The last two days were such a contrast in the Walk to Work campaign. Sunday was peaceful and serene but Monday saw over 30 leaders and Walk to Work activist detained by police followed by riotous scenes in city suburbs and upcountry towns leading to over 100 arrests countrywide. When we were planning the Walk to Work campaigns I had imagined days like Sunday 17th April, 2011 when we walked to Church without anyone seeming to notice.
I had intended to walk to Church with my two daughters until I witnessed police brutality in Kasangati. On Thursday I was at Kasangati as the Red Cross evacuated pregnant women and children from the tear-gas filled hospital. The scene was alarming and heartbreaking. If I had doubts about the decision to leave my girls at home, they were wiped away by my visit to victims of Thursday’s violence in 6A and 3C at Mulago hospital. The police does not hesitate to throw tear gas canisters into schools and hospitals or to open fire with live ammunition on unsuspecting civilians. I wish those who actually throw the tear canisters and fire the bullets were allowed to visit Brenda, Geoffrey Kiboneka and Issa Dya at Mulago. Perhaps they would not be so trigger happy after that.
So on Sunday I walked with a few activists and we were amused by the complete lack of interest in our activities that day. The preceding day on a radio talk show, an NRM Member of Parliament, Margaret Muhanga had arrogantly told me ‘We shall let you walk on Sunday because the shops are closed so you cannot loot!’ Such arrogance and attempts to criminalize activists have been the only consistent state response to the Walk to Work campaign. Yet nothing is done to address the underlying issues of escalating food and fuel prices.
NRM leaders are in a state denial. Wikipedia explains that denial is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence. The response of government shows that all three states of denial are in operation right now. There are those in simple denial and are denying the reality of the unpleasant facts altogether. Others are in the minimisation state whereby they admit the facts but deny their seriousness (a combination of denial and rationalisation.) Yet others are in a state of projection where they admit both the facts and seriousness but deny responsibility.
Denial is part of a grieving process in which the victim is subliminally aware that they have lost someone or something very close to their hearts. Uganda’s government has started the grieving process for losing its legitimacy. Denial is often followed by panic, anger and recklessness and that is what we witnessed for a second time on Monday 18th April, the 3rd day of the Walk to Work Campaign.
I joined other walkers including Hon. Cecilia Ogwal (MP), activists Sarah Eperu and Margaret Wokuri who were also walking to work along Jinja Road. As has become custom, we found a wall of blue uniformed police constables blocking our path opposite Jinja Road Police Station. I noticed they were now careful to include women constables after I publicly embarrassed the officer called Kamugisha who groped me last Monday. They asked us to stop and accompany them to their station. We put up stiff resistance and refused to budge unless we were lifted. The women constables tried to oblige but found that it was not easy to lift a tall heavy woman like me off the ground, so they dragged us across the road. I was particularly miffed by the way they handled Hon. Ogwal who was old enough to be their grandmother! She did not put up any physical resistance but they dragged her nonetheless.
Inside Jinja Road Police station we were taken to an office and soon you would have thought there was a high-level opposition meeting taking place. They had brought is in for ‘discussions’ so we were not in cells, instead we displaced the officers from their desks and took over their office. Members of Parliament, a President of a political party, activists and journalists. Lawyers who included The Lord Mayor elect, MPs and activists came in to represent us after we were told that we had become ‘suspects’ by the Officer in Charge of the police station. He said he was holding us for holding unlawful society! So much for walking to work! We asked for walk permits for Thursday but he did not respond to our request.
The police officers were mostly kind and as puzzled as we were with the situation at hand. They allowed us to keep our phones and we received stories of riots at Kyambogo University and battles between police and the population in Kireka and Bweyogerere. Later in the afternoon we were bundled onto a police bus and taken to cells at Nakawa court. Chris Opoka suddenly burst into a rendition of the famous protest song that became a key anthem of the US civil rights movement: ‘We shall overcome’ and the police holding cell came alive with song and cheer.
Shortly after our arrival at Nakawa Court we were whisked before the Magistrate and our charges were read to us: Incitement to violence and disobeying police orders. Nothing about unlawful society even if someone forgot to tell the prosecutor who claimed before court that our second charge was holding unlawful society – even if it was not on the charge sheet! If this circus was not my reality I would have broken my ribs with laughter. But my reality and that of many Ugandans has changed in the last week. Four Ugandans are dead because of the violence meted out on peaceful walkers and bystanders in an unfolding, tragic chapter in my country’s history.
The good news is that grieving process ends with acceptance. We can look forward to the State finally coming to its senses and accepting the fact that things have indeed changed. Ugandans are no longer afraid of claiming their sovereignty even if it means risking their very lives in the face of state brutality. On Thursday we shall walk again and see what more the state has in store for us as government leaders continue through the inevitable steps of grief.