KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda’s opposition leader who has led protests over rising prices said the action would spread and even soldiers who have battled demonstrators may stop doing so if President Yoweri Museveni fails to offer concessions.
Kizza Besigye has become the face of the often violent “walk to work” protests that twice a week urge people to leave their cars at home to highlight soaring fuel and food prices they say are suffocating Uganda’s poorest.
“You saw the women on the streets, the lawyers said they were putting down their tools,” Besigye told Reuters in an interview, in reference to allied marches and protests by womens’ groups and lawyers.
“I’m sure we are going to see more,” he said. “The teachers will say they will not go to the classroom, the doctors and medical workers will say, ‘no this is not on’ so the legitimacy will increasingly be withdrawn by the people and the regime has no control over that.”
Museveni has been in power for 25 years and is respected internationally for bringing economic and political stability and for intervening in regional hotspots such as Somalia. But critics say he marries that with domestic repression.
Besigye, a former army colonel, said the final source of government power — the military — would fail to back it if Museveni did not offer “genuine negotiations” on the rising prices and other reforms.
“The soldiers will ask themselves a few questions - whether they should go ahead and do the bidding of the actual beneficiaries of the regime while they themselves are suffering, while they are being asked to brutalise their neighbours, their relatives,” he said.
Besigye, 55, was Museveni’s field doctor during his days as a bush rebel, and has now lost three elections against his former friend, including the latest poll in February, which the opposition said was rigged.
The protests started out small but were boosted by the violent arrest of Besigye — his fourth since they began — last month. His car was attacked by men who smashed his windows with a gun and a hammer, doused him with pepper spray and hauled him onto a pick-up truck.
Riots erupted in Kampala and other towns the following day as Besigye flew to Nairobi for treatment for eye injuries.
His return on Thursday eclipsed the presidential inauguration after tens of thousands of his supporters turned out to welcome him home. There were clashes with riot and military police who said the crowds had stoned convoys ferrying African presidents for Museveni’s swearing-in.
Museveni has accused the opposition of trying to spread chaos to avenge its election loss, and vowed to crush the protests, blaming the rising food and fuel costs on drought and global increases in oil prices.
Besigye said he could only now see himself serving as president in a “transitory” phase to a more democratic system, but would not stand for elections again.
“I don’t think I would offer myself as a candidate,” he said when asked about the next vote in 2016.
Besigye said the protests would continue and more are scheduled for Monday and Thursday.
“Protests in one form or another will continue until the demands are met,” Besigye said. “I expect that it will be some kind of a long haul.”
On Thursday as Besigye’s convoy crawled to Kampala, Museveni’s headed in the opposite direction to the state lunch with at least 10 other African heads of state.
“I felt some sense of pity for the way things had turned out when his convoy passed. That this man who I and so many Ugandans had such hope in was driving under heavy protection towards Entebbe while so many of us were walking in the direction of Kampala.”