top of page

Explaining the Newfound Momentum Behind Ugandan Protest

Crystal, a 23 year old, working for a refugee organisation in Uganda, compares her experience of recent protests in Uganda, to that of the more familiar Kenya. Despite a referendum in July 2005, where the majority voted in favour of a multi-party system, the possibility of democratic opposition in Uganda is limited.

I arrived at Entebbe airport on 18 November 2020. One of the first words I learned was ‘Okulonda’, a Luganda word meaning ‘to vote’. Driving into the capital, the image of the word plastered on billboards is one I will not forget. That day, the headlines read ‘Uganda is on fire’, ‘Why riots broke out, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in Kampala’, ‘Deadly protests in Uganda after Bobi Wine’s arrest’. From his official Twitter account, Bobi Wine had tweeted: ‘Resistance against tyranny is not only a right. It is a DUTY for oppressed people to carry out!’

The longevity and popularity of this dissidence and its violent suppression is the worst violence Uganda had seen for many years.

Protests had spread across Uganda following the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine or the Ghetto president. He is one of the most successful popular musicians in East Africa as well as the opposition’s presidential candidate and was arrested for allegedly contravening COVID-19 regulations at a campaign rally on November 18. Granted, he had shown little concern for COVID-19 containment measures, but whether this sanctioned being shot at and violently arrested can be strongly contested. Human Rights Watch has since found that Ugandan authorities have been ‘weaponizing’ the pandemic to suppress opposition campaigns. Protestors, in response, had blockaded roads, burnt tyres and torn down any posters of current President, Yoweri Museveni. The longevity and popularity of this dissidence and its violent suppression is the worst violence Uganda had seen for many years.

Upon my arrival from Nairobi to Kampala, I was oblivious of the news of the arrest as were my new housemates. Thus, on our ride back from the airport, the sight of smoke and fire came as a rude shock to us all. We made a quick 180 only to realise that the alternative road was blocked.

We later found out that as the news of Wine's arrest broke, his supporters took to the streets of Kampala to protest. Ironically, although the man himself was locked up, Bobi’s voice still accompanied the fumes and chaos, his ‘Freedom song’ ringing out on the streets. Wine’s pitch to run for president was neither unexpected nor farfetched, as he appealed to the young population (under 30s) in Uganda, which comprises 70% of the total. ‘We came to the conclusion that we should challenge this regime as a generation,’ he stated. Wine’s hip hop, which lyrically empowers the youth, has gained him a huge following. Beyond the generational basis of his campaign, what makes Wine very relatable and likeable is his ‘ordinariness’.

The masses of protesters, screaming ‘Free Bobi’, clashed with the police and military, who responded with tear gas. I tasted my first dose on the way home. Review: pungent and distinct. My housemate made a timely joke about how lucky I am to get to taste tax-payers money on my very first day here.

The violence in Uganda is part of a series of historical events: the 1990 shooting of two Makerere students; demonstrations for a return to multipartyism; 1996 electoral violence; 2009 Buganda uprising shootings and 2010 protests which resulted in the burning of Buganda’s royal tombs; and the 2016 massacre of one hundred Rwenzururu palace guards. However, Maliki, an 18 year old first-time voter, emphasises that this level of violence is unusual. ‘The people are more tired than ever before and there is no other perceived chance to #removeadictator after 35 years in power. We need change.’ For a future of improved prospects, I witnessed youth willing to die for Bobi Wine’s cause. As journalist Onyango-Obbo puts it ‘young people have been told that they’re the leaders of tomorrow, but they see octogenarians in leadership’. We can see how, in light of these events, the Ugandan population has been pushed to its limits.

David Lewis Rubongoya, the secretary general of Wine’s National Unity Platform party, elucidates how these protests are a culmination of years of vexation and resentment towards the regime and cannot be viewed as a reaction to an isolated event. ‘It’s not about Covid-19’ he says ‘It’s about repression … People are very angry and they are very right to be angry. People are tired of the double standards; they are tired of the oppression and dictatorship that has caused all these problems in the country.’ [1]

‘The people are more tired than ever before and there is no other perceived chance to #removeadictator after 35 years in power. We need change.’

It is for this reason that the energy and end-goal of Ugandan protest is not something I can liken to my experience of Kenyan protests, where I have spent much of my life. Recently, I participated in a protest led by the Red Vest Movement in Kenya, an initiative highlighting the poor state of the economy, rampant corruption and entrenched impunity in the public sector. The personalist element of Kenyan politics - driven by allegiance to specific candidates based on tribal affiliation - means that protesting government action will never have ubiquitous support under this patrimonial system. [2]

Meanwhile, the protests in Uganda proceed under a much more tyrannical system. This indiscriminate, mass violence occurs at the hands of the police who, in Uganda, according to Security Minister Elly Tumwine, have a right to shoot protestors dead simply ‘if they reach a certain level of violence’. [3] By the 20th of November, 40 people were reported to have died at the hands of the police, a 9pm curfew installed under the guise of the coronavirus and soldiers placed on the major roads leading into Kampala. Patience Atuhaire, a multimedia journalist based in Kampala says ‘Uganda is shocked by the violence’. [4]

My own experience can serve as an illustration of the nuances of activism within different African countries. This is merely one of many reasons why there can be no single blueprint for a post-colonial project because colonialism itself impacted and interacted with the various African states differently. Different groups' resistance to state authority looks very different across the continent and, even within one nation, protesters and other activists have varied interests and means of resistance.



  • 644788_email_512x512
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
bottom of page