- - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda | Voters who re-elected President Yoweri Museveni in a landslide in February never thought he would repay them by ordering soldiers to shoot them for walking to work.

More than 100 people were arrested and about 45 injured in a wave of civil disobedience over the past week, as disgruntled Ugandans walked to work to protest high fuel and food prices.

One man died after police shot tear gas into a demonstration.

With his violent crackdown on protests, Mr. Museveni even rekindled the political fortunes of his chief opponent, Kizza Besigye, who has been organizing the protests. Mr. Besigye won 26 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

Mr. Besigye gained publicity after being shot in the hand in a demonstration last week. He was among a dozen members of parliament arrested Monday in another protest.

Mr. Museveni’s reaction to the protests shocked some foreign observers.

“Museveni lost his mind last week,” a Western diplomat said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental human rights and a critical component of functioning democracies.”

Mr. Museveni, president for 25 years, remained defiant.

“There will be no demonstrations in Kampala,” he said Saturday. “If Besigye wants to walk for exercise, let him do it somewhere else.”

He blamed a drought and a global oil crisis for the high prices and for inflation, which is running at about 11 percent a year. The price of corn is up 114 percent from last year.

“What I call on the public to do is to use fuel sparingly. Don’t drive to bars,” Mr. Museveni said.

He did not say whether he encouraged them to walk.

Some political observers said Mr. Museveni is looking nervously at the upheaval in Arab North Africa, where angry crowds have topped autocratic leaders and a civil war is raging in Libya.

“My worry is the cumulative way the government is looking at things,” said Aaron Mukwaya, a senior lecturer in international relations and security studies at Kampala’s Makerere University, where rowdy students protesting a proposed fee increase were met with tear gas last week.

“Programs meant to deal with poverty, education, agriculture have literally failed,” Mr. Mukwaya added.

The lesson learned from North Africa and the Middle East should have been that sound policies, not overwhelming force, is the answer, he added.

Uganda’s macroeconomic picture has been impressive, with the gross domestic product holding at about 6 percent for much of the past decade and poverty dropping from 56 percent in 1992 to 25 percent last year, amid strong social stability and privatization.

Beneath the positive statistics, however, is massive unemployment among university graduates, rampant corruption, a low manufacturing base and wasteful government spending.

Mr. Museveni helped fund his presidential campaign, estimated at $350 million, through the national treasury and a supplementary budget. Rising inflation has drawn the attention of everyday Ugandans toward the general direction of the country.

“[The government] has stopped listening to people, our needs,” said Baker Kirega, who wore bandages around his right leg from an injury suffered in a clash with police as he tried to retrieve his children from a school hit by police tear gas last week.

The government reportedly banned live television news coverage of a protest last week, and police have taken over the capital’s only real public park to prevent demonstrations leading up to Mr. Museveni’s inauguration next month to another five-year term. The ceremony is expected to cost up to $1.5 million.

The first walk-to-work campaign April 11 might have passed without much notice had Mr. Museveni ignored it.

Instead, excessive force by security forces inspired outraged Ugandans to join the cause three days later in another protest, which ended with 130 arrests and more than 45 injured.

Mr. Museveni on Saturday accused the demonstrators of trying to overthrow his government “through unconstitutional means.”

Protests also have broken out in Jinja, the second-largest commercial center in eastern Uganda, in Masaka in the southwest and in Gulu in the north.

Uganda has been an important Western ally in the region, especially in Somalia, where Ugandan soldiers make up the bulk of the 8,000 African Uniontroops, fighting Islamic militants in that lawless country. Mr. Museveni also has deftly handled relations with unstable neighbors, notably Sudan and Congo.

Mr. Museveni, a former bush rebel who helped overthrow the ruthless regime of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, has held the presidency since 1986. He still is viewed among many Ugandans as a liberator and peacemaker.

But his growing reliance on force is threatening that image, and some now fear that Uganda could become the first sub-Saharan Africa domino to fall in the democratic revolution sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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