It was supposed to be a day of celebration for Yoweri Museveni as he was sworn in for a fourth term as President of Uganda. But one uninvited guest spoilt the party.
The opposition leader Kizza Besigye came home yesterday from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where he had been treated for injuries suffered during his violent arrest in Uganda two weeks ago. His return drew a crowd of tens of thousands — dwarfing the few thousand who gathered alongside dignitaries to cheer Mr Museveni towards another five years in power.
In a series of violent scuffles between security forces and opposition supporters, up to five people were killed when police fired into a crowd after stones were thrown at a car carrying the recently elected Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, one of the many luminaries invited to the inauguration. Elsewhere teargas and water cannon were also deployed amid the clashes.
As President Museveni addressed his supporters at Kololo airstrip, a parade ground on a hilltop overlooking Kampala, Dr Besigye was on a slow procession in a convoy of vehicles along the only road connecting the airport town of Entebbe with the capital. Mr Museveni, a former guerrilla leader who seized power in 1986, celebrated his inauguration with fighter jet flypasts and a 21-gun salute. “Disrupting schemes will be defeated,” he declared during his speech.
Dr Besigye’s return certainly caused disruption. His convoy of party officials, supporters and police officers acting as escorts took almost nine hours to crawl along the 25-mile (40km) road. For much of the route Dr Besigye and his wife, Winnie Byanyima — a former girlfriend of Mr Museveni — stood out of their car’s sunroof waving a victory salute at crowds on the verges of the road or walking alongside his car.
People danced, shouted and sang in response, smiling as they held branches torn from trees and old election posters from the February elections, in which Dr Besigye was defeated.
Among them was 22-year-old Eddie Kagombe, sweeping the road with a leafy branch to make it fit to welcome Dr Besigye. “Ever since I entered the world there is only Museveni. I need a change,” he said.
As the day went on, tensions between riot police, military police and Dr Besigye’s supporters frayed regularly. During the first incident, a group of military police in red berets jumped from a truck at the back of the convoy and charged the crowd on the roadside, beating them with sticks.
Stones were thrown in response and soon armoured cars with water cannon roared up the road and there was the sting of teargas and the crack of gunfire in the air. “They just came and started attacking people,” Dr Besigye said.
Another opposition leader, Norbert Mao, added: “You see we are getting a warm welcome from the army.”
Eventually armoured personnel carriers mounted with heavy machineguns shadowed the convoy and security personnel began to outnumber opposition supporters.
As night fell, Dr Besigye reached the outskirts of Kampala, where hundreds of police in riot gear and soldiers with assault rifles finally seemed to lose their patience. At a roundabout where thousands had gathered, they let loose with teargas and charged at people, beating them back with batons.
“We don’t want Museveni. This Government is thieving us,” the crowd shouted as heads of state, including President Jonathan, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Salva Kiir, the president-in-waiting of Southern Sudan, and ambassadors and other dignitaries drove by on their way to Entebbe, where Mr Museveni was hosting a party. Mr Museveni’s presidential convoy raced down the road, passing metres from Dr Besigye, watching from his car.
Yesterday’s crowds were similar in size to ones that greeted Dr Besigye’s return from self-imposed exile in 2005, when he came back to challenge Mr Museveni in Uganda’s first multiparty election. The vote in February is the third in a row that Dr Besigye has lost during a decade-long political rivalry that began when the former comrades fell out.
The President has faced criticism for his Government’s handling of protests that have broken out since his victory in February’s election when he took 68 per cent of the vote. Dr Besigye has spearheaded a series of bi-weekly “walk to work” protests over the rising cost of fuel and food, blaming government corruption and incompetence.
The marches started last month and have been dealt with brutally. At least nine people have been killed and Dr Besigye has been arrested four times, shot in the hand with a rubber bullet and temporarily blinded with pepper spray.
The rough treatment of the opposition leader has only increased his support. “Museveni has become a dictator,” said Timothy Owor, 29. “If they can arrest Besigye like that, what can they do to me?”
Grateful West supports regime doing its dirty work in Somalia
Despite ample evidence of growing repression and clear indications of the autocratic direction that President Museveni’s long rule is taking, Western nations remain staunch supporters.
The main reason is Mr Museveni’s willingness to do the West’s dirty work in Somalia. His soldiers make up the bulk of the 8,000-strong African Union force defending the weak UN-backed Government from insurgents allied to al-Qaeda.
Neither the US nor Britain, stretched in Afghanistan, has any appetite for another fight in a tribally divided country where religious extremism and war are the daily reality. The US in particular is wary of conflict in Somalia after its early 1990s intervention that ended with 18 dead soldiers, an event dramatised in the book and film Black Hawk Down.
Britain and America are worried that the Somali al-Shabaab rebels may try to export their brand of jihad, using each country’s large Somali communities as a cover to launch terror attacks. Mr Museveni’s soldiers have stopped the Islamists in their tracks, gaining ground from al-Shabaab in Mogadishu.
But allowing autocracy to flourish will store up problems for later. Under the cover of elections, Africans have been experiencing a covert rolling back of hard-won democracy. Africans south of the Sahara are fully aware of the revolutionary change to the north and may not put up with their own longstanding rulers for much longer.
Battered, nearly blinded, but unbowed, the Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye has vowed to resist threats to his life and fight on to end the “military dictatorship” of President Museveni.
“We will continue, absolutely and without any doubt,” he told The Times in an exclusive interview at his hospital bedside in Nairobi where he sought specialist medical treatment after his violent arrest last week left him temporarily blinded.
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The Times of London Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Nairobi, Kenya
Without the Nile, Egypt would be a scarcely habitable desert, Sudan a parched wilderness. The world’s longest river flows for more than 4,000 miles through northeast Africa; it irrigates farmland, provides water for drinking and sanitation and drives hydroelectric power stations.
The Nile supplies almost all of Egypt’s fresh water and three quarters of Sudan’s. Both countries claim historic rights over it but neither controls its sources. For thousands of years Egypt has jealously defended its right to use the Nile’s waters as it pleases.