During the early morning hours of September 21, nine young activists — all in their twenties — hauled a coffin toward a police station in the northern city of Lira. The coffin was draped with posters of Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni and a number of his other allies in government. Written across the coffin on one side were the words “Change the constitution and bury Uganda” — a reference to a proposed constitutional amendment that would do away with the presidential age limit.
At 6.30 a.m., when they arrived at a major intersection, they set the coffin down and lit it on fire. By the time the police station came alive to start the day, the protesters had already left. Not knowing who they were looking for, the officers nevertheless set out on a hunt to find them.
Over the next 12 hours, the young people invaded street after street in Lira, chanting anti-constitutional change slogans, lifting up placards and even setting some tires on fire. The small group soon grew into large crowds in all corners of Lira. The protesters had allies everywhere, and as soon as the police set out to stop a protest on a given street, someone would call the protesters and inform them. They would quickly disperse and reorganize at a different place, and the police would arrive too late, finding no one to arrest.
Eventually, when the police got fed up with the constant evasion, they decided to storm the offices of the nonviolent training organization Solidarity Uganda, claiming that they were hiding the protesters. Police checked behind all doors and in ceiling boards, finding no one. But they didn’t leave empty-handed. Solidarity Uganda staff member Dickens Otim was arrested and charged with inciting violence. Due to a lack of evidence, however, the charge was downgraded, and he was released on bail.
Actions like these have been happening all over the country, as those against the age limit amendment bill voice their concerns in the corridors of power and in the streets of most cities — oftentimes accompanied by the Luganda hashtag and slogan #Togikwatako, which means “Don’t you dare touch” (the constitution).
Uganda’s History With Dictatorship
Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power. Since independence in October 1962, one dictator after another has taken the reigns of the country by force.
Museveni and his National Resistance Army led a military coup in 1985 that toppled then-President Milton Obote. After a few months, the whole country was in the hands of one-time rebels.
Over 30 years later, Museveni still wants to govern the country, even though, legally, he will soon no longer be eligible. Article 102b in the Ugandan Constitution sets the presidential age limit at 75. Museveni is 73.
Ruling party MP Raphael Magyezi proposed an amendment bill on October 21 that would scrap the presidential age limit from the constitution. Opposition MPs protested the bill by singing the national anthem as he attempted to read it. They kept singing for more than five minutes, refusing him the chance to continue his proposal. Meanwhile, pro-Museveni MPs rose up to defend Magyezi, turning chairs into weapons as parliament descended into open fighting for several minutes. Parliament was ultimately adjourned for the day due to the chaos, but a video of the incident became a national sensation. Following its fame, the Uganda Communications Commission banned the live broadcasting of all protest events by television and radio stations, claiming they incited the public to violence.
Members of Parliament were each offered 29 million Ugandan shillings (or about $ 8,000) to carry out age limit consultations in their constituencies. Some have returned the money, describing it as an attempt to “sanitize bribery of Members of Parliament.” Jonathan Odur, an MP for Erute South (in nothern Uganda) wrote a message to his WhatsApp contacts, as well as on other social media, saying: “In Solidarity with our struggle against abuse of the constitution through DON’T TOUCH campaign, I have also decided NOT TO TOUCH the 29m ‘consultation fee.'”
Police Crackdown on Civil Society and Activists
After the first week of protests, police repression increased dramatically. Troops were deployed to Parliament, as well as many roads, towns and residential neighborhoods. Police raided the offices of political parties and civil society organizations, including ActionAid Uganda, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, Corruption Brakes Crusade and the Uhuru Institute. Solidarity Uganda was also raided again, resulting in the re-arrest of Dickens Otim, along with Solidarity Uganda Director Suzan Abong Wilmot. Many more from other organizations were arrested, such as Norman Tumuhimbise, of the Jobless Brotherhood, who was taken to an unknown location for about a week.
As part of its efforts to squash the opposition from organizing, the government then froze the bank accounts for ActionAid and Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as the personal bank accounts of their staff. Authorities sent a letter to 25 other non-governmental organizations demanding their bank account details. While some refused to divulge that information, a number of civil society organizations also resolved to boycott the banks complying with government orders to freeze their accounts, deciding to instead start their own cooperative bank.
Many activists were detained for longer than the legal 48 hours without any charge. Hashtags like #FreeNorman, #FreeSuzan and #Free Dickens circulated until police released them. Since their release, court dates have been postponed without any explanation.
Meanwhile, crowds that have marched in protest have been tear-gassed and arrested, including university students and masses in major and small towns around the country. But the crackdowns have not deterred resistance efforts.
New Heights of Nonviolent Resistance in Uganda
Opposition MP and musician Robert Kyagulanyi — also known as Bobi Wine — wrote to Museveni, saying, “There comes a time when people are TIRED. UGANDANS ARE TIRED! They have been patient with you. They have been respectful and generous to you knowing that in 2021 a new dispensation will come.” The letter has been circulating all over social media and in mainstream newspapers.
In Ugandan history, there hasn’t been anything close to the level of resistance seen these past couple months — particularly not this kind of decentralized, dispersed type of nonviolent resistance. Typically, when there is the occasional march in Kampala, the rest of the country remains silent. This time, many towns have organized nonviolent actions around the country, and some have been cooperating across geography and tribe.
On October 18, in Rukungiri (located in southwestern Uganda) those participating in a march chased away police forces who at first shot live bullets into the crowd when it refused to disperse. The crowd, who were also singing religious songs and chanting anti-age limit amendment slogans, moved against the officers relentlessly. Some members shouted at police, telling them they were ready to die and that “Rukungiri is not Kampala,” where protesters flee from the police. Ingrid Turinawe, a leader in the opposition party who was slated to speak at the event, described the situation as “police firing bullets like popcorn,” and said the sky was “raining stones” in response.
The people kept coming at the police in their large groups, wearing red ribbons — a symbol against the lifting of the age limit — and singing “Don’t dare touch [the constitution].” All the while, despite being unarmed, the masses braved tear gas and live bullets.
Meanwhile, in Bushenyi District, in western Uganda, things got quite violent. In late September, social media platforms were filled with concerns that residents had allegedly slashed the banana plantation of MP Magyezi, the Museveni loyalist who introduced the amendment of article 102b in parliament.
Culturally, in this area, the slashing of plantains is a way of symbolically cutting off the food supply and showing the wrath of a village toward someone. It is usually done to criminals who escape justice, especially hardcore criminals like murderers and rapists. It is an expression of helplessness in the face of severe transgression. Magyezi has since denied these allegations, claiming that his people are happy with the amendment. But widespread reports of protests in this area tell a different story.
Even in Mbarara, which is a ruling party stronghold and Museveni’s home region, a crowd of peaceful protesters was dispersed by live bullets and tear gas. There was another demonstration by youths who carried a coffin which they marked with placards, mocking Museveni, Constitutional Affairs’ Minister Kahinda Otafiire and ruling party parliamentarians, as corpses. Three of the protesters were arrested.
This kind of collaboration between different activists from different backgrounds proves that mobilization is happening, people are talking more to each other and coming together to unite for a common cause. A Solidarity Uganda street watch map highlights the major resistances in towns around the country and police crackdowns on people’s rights in relation to the resistance.
In one of his letters to Museveni and to the people, Kyagulanyi has asked opposition supporters to “Call your Member of Parliament, or better still, pay them a visit and demand accountability. Stand up NOW before it is too late.”
People in many parts of the country have made big plans for their members of parliament. In nothern Uganda, Lango residents have decided to boycott all MPs who support the age limit amendment. They want to put them in what’s often termed a double-bind, where whatever step they take, they lose. For example, on October 9, during independence celebrations in northern Uganda, an MP from Amolatar district was taken off a platform and had the microphone removed from her hand when she attempted to address people in her constituency about the so-called age limit consultations. The same happened in Mbale, Eastern Uganda when an MP attempted to compare Museveni to the pope. Three elderly women pulled the Mbale MP off the platform.
As with any movement, there are stages in the #Togikwatako struggle. National movements to oust dictators often endure a phase of severe repression. That repression is mounting, but Ugandans are using it to energize themselves. They are not playing with a defensive strategy, but one of counter-attack. If they can keep the momentum rising across the nation, Museveni will have more to worry about than the pending age limit.