Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Walking: the new controversy

Walking from my house into town is not a long distance, it doesn’t take very long but as I’m walking there, various cyclists and motorbike drivers are offering me lifts, amazed that I am walking, you know, actually using my legs. I am met with choruses of Yamawe (Oh my God) as they realise that I am actually not in need of their services but am happy to walk. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m white that they are so amazed. Many locals were also walking along the road and they were not constantly being hounded by boda drivers and not once did I hear the exclamation of surprise aimed at them. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fatty and they simply cannot believe that I am a) able to walk b) happy to do so.

All kinds of alternative transport ;)
However, I should count myself lucky that it is just boda drivers and not the police who are stopping me as I walk. In the past week Dr Kizza Besigye, leader of the opposition party, has been arrested no less than three times for something no more offensive that trying to walk to work. This is part of the Walk to Work, Walk to Pray campaign organised by the leaders of the opposition in response to ever increasing food and fuel prices. In Uganda, people are legally within their rights to protest peacefully… well in theory anyway. Besigye, Mao and various other leaders of the opposition parties have been arrested in the past week and charged with inciting violence. Frankly I’m somewhat confused as to how walking stirs up bad feeling. In fact on the first day, last Monday, that Besigye was arrested there weren’t really many members of the public around to rouse. It was only on Thursday and again yesterday when the public came out in force, supporting the Walk to Work campaign. This seems to suggest that it in fact the police and their tactics, which can at best be described as heavy handed, that are provoking such a reaction from the public.

Three people in Gulu were killed after protesting against Mao’s incarceration, Besigye himself was shot in the hand and a seven month pregnant lady was shot in the stomach causing her intestines to fall out. An innocent bystander was knocked unconscious by a baton blow to the head and there has been a liberal use of tear gas, including throwing canisters into people’s homes, schools and health centres. The police simply cannot even argue that these people were unlucky and got in the way as they sought the perpetrators, unless of course they assume that school children and newborns are about to rise up and cause chaos.

The latest statement from police is that the opposition leaders are being arrested because they did not inform police of their plans to protest and therefore are acting unlawfully. This argument falls a little flat considering it is being announced almost nightly on national television that the IPC plan to continue the Walk to Work protests every Monday and Thursday until the situation is improved. It also begs the question as to how the police know where to go and arrest Besigye, Mao and friends if they don’t know their plans.

By preventing high profile politicians from walking to work the police themselves are surely the ones acting unlawfully. Using out of date tear gas, shooting bullets (albeit it rubber ones) and obstructing rights of way are far more likely to provoke violence and unrest amongst the public than the simple act of walking. Right now the police don’t have a leg to stand on and seemingly they’re not allowing politicians one either.

Picture courtesy of weinformers.net

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