anarchy. These are indeed the real ‘hooligans’. For every planned protest, appoint a team of strong and calm activists that function as the ‘protest police’. Train them to locate potential individuals or groups of hooligans and how to neutralize them, and move away from the crowd of genuine peaceful protesters. As a regime often sends officers without uniform into protest crowds to try to provoke violence (for example by starting with throwing stones), this Protest Police can be instrumental to allocate and remove them before they can do harm.
Get creative in finding ways for building alliances between political society and the rest of Ugandan society, and devise ways for how to maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of extreme oppression. When the Ugandan democratic forces succeed in uniting the whole population by building alliances, and transforming their abilities for continued peaceful protest, they will be free within a matter of time.
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