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Uprisings in East and Southern Africa

Uganda’s Walk2Work campaign, growing public consciousness in Kenya, Swaziland’s pro-democracy demonstrations, public sector protests in Botswana and the still invisible LGBTIQ movement feature in this week’s reflection on struggles for social justice across the continent, by Sokari Ekine.

Recently the Dar es Salaam Citizen published an OpEd piece, “News is not coming out of Africa” in which it criticised African media for the focus on reporting ‘events’ and failure to follow through with informative opinion and commentary. Instead African media continues to rely on western media for in-depth analysis of African affairs. Events such as the Nigerian elections, the political crisis and conflict in Cote d’Ivoire, uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the International Criminal Court hearings on Kenya’s 2008 post election violence were reported only as ‘news events’:

‘I could cite other examples to make the point that our media has such an event focus that it fails to follow developments in ways that would make Africans knowledgeable and interested about Africa as Africans. In this it fails its core mission of educating Africans about their own contexts and situations. A major reason for this apparent amnesia and what comes across as disjointed coverage is the fact that most South African media do not have sustained coverage of the continent of their own. For a start, South African media houses have no regional bureaus of their own with journalists conversant in languages other than English.

‘When the international media cease or reduce coverage there is an automatic effect on our own media even if we might still be interested in the issue. In this regard it could be said that our media are an appendage of Western media.’

The article highlights the importance of Pambazuka News in providing exactly what the rest of Africa’s media is either ill-equipped or just too lazy to do. The purpose of the ‘uprising’ reports is not just to inform readers of events as they happen but also to give a sense of the continuing struggle and a broader view of the continent-wide discontent with the status quo regards democracy, the lack of adherence to all areas of human rights and the primacy of western governments and corporate interests over that of African people.


In February’s elections President Museveni’s 25 year rule was extended for a further five years, amidst accusations of widespread fraud. Why bother to vote when the outcome has already been arranged? Makerere University law professor Joe Oloka-Onyango, described Uganda’s political system as ‘yet to become a functioning multiparty democracy’, adding that:

‘…the fact of incumbency guaranteed President Museveni unfettered access to state coffers, such that the NRM reportedly spent $350 million in the campaign. Whether or not this is true, we have not yet received a proper accounting of how much the NRM [or indeed any other party"> spent and from where they received this money; already, this means that we are being held hostage to the lack of transparency and the underhand nature of politics that we thought we had long left behind.

‘Indeed, the enduring image of the past several months has been that of the President handing out brown envelopes stashed with cash for various women, youth and other types of civic groupings. I don’t know if religious leaders were also beneficiaries of this largesse. If you were, then you must acknowledge that you have become part of the problem. For in those envelopes lies a key aspect of the problem: the phenomenon of institutionalized corruption that has become the hallmark of this regime.’

Whilst voters may have been apathetic during the elections, they have shown their dissatisfaction with the government and it’s policies in the Walk to Work (Twitter hashtag #walk2work) protests which started on 11 April following the arrest of a group of opposition leaders including Dr Kizza Besigye and his supporters, for inciting violence as they walked to work in protest against rising prices and job losses. Although the protests have met with a violent response from the security forces, as one Ugandan reporter pointed out:

‘…many Ugandans are now aware of their rights to speak out. This right is provided by the state through the constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. So this time many Ugandans are supporting what the opposition is doing because they want the government to listen to their pleas.’

The government has blamed inflation on external factors out of their control, obviously believing Ugandans are so ill-informed as to not make the connection between the $740 million spent on fighter jets and tanks – plus of course the maintenance costs ‘to protect oil....territorial integrity and wealth’ – and the price of bread and fuel. Even Nigeria – another highly militarised state, with nearly 20 years of conflict over oil in the Niger Delta – has thankfully not deployed fighter jets to bomb militants in the forests and rivers of oil production!

Museveni who, in a show of militarism, chose to wear military fatigues during the recent swearing in of MPs complained that his guests, President Kabila of the DRC and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria were pelted with stones by people. In typical dictator fashion, which tends to be accompanied by a good helping of paranoia, Museveni went on to describe the local and international media as ‘enemies of Uganda’. Possibly he has been too busy brutalising Ugandans to watch much TV and hasn't seen what is happening in other parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Rosebelle Kagumire described the protests of 29 April in her blog as follows:

‘In today’s protests the police used live bullets again leaving horrific pictures for the media. One of man was lying down with a bullet hole right through his eye. Reports say about four people died today, over 100 were injured and over 300 were arrested. Since the election campaigns and the North Africa protests, the government here has grown intolerant to criticism … In many areas there were reports of abuses against journalists mainly by forces. TVs and Radios have been threatened over live broadcasts and today they obliged … Besigye’s health is still not good but whatever happens, Ugandans are becoming more and more defiant in the face of brutality and his homecoming will probably see us go into another protest.’

Rosebelle also discussed the ongoing protests on Al Jazeera’s stream on 23 May. The strategy behind Hoot4Change in which people honked and hooted in support of Walk2Work, is to widen the protests. She made the point that whilst food prices had risen locally, Ugandan farmers were getting very good prices for their food being sold in South Sudan and the DRC.

Echwalu Photography has an excellent photo essay of the protests and subsequent arrests and violence on the streets.

Finally Julius Barigaba reports in The East African on the deployment of tanks around Kampala’s Constitutional Square. According to Barigaba, this is not because there might be another ‘Tahrir Square’ but more like another Tiananmen Square:

‘Tahrir collected a million anti-Mubarak protestors over three weeks, leading to the dictator's fall in February this year. In Beijing, however, Tiananmen was the scene of a massacre by a military whose mindset is that of anarchy, akin to that of Uganda's armed forces, according to political analyst Mwambutsya Ndebesa, professor of history at Makerere University.’

‘The Square has become a no-go area, barricaded by blue Mamba APCs, tear gas trucks and anti-riot police. To dare to go there is to court arrest, unlimited doses of teargas, gunshot wounds, and possibly, death.

‘On May 10, former presidential candidates Norbert Mao, Olara Otunnu, Sam Lubega and Mohammad Kibirige Mayanja attempted to access Constitution Square and stage a rally there. Somewhat Mao and Mayanja sneaked through the first line of police cordon but could not go past the next:

‘“We want to hold a rally in the Square that is named after our (1995) Constitution. It is our right," Mao yelled at the police as they pushed him back.

‘But Otunnu, Lubega and others were not lucky. A police truck spewing pink liquid pushed them 200 metres away, bathing them in a deluge of crimson -- police's latest anti-riot innovation.

‘That is the norm in Kampala these days -- people wake up to a menu of live bullets and teargas. Access to some roads is blocked, as boda boda cyclists, unemployed youths and Kisekka Market traders engage the military and police in running battles. Occasionally, a military chopper eerily monitors the action. Files of military men, with guns held combat style, patrol the streets; APCs are at entry points into the city.’


Back in February, while Tunisia was celebrating the removal of Ben Ali and Egypt was bathing in the warmth of Tahrir Square revolutionary love, a group of online Kenyans decided to celebrate ‘Kenyan nationalism’ day on February 28th. Along with a show of badges and 12 reasons to be ‘proud’, Kenyans were asked to stand united and speak with one voice at 1pm on the day:

‘…wherever you are, at work, in the supermarket, in traffic, in school, on campus, in hospitals, in churches, in mosques, in temples, in synagogues, on sports pitches, in court, on your farm, at police stations, at armed forces barracks, in matatus, in buses, on the beach, in the game parks, at the airport, in parliament, in State House, in your homes…’

The hope was the ‘world would watch’ but in the end, the world was too busy watching and tweeting the televised revolutions to care much about Kenyans saluting flags.

Wambui Mwangi didn't feel there was much to be proud about and as inspiring as these declarations might be they are hardly transformational. Nationalism, patriotism and notions of rule based belongings are exclusionary and counter-revolutionary:

‘Six of our leading representatives and public figures are under grave suspicion by the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity, but this apparently does not perturb us. Our internally displaced citizens continue to languish in refugee camps, which disturbs our comfort not at all. Millions of young people are unemployed and frustrated but we would rather not discuss it. Ethnic militias gather force and virulence: still, we are content. A vulgar misogyny accompanied by a homophobia as vile as it is pervasive finds extensive purchase in our collective psyche: we are unflappable. We seem to enjoy all these, or at least not to mind them enough to engage with their implications.’

Instead of the call for a nationalism based on denial Wambui suggests ‘singing’ to remember those ‘collective issues waiting for our attention’, and to re-organise and ‘align principles with practice’:

‘We should sing to acknowledge that we are responsible not only for the current state of affairs but also for its multiple necessary modes of resolution. As we sing, “we the people” should remember that sovereignty comes with responsibilities as well as rights, obligations as well as freedoms.’

The beauty of these songs is they are not just for Kenyans but for every African and recently her final two questions ‘So what?’ and ‘Now what?’ have been answered in what appears to be a new awakening in Kenya. Grassroots movements such as Bunge La Mwananchi (The People’s Parliament) and the ‘Unga Revolution’ (a collection of civil society groups including Bunge La Mwananchi) campaigning for economic and social rights have been formed in response to the rising cost of living and loss of social benefits. On 1 May a planned rally organised by Unga Revolution was illegally cancelled by the Kenyan police. The organising committee said:

‘This action is a relic of the old constitution and reminiscent of the dark days when peaceful gatherings were violently dispersed. It can also set a bad precedence for future engagements between peaceful citizens and law enforcement officers; in as far as exercising of democratic rights is concerned.

‘Since our campaign to petition the government to implement article 43 is nationwide in scope and grassroots in nature, we are hoping that your forces will allow Kenyans all over the country to assemble, discuss and push for the implementation of their rights and that you will accord them ample security as we all strive to work within our rights and responsibilities as set out in the supreme law of the land.’


The Swazi pro democracy uprisings which began on 12 April were met with beatings, teargas and hundreds of arrests. Many of the protesters were driven 100 miles into the country where they were dumbed by the police. Student leader Maxwell Dlamini and Musa Ngubeni of the SWAYOCO movement were arrested, tortured and remain in detention. The national coordinator of the International Research Academy for Labour and Education (IRALE), Percy Masuklu was one of those driven and dumped in the countryside. He gives his account below:

‘On 12 April 2011 leaders of the labour movement, political formations, youth and student organisations, civil society organisations like the Swaziland Democracy Campaign and ordinary Swazis were all arrested and treated to the 'hospitality' of the police of the ruling royal Swazi regime by means of torture and other dehumanizing elements characteristic of this corrupt regime.

There were running battles between the various organisations and the police and armed forces in which the forces prohibited the workers, students, youth, democracy activists, faith-based organisations and women's organisations from marching into the city centre in Manzini. The main intention of the march was to raise high the issues that the government of Swaziland has failed to deliver; these demands had been raised earlier by, largely, the labour formations. The city centre was turned into a battle field where workers were tear gassed, baton-charged and pursued into various directions by the heavy-handed police who understood nothing but the language of violence.’

Six weeks on from 12 April and the Swazi pro democracy activists and their supporters continue to protest in the adminstrative capital, Mbabane, South Africa and the UK:

‘The recent spate of pro-democracy demonstrations against the regime in Swaziland, which so far culminated in the mass demonstrations in March and April of this year, shows the increasing willingness of Swazis to face intimidation and police brutality to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the regime. The reason for this dissatisfaction, says Sikelela Dlamini, is the monarch’s spending on prestige projects and personal luxuries, and the regime’s financial mismanagement and corruption. “Mswati III’s major handicap has to be his continuously lavish lifestyle when the majority of his people languish in untold suffering.”’

On June 1st hundreds of members of The Swaziland Teachers Association closed schools and marched through the capital to the South African and US embassies demanding the latter freeze the Kings assets. Some of the tweets of the day were in response to a SABC2 Special Assignment on Swaziland …showing both the hope and frustration amongst Swazi people.

@msi_001: The people of Swaziland will be liberated sooner or later.......AMANDLA to my jailed comrades

@presciousestevao: please focus and try to create some sort of movement when it comes to our comrades being killed in Swaziland.

@specialassign: Swaziland is under financial struggles, who funds the monarchy? Since many people there are living below the poverty line."

@SpecialAssign: Democracy in Africa's last standing monarchy? Political prisoners or criminal terrorists in Swaziland's jails? Watch tonight 21h30 on SABC3



In neighbouring Botswana, much revered in the west as ‘Africa’s success story’, public sector workers – transport, schools, clinics and government staff – began striking on 18 April. The ruling party has been in power for 45 years and people are calling for a change. The leader of the opposition, Duma Boko has called for an ‘Egypt’ style uprising, though I doubt this will happen. The strikes and protests have been peaceful with none of the violence seen in neighboring countries.

‘There are different ways to take over governance, and that includes by force,’ he said at a recent press conference in support of the strike held by the opposition parties, ’If we can come together we can take our government as it happened in Egypt and Tunisia.’ For the Botswana Movement for Democracy, a breakaway party from the BDP, the strike undermines the ruling party’s contention that Botswana is a model democracy. ’This is clear from the government’s refusal to accept workers’ demands for a pay hike, under the pretext that the economy has not yet recovered from the recession,” said its leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi.

The government has now ordered the some 90,000 workers back to work after offering a 3 per cent pay rise rather than the 16 per cent demanded.


Pro democracy activists had called for a ‘Day of Rage’ on Saturday 28 May. An online campaign ‘Beka‘ meaning ‘Enough’ in Amharic had hoped to mobilise thousands. In the end it was Meles Zenawi’s supporters who turned out in their thousands.

Like uprisings taking place in other parts of the continent, Uganda, Swaziland, Kenya, and Botswana actions are in response to concerns over food security, rising unemployment particularly amongst youth, political marginalisation, corruption of government officials and a push back against the entrenched leadership of the circle of ‘rulers for life’. Military dictators have been replaced by democracy dictatorships under militarised states.

Despite the transformational actions taking place across the country, one particularly marginalised group remains invisible. The LGBTIQ movement continues to be largely isolated and it remains to be seen if the new struggles for social justice will be wholly inclusive. At the same time it is up to the LGBTIQ movement itself to grow in visibility and to enter into dialogue with other movements at the crucial time of change. This is especially true in countries such as Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa where established LGBTIQ groups have existed for many years.


* Sokari Ekine blogs at the award-winning Black Looks.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.