Uganda's protest movement goes to the villages

Uganda's anti-government protesters are shifting their rallies to remote villages to escape the heavy police response encountered in the capital city in their campaign against the alleged misrule of the country's long-serving leader.

Instead of tear gas and batons encountered in Kampala in the past, protesters are met with apparent indifference in the countryside. Rallies in rural areas went ahead undeterred in recent days, but protest leaders caution that it might also be because it is more difficult there for the government to quickly mobilize resources such as anti-riot police or tear gas.

The village rallies come at a time when the party of President Yoweri Museveni — who has been in power for more than 25 years — is suffering defeats in by-elections in places where it was once hugely popular. Museveni's party, already distracted by a power struggle over who might succeed the leader when he leaves office, has lost five of six electoral contests this year.

Museveni's opponents are eager to try him even harder in his own backyard, western Uganda, the scene of boisterous rallies that the police failed to block this and last week.

"We are fighting for change," Ingrid Turinawe, an opposition activist who has become one of Museveni's most vocal critics, said in an interview Monday.

"We have achieved a lot since we started," raising awareness and encouraging Ugandans to stand up for what they want, Turinawe said. In villages now, people "are more alert and ready for the struggle. The ones in Kampala are intimidated," she added.

Opposition activists with the group Activists for Change, or A4C, started a protest movement in April 2011 against Museveni, who had just won re-election but whose government the activists accuse of massive corruption and economic mismanagement.

The activists called their campaign Walk to Work and staged a series of popular protests in which they walked the streets of Kampala, gathering supporters along the way.

The marches were marred by violent battles between supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye and police, who used tear gas or live bullets to break up crowds. Later the government banned A4C, whose leaders responded by renaming the group 4GC, in a reference to "For God and my Country," Uganda's national motto. That group was later banned, too.

The leaders of the protest movement believe the village rallies could be a turning point in their struggle to cause political change in Uganda, which Museveni rules since 1986. The president has been especially popular in the villages of eastern and western Uganda, where he is often praised for restoring the kind of peace and stability that was lacking during past dictatorships.

Opposition parties have struggled under Museveni, who is widely regarded as intolerant of dissent, and some analysts say pressure groups such as A4C are a creative response to the lack of powerful opposition parties.

"This means that A4C is becoming more dominant than the opposition parties," Aaron Mukwaya, a professor of political science at Uganda's Makerere University, said Tuesday. "This is very sad for the parties."

Human Rights Watch said the protest crackdowns by police violated Ugandans' right to free speech and assembly. The group said police committed crimes — opening fire on protesters — with impunity. Government officials said the rallies were illegal and dangerous because participants sometimes turned violent, smashing store fronts, blocking highways and throwing rocks at police.

Museveni has not said whether he will seek re-election when his current term expires in 2016, but he faces increasing pressure from within and from outside his party to preside over what would be the first peaceful transfer of power since Uganda became independent in 1962. A rift has emerged within his party the succession, with influential officials already jostling for power.

"The leader is the party and the party is the leader, and that's tricky," said Okwir Rabwoni, a former lawmaker who now runs a Kampala-based watchdog called Centre of Constitutional Governance.