Uganda protests: 'Walking to work' amid the tear gas and rubber bullets

What began as a walk-to-work protest over rising food and fuel has escalated into a weeks-long direct confrontation with the Musuveni government, spurred on by riot police with billy clubs and tear gas.

Africa correspondent Carolyn Dunn talks with opposition leader Kizza Besigye

Ugandan riot policemen beat a supporter of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change in Kampala on May 12, 2011, the day President Yoweri Museveni was being sworn in. (James Akena/Reuters)

For a man who has lost three disputed presidential elections to his archrival, Kizza Besigye is enjoying the kind of political resurrection that can only happen by accident.

The leader of the Forum for Democratic Change has become the face of an unprecedented uprising in Uganda. It began with a "Walk to Work" demonstration in mid-April, a small, unassuming protest against soaring food and fuel costs.

Had Besigye and his small group been allowed their demonstration, it probably would have passed without much fuss or attention. But instead they were met with riot police with billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets.

It was the kind of security force overkill that sends a clear message: The government of President Yoweri Museveni is terrified of dissent and is willing to quash it by whatever means necessary.

For many, it was a surprisingly strong reaction, but not to Besigye.

Weeks later, when we met at his compound in Kasangati, a few kilometres from the capital Kampala, he was still wearing a sling and splint on his arm after being hit in the finger with a rubber bullet but his resolve had not flagged:

"No one can be under an illusion that a dictator will fall and change his ways or depart without a fight," he told me.

Doctor and patient

When the Uganda protests began back in April, they were aimed primarily at the high cost of living.

Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye, still battered and bruised from his last run-in with security officials. (Carolyn Dunn/CBC)

But perhaps because Besigye and other opposition figures were front and centre, they were clearly being seen as a threat to Museveni's 25-year grip on power.

After Besigye was pepper-sprayed and nearly blinded at one of the rallies in April, anti-government forces rocked Kampala in a clash that left several dead and dozens injured. Since then, the protests have become a regular, twice-weekly occurrence with another large confrontation on May 12, the day Museveni was being sworn in.

"I think the worst is still ahead," Besigye says. "President Museveni, I know him fairly well and I have no doubt about his determination to retain power at all costs."

Besigye knows Museveni so well because the two were once allies in the National Resistance Army that led the guerrilla rebellion against Milton Obote's government in the 1980s.

A physician, Besigye was the personal doctor to Museveni. After the ouster of Obote in 1986, Besigye would sit at Museveni's cabinet table, trusted with a series of portfolios and even a position in the president's office.

That is until Besigye decided the Museveni government had lost its way and began a mission against his former boss, patient and friend.

A tactical error

Besigye led his party against Museveni in 2001, 2006 as well as in February 2011.

Even accounting for the kind of irregularities that are well documented in Ugandan elections, Museveni beat his rival each time.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni at his swearing in on May 12, 2011. Twenty-five years in power. (Edward Echwalu/Reuters)

But, on April 11, 2011, during that first Walk to Work demonstration, Museveni made a tactical error. His security forces strong-armed protestors who were not doing much more than struggling to feed their families.

The rough tactics should have been enough, even Besigye admits, Ugandans are not prone to civil disobedience. "Forty years of terror, state terrorism have caused the people to really be subdued, and be extremely fearful of the state," he says.

But, perhaps inspired by the protests in North Africa and the Middle East, or perhaps just fed up, the anti-government mood was given additional fuel by the harsh police action.

Each Monday and Thursday since April 11, Besigye sneaks from his compound where he lives under virtual house arrest and begins the now well known Walk to Work.

In a matter of minutes the crowd joining him numbers in the hundreds. In less than half an hour, the number of protestors are well into the thousands.

Ugandan police and military are out in large numbers, too. According to reports, they have beaten unarmed protestors, lobbed tear gas and fired rubber bullets and even, on a couple of occasions, live bullets into the crowds.

Democracy Watch says it has documented the deaths of at least nine protestors, while hundreds more have been injured. Still, the crowds continue to grow in size.

Preventative arrest

I was there on a Thursday, a regular protest day. Besigye tried to drive from his home this morning but was stopped by police who told him he was under preventative arrest.

At the same time, the police were stopping the media from getting in to see Besigye. The roads were blocked with spiked belts.   When we tried a back route, our unassuming SUV was first followed then stopped by police.

Last week, Uganda's minister of information called the international media "enemies of the state." Journalists have been detained, their equipment seized and a few local reporters have been beaten by police as they tried to cover the demonstrations.

When, several hours later, we were finally able to pass the police barricades, Besigye was feeling ominous about the clampdown on the press. "Obviously, we are sliding very fast to a dark period," he warned.

For his part, President Museveni has dismissed these demonstrations and that kind of rhetoric as nothing more than a stage production of his political opponents.

His chief rival is surprisingly up front about this. "Even if government was to have that suspicion that we have an agenda, wider than the cause of the protests, it doesn't take away from the fact that the government needs to deal with these issues," he says casually.

As long as the government doesn't act on the underlying problems, Besigye grows in popularity.

Leading the protests has turned him into something of a cause celebre in Uganda and with the international media. Walking to work has achieved for Kizza Besigye what running in three elections failed to achieve.