Uganda: rage and disillusion in Kampala one year after bloody riot crackdown

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Police officers patrol Kampala in June 2021.

From November 18, 2020, Safinah Makaina first remembers the sounds of gunfire and screams in the streets around the Kiseka market, in the heart of Kampala. It all started in this popular shopping district in the Ugandan capital, commonly known as « downtown », where salespeople of all kinds attract tens of thousands of people daily. “It was a real war scene”, says the 39-year-old saleswoman in the middle of her auto parts shop: “Coming back every day to these streets where I saw so many bodies is not easy, even today. But surviving this violence made me even stronger to fight the regime. “

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Just a year ago, in the midst of the election campaign for the January 2021 presidential election – in which the irremovable Yoweri Museveni was running for a sixth term -, the arrest of the main opposition candidate, Bobi Wine (from his real Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), unleashed a vast movement of popular revolt. The riots, which took place in Kampala before spreading to other cities until November 20, the day of his release on bail, left 54 ​​people dead, according to the direction of criminal investigations. Among them, only 11 are designated as rioters, 42 were “Hit by stray bullets” and a person was hit by a car.

The security repression, denounced by the international community, has dampened any hope of change: at the end of the January poll, Yoweri Museveni, then 76 years old and at the head of the country since 1986, was re-elected with nearly 59 % voices. Results contested by the opposition and which, a year later, continue to fuel bitterness in the Kiseka district.

“I don’t even want to vote anymore”

This mixture of rage and disillusion is, for example, what Joseph *, a clothing salesman who was shot and wounded during the demonstrations, feels while filming from the balcony of a shopping arcade. “I am still very angry with what happened to me, to have been hit when I was not even participating in the riots”, he said. The 24-year-old, previously an opposition supporter, has lost the will to get involved: “I don’t even want to vote anymore. No matter what the results, no matter how many people are on the streets, nothing is going to change. The victims of the protests lost their lives for nothing. “

A predictable reaction after the violence of the police response, according to political analyst Bernard Sabiiti. “Many supporters of Bobi Wine were afraid after these demonstrations, which was felt in particular on the rate of participation in the ballot in Kampala, of only 43%, he says. Even today, many fear supporting the opposition openly. There has also been no large militant rally since the vote. “

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A restraint which, according to him, is also due to the relentless return to economic realities for those who have temporarily engaged in the campaign, while the country has been severely affected by the restrictions linked to the Covid epidemic- 19. And these days, the news is more dominated by the recent suicide attacks which have left the capital in mourning: Tuesday, November 16, a double attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) organization left four dead.

However, the opponent and former singer Bobi Wine, who has become the icon of a large part of the youth of Kampala, continues to mobilize, according to Bernard Sabiiti: “Even if he is more discreet, the movement around him is still very present. Because the urban and popular youth that he represents is deeply aware of the lack of opportunities that the current system offers him. “

“No police officer was implicated”

Thus, for Safinah Makaina, there is no question of giving up. “Time is on our side, not that of the old guard in power for decades”, she argues. In Uganda, more than 80% of the population is under 35 and has known as head of state only Yoweri Museveni. “And the generation of my children, witnessing all the violence of the regime during the demonstrations, will be even more combative than us”, assures the saleswoman.

A few days after the riots, the head of state had promised compensation for the families of collateral victims. “But a year later, no family has been compensated and no police officer has been implicated for excessive violence”, says lawyer Pheona Wall, president of the Uganda Law Society.

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On the other hand, more than 1,000 suspects were arrested in a few weeks by the police for having taken part in the demonstrations. Among them, Muhammed Ssemakula, 30, also a seller from the Kiseka district and a fervent supporter of Bobi Wine. Released on bail in September, the activist lost the two shops he ran before the riots. The images of those bloody days continue to haunt him. “The police fired live ammunition, without any distinction, he says. For example, I saw a young woman who was simply bringing a plate to a customer fall to the ground, hit by the gunfire. “

Do we know how many “suspects” are still in prison? How many have been released? If he does not regret having taken to the streets to defend his candidate, the young man realizes all that his arrest has cost him. “I continue to believe in change and in Bobi Wine, he says. But if I’m arrested again, I can’t afford to help my family. It’s much more difficult to take all these risks and fully commit when you don’t already have enough money to feed your children. “

* The first name has been changed.

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Uganda: rage and disillusion in Kampala one year after bloody riot crackdown

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