A tropical rainstorm is pelting down, and even the armed police who watch his entranceway have taken shelter. Inside his gated mansion, Kizza Besigye sits alone in the gloom, listening to the pounding rain as he ponders his fate.
The Ugandan opposition leader has been released from house arrest, but the protest marches that he leads are growing weaker and more sporadic, and more easily disrupted by the police and soldiers who watch and wait outside. His latest march survived for only a few minutes before Mr. Besigye was hauled off to a police station for “preventive arrest.”
The failure of Mr. Besigye’s street protests is often seen as emblematic of a broader defeat: the collapse of an “African Spring” that attempted to emulate the more successful uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Yet look more closely and there are signs of a democratic awakening in a growing number of authoritarian states in sub-Saharan Africa – an awakening that could still lead to fundamental change.
Mr. Besigye himself vows to keep fighting. To give up now, he says, would be a betrayal of the sacrifices that he and his followers have made in their long battle against President Yoweri Museveni. “It would all go to waste, and that would be unforgiveable,” he says. “So many people have died. Whatever happens, this should be taken to its logical conclusion.”
The protest movement in Uganda, like many others in sub-Saharan Africa, seems to have little prospect of achieving its dreams in the near future. Unlike the “people power” revolts in North Africa, the protests to the south have failed to dislodge any of the autocratic leaders who have dominated many African countries for decades – including Mr. Museveni, ruler of Uganda for the past 25 years.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring early this year, a wave of protests has erupted in more than a dozen African capitals, demanding greater freedom and democracy, often explicitly inspired by the North Africa revolutions. From Burkina Faso and Cameroon to Gabon and Swaziland, ordinary Africans across the continent have risen up against long-ruling regimes.
Most of the protests were swiftly crushed. A new study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. government think tank, estimates that 40 per cent of African countries are still controlled by autocratic or semi-authoritarian regimes. But the same study also suggests that the uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa are far from futile. They may have laid the groundwork for future change.
“African populations now have higher expectations that government leaders act in a more democratic and accountable manner,” the study says. “There is a palpable sense that African citizens will no longer passively sit back and accept abuses of power.”
Even if protest movements in countries such as Uganda are faltering, social conditions are shifting in ways that will boost the reformers in the future. All the ingredients that fuelled the Arab Spring – high Internet penetration, rapid urbanization, stronger civil society, rising awareness of global trends and a demographic shift to a younger population – are beginning to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, too, as the U.S. think tank points out.
In a survey of more than a dozen African countries, for example, the number of Facebook users has grown by up to 56 per cent during the past six months. Another indicator: Hundreds of new radio stations have opened across Africa in recent years. And a third measure: Access to mobile phones has soared in the past decade, reaching about 40 per cent of the African population today, compared with 2 per cent a decade ago.
All of this has contributed to the growth in civil society, stronger media and a rising belief in term limits and other checks on the power of political rulers. “African citizens are far less willing to accept unconstitutional changes, abuses of power, gross corruption, and state violence against the population,” the think tank said.
“This is a major change from years past. This new attitude has been influenced by a key lesson from the Arab Spring: that citizens can and must confront excesses of their government if they expect it to change.”
Mr. Besigye, who still suffers eye damage from an incident in April when police used pepper spray on him, says he sees a growing willingness by ordinary Ugandans to join demonstrations, strikes, labour actions and other forms of protest against the government. “A few years back, public protests were unheard of,” he said. “The discontent is palpable everywhere now. What we’re doing is getting people out of their fears.”
At the peak of the Ugandan protests in April, the government ordered a shutdown of Facebook and Twitter. But the service providers refused – a further sign of resistance to authoritarianism here.
Another example is Uganda’s parliament, which has become surprisingly independent on key issues, even though Mr. Museveni’s party controls a majority of seats. It recently voted to suspend all new deals in the oil sector, because of corruption concerns. A maverick MP from the ruling party released a batch of documents suggesting that some cabinet ministers had taken bribes from oil companies.
“I’m rather encouraged by the number of young MPs who are willing to challenge the government,” Mr. Besigye said. “They’re saying, ‘No, this has gone way too far, we can’t allow this.’ People are being empowered and emboldened.”
One member of the ruling party, Vincent Nzaramba, went so far as to write a book that called for a non-violent revolution in Uganda. His book, printed in small numbers in September, criticized the government for corruption, abuse of power and dictatorial tendencies.
In response, he was detained and interrogated for five days by police and state security agents, who confiscated almost all copies of his book. He says he was beaten and kicked, and accused of “sedition” and “inciting violence.” But he refuses to be intimidated.
“The government’s strategy is to silence the people,” Mr. Nzaramba said. “It might succeed for a while, but they will never succeed in permanently suppressing people. The opposition has opened people’s eyes and ended the fear.”