Uganda's main opposition leader was greeted by crowds singing his name and waving branches yesterday in a show of support that overshadowed the inauguration of the President.
The country has witnessed some of the most serious unrest in sub-Saharan Africa this year and raised the prospect of a southern follow-on to the Arab awakening. In the process, Kizza Besigye has been transformed from a presidential also-ran to a lightning rod for Ugandans' frustration with their government and deteriorating quality of life.
Thousands of people lined the road to applaud the opposition leader who has in the last month been shot, beaten and jailed for heading protest marches in the capital, Kampala. Events in Uganda have unnerved some of the African leaders attending President Yoweri Museveni's swearing in, as they face similar accusations at home of corruption, ineffectiveness and brutality.
Mr Museveni, who came to power in 1986 after leading a bush war against the unpopular Milton Obote, did his best to brazen it out, boasting to the assembled VIPs and thanking the "68.3 percent" of Ugandans who voted for him earlier this year.
However, a badly handled response to peaceful protests against the rising cost of living has changed the political landscape and energised the opposition who floundered badly at election time. "Walk to work" marches designed to sidestep a ban on protests and highlight the fact that many Ugandans can no longer afford public transport have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, police violence and mass arrests. Dr Besigye, who was Mr Museveni's physician during the bush war, was hit in the hand by a rubber bullet on the first walk and has been arrested, beaten and pepper sprayed in subsequent marches.
Dr Besigye took several hours to travel the 20 miles from the lakeside airport into Kampala yesterday and police eventually fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters in what they claimed was an effort to clear the road. His arrival was a day late, after the government prevented him from flying home from Kenya, where he had been receiving medical treatment.
Despite the upsurge in protests Uganda remains fundamentally different to countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, that are ruled by outright dictators. Mr Museveni has been more astute in maintaining political support – using popular issues such as homophobia – while allowing the appearance of a democratic process. Elections in February were noticeably freer than previous polls as a demoralised and fractured opposition failed to mount any serious challenge.Reuse content