Ask middle class for their money, not participation protests

Ugandan police use teargas to disperse supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye in Kampala on June 20, 2013. PHOTO| FILE   NATION MEDIA GROUP

When opposition politicians in Uganda call for mass action, they passionately articulate issues that they think concern all of us and would make us angry enough to support their idea.

They highlight the human rights abuses by the State, corruption, unemployment, lack of social services, exploitation of labour by foreign investors, undemocratic practices by the government and so on.

To their surprise and disappointment, most of the people who follow them onto the street, attend their rallies and battle the teargas-spraying riot police are the ‘unwashed of society’ as John Nagenda called them. It is the poor, unemployed, slum dwellers, petty thieves, students, mechanics, market traders, hawkers and other ‘inconsequential’ members of society who make up the majority of the crowd.

You must add the agent provocateur, Trojan horses and state-sponsored spies, deployed to cause confusion and give the cause a bad name.

The so-called middle class, working class, university lectures, teachers, ‘corporates,’ civil servants, police officers, army men; the very people whose salaries are heavily taxed, who are overworked and underpaid, who have to pay medical bills and school fees for the extended families, the people whose sweat feeds corruption; are never present.

In fact they deliberately keep a distance from the demonstrations and most forms of overt anti-government political activity. This makes opposition politics look like stuff for the frustrated and unserious.

It even disturbs opposition politicians the more when they see some members of the masses in Cairo, Benghazi, Tunis and other Arab Spring ‘Tahrir Squares’ being interviewed and introducing themselves as doctors, lecturers, engineers, public servants and other professionals.

It baffles them that these people stay on the streets long enough to see the back of a dictator yet here demonstrations last for at most two days and then it is back to normal.

They use this to judge the middle class, working class and other higher-income level Ugandans as docile, hypocritical, indifferent and apprehensive.

The frustration of the opposition is understandable but is not based on rational thinking and information.

Financial needs

The way the Ugandan economy is structured means that almost everyone is working for government or with an entity in which those in power have a stake –overtly or covertly.

One cannot be seen to be outright opposed to the government and remain employed even if they believe in the opposition’s cause. Neither can they work against the government that appointed their boss on partisan grounds.

It is not even practical for expect a bank teller to leave the bank and go onto the street. They will find the job gone yet most, despite the happy outward appearances, have no savings to fall back to because of salary loans, rent, school and medical fees plus other expensive tastes that come with being accepted in these classes.

As for the so-called unwashed of society, most of whom live on less than a dollar a day or live hand to mouth, they can only be part of the mob for a day or two then go back to look for shillings to keep their skins together.

The opposition politician is left lonely, bitter and frustrated.

Then why is it that the Arabs get it right? Simple. In most of the countries where the Arab spring has been successful, those opposed to dictators have been able to answer the bread and butter issues of the demonstrators.

In the latest uprising in Egypt that saw the back of President Mohamed Morsy, many entities - individual, corporate and governments - in the Gulf States opposed to radical and militant Islam contributed heavily to keep the protesters and their leaders financially secure. They could afford not to work for days on end because they were assured that someone would take care of their financial needs.

In Uganda’s case, the bush war of 1981-86 was partly supported by many people who were working happily in Kampala while quietly making a contribution to the rebels.

The challenge for opposition politicians therefore is to find a way of interesting those with white collars to remain in their air-conditioned offices and shops to contribute towards sustaining the ‘unwashed of society’ when they go out in numbers - and keep them there for days for the cause to have effect.

Anything less than this means demonstrations will remain short-lived, spectacular fiascos.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.

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