As the old saying goes, the sight of brown leaves falling from trees should serve as a lesson to those still green. The Arab Spring of this past year took several of the world’s leaders by storm. These men of power thought themselves safe. They fell like dry leaves.
It’s been a lesson noted by Yoweri Museveni, who has steered Uganda’s ship of state as president for a quarter-century. This past April, many in Uganda thought the country was on the cusp of a rebirth of its own. Brandishing matches and lighter fuel, young men and women set bonfires ablaze in the capital of Kampala, stoking riots that left several people dead and hundreds jailed in their wake. While the would-be revolution was ultimately stillborn, it left its mark nonetheless. The energy in Kampala feels different these days.
The riots themselves were sparked by the arrest of the country’s main opposition politician, Kizza Besigye. Beginning in April 2011, a group called Activists for Change organized a popular protest called “Walk-to-Work,” with the goal of drawing attention to the country’s soaring commodity prices. For the most part, protesters conducted themselves peacefully. But in late April, when Besigye was arrested in a particularly violent manner (the charge: engaging in an “unlawful assembly”), the backlash was almost immediate. The next day, hoards of urban youth—poor, under-employed, and underserved by the state—took to the streets. The subsequent government crackdown was swift, furious, and for an unfortunate few, deadly.
Uganda’s latest upheaval had its roots in the economic downturn of this past year—a downturn that hit the country especially hard. Headline [End Page B-58] inflation skyrocketed from around six percent in February to a whopping fourteen percent in April. And food was among the worst hit commodities. In February, food inflation was hovering at around seven percent. By May, it had topped thirty-nine percent.
Officially, the government blamed the global oil shocks and oil-induced inflation for the spike in prices. In Uganda (as in many poor countries), food prices are exceptionally vulnerable to fluctuations in fuel costs, due largely to the country’s poorly maintained roads. Add to this the drought that plagued the eastern reaches of the country—and which has hammered the Horn of Africa exceptionally hard—and what you had is the perfect storm.
The only problem is, these kinds of storms are averted all the time. What they require is proper planning. But public policy has long been the Achilles heel of the Museveni regime. This past spring, the government spent $746 million on six Russian fighter jets (financed by dipping into the country’s foreign exchange reserves), while it relied on the World Food Programme to feed its hungry citizens in the drought-stricken rural hinterland. Indeed, in Uganda—as in the fallen regimes of North Africa—what lies beneath the militarized surface of the state are often the tired, rotten, decaying roots of a government weighed down by patronage, graft, and a certain deafness to the growing rage in the street.
Many believe that Uganda is heading towards a tipping point. Increasingly, it seems, those revolutionary winds from North Africa are blowing south. But as the following photographs remind us, change, when it comes, often comes at a price. [End Page B-59]
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Like many leaders before him, Yoweri Museveni is a man of many faces. To his critics, he is a shrewd military autocrat whose devotion to maintaining power is only limited by the tools he has to stay the course. To his admirers, he has few peers who can claim his dedication to stability at home and savvy politicking abroad. When Museveni first swept the state in 1986, he was dazzling. In his youth, he once lamented that “the honorable excellency who is going to the United Nations in executive jets, but has a population at home of ninety percent walking barefoot, is...