NAIROBI, Kenya – The Ugandan opposition leader who was temporarily blinded during a brutal arrest by security forces said Saturday that the political demonstrations sweeping Uganda are only the beginning and that demands for better government are growing.
Kizza Besigye spent his first full day out of the hospital on Saturday since security operatives in Uganda sprayed him with pepper spray or tear gas at close range April 28 in the Ugandan capital. Besigye has been arrested five times while leading "walk to work" protests that were launched against government corruption and higher food and fuel prices.
He said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is starting to realize that residents are demanding better government.
"I consider that this is only the beginning," he said. "The demand of the people is already growing monumentally and initially the repression may also grow but without doubt there will be a point where the government will have to listen."
Besigye said he will return to Uganda next week and that he will participate in what he called "lawful, peaceful" protests, though his presence in previous marches has spurred violence. Youths have looted stores and filled highways with rocks or burning tires.
The protests have been the first serious unrest in sub-Saharan Africa since a wave of anti-government protests swept longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt out of power. The day after Besigye's last arrest, police clashed with protesters in downtown Kampala. Police fired live bullets and two people were killed. A lawyers' group earlier this week held a march demanding the resignation of security officials involved in Besigye's arrest.
After being "drenched" by tear gas or pepper spray at close range, Besigye spent a week in a Nairobi hospital. His left eye was the most seriously damaged, but he said he has regained most of his sight. He wore dark sunglasses because of his sensitivity to light. During a previous march Besigye was shot in the finger by a rubber bullet. Doctors in Nairobi also reset that bone.
Besigye said that doctors could not pinpoint the nature of the chemicals used by security operatives. Pepper spray and tear gas were likely used, he said, and tests were being done to see if other toxins were used. Samples were sent to the U.K. for testing, he said.
A doctor who used to be Museveni's personal physician, Besigye is tapping into anger in this landlocked East African nation over rising food and fuel prices. The 55-year-old was written off politically after a loss in the country's February presidential election — his third loss to Museveni — but Besigye is experiencing a political resurrection.
Besigye said corruption is the reason that Museveni is still in power after 25 years. He said he believes that Museveni does not have the ability or will to deal with corruption, but that elements within his administration can demand change or even his removal.
Museveni, during a visit to Kenya last week, said that security forces sprayed Besigye so forcefully because Besigye first sprayed or attacked security forces. Vivid television news images of the spraying did not show Besigye spraying or attacking security forces.
Besigye's wife, Winnie Byanyima, who works for the United Nations Development Program in New York, flew to Kenya this week. Byanyima, who has been active in Ugandan politics, said Saturday she is disturbed by the reaction of Uganda's security forces to the protests.
"I'm concerned about his safety but I'm not more concerned about him than the other activists, I'm concerned about the hundreds of activists who are languishing in jail just for getting up in the morning and walking to work," she said.