KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — The green grass looks inviting, but few people have the courage to enter the only public square in Uganda’s capital. Most sit or stand at the edges, respecting the barricades of scrap metal erected by police who stand poised to arrest those who attempt a forced entry.
Once a cheerful place favored by politicians, Kampala’s Constitution Square is now effectively closed to the public as part of the government’s widening effort to restrict the activities of those agitating for political change after 27 years of the same president.
Activists trying to access the square, fondly referred to as Uganda’s “Tahrir Square,” have suffered beatings at the hands of police, spreading fear even among ordinary Ugandans whose only wish is to relax here. Even the city’s mayor, a politician who leans toward the opposition, has been advised to stay away.
On a recent afternoon marabou storks scavenged for lunch inside the square. Student Anne Kiggundu, observing the birds from a safe distance, complained that an iconic square had gone to waste.
“I would love very much to enter the place,” she said. “But I fear even standing here. I’ve been hearing stories that people are not supposed to go in, but I don’t know the exact reason.”
For some in this East African country, the now forlorn square in the heart of Kampala speaks volumes about what they say is the state’s repression of those opposed to the long reign of President Yoweri Museveni. The square’s popularity with opposition activists peaked ahead of presidential elections in 2011, around the same time Cairo’s Tahrir Square was becoming famous around the world as the center of popular protests against Hosni Mubarak. Since then Constitution Square has been closed to the public despite the protests of some lawyers and activists who say such action is illegal as well as unconstitutional.
“It’s a sign of insecurity and it’s a sign of fear by the government that the people can turn against those who are in power,” said Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago. “It goes against the dictates of a democratic government.”
Museveni, who is in his late 60s, is under pressure to retire when his current term expires in 2016. He faces a challenge from within his party, with former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya already announcing he will contest the presidency and Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of parliament, emerging as a serious rival for political power.
But the loudest calls for Museveni to go have come from opposition activists who accuse him of encouraging corruption and using force to silence political dissent. In April 2011 —shortly after Museveni had won re-election — Uganda’s security forces killed at least nine civilians during anti-government protests on the streets of Kampala. The watchdog group Human Rights Watch says the security forces “responded to the protests with brutality – killing, beating, and arbitrarily arresting protesters and bystanders.”
Timothy Kalyegira, an independent researcher who is a well-known social critic in Uganda, said Constitution Square’s closure has come to symbolize what he said was “the narrowing political space” in Uganda.
“That speaks a thousand words about the erosion of the legitimacy of the government,” he said. “Constitution Square is now ironically named.”
Uganda’s parliament, which is dominated by lawmakers with the ruling party, is considering a bill that would make it hard for opposition politicians to hold meetings or rallies that the state does not want. The draft legislation —dubbed the Public Order Management Bill — assigns the police chief unprecedented powers to regulate public gatherings. Accordingly, public spaces such as Constitution Square will become officially off-limits to the general public.
“It must not be a place for idlers,” said Andrew Kaweesi, the top police commander for Kampala, referring to Constitution Square. “Why should they go there as a group in the first place? The place must be controlled.”
Many fear the state will get more repressive as Museveni’s power continues to be tested. A Ugandan army general who is a hero of the bush war the brought Museveni to power recently wrote a letter to the internal security service urging an investigation into reports of a plan to assassinate officials opposed to the political rise of the first son. Gen. David Sejusa, who is in London and faces when he returns to Uganda, has since accused Museveni of abusing state institutions such as the army to keep his family in power.
Museveni’s son, an army brigadier named Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is now in charge of the country’s special forces, an elite group within the military whose main role is to protect the president. Kainerugaba’s rapid rise in a military system that wields substantial power has led some to believe he is being groomed to succeed his father as president.
Addressing the nation on June 9, Museveni said he would not tolerate what he called “development saboteurs,” warning that the state would deal with them firmly. He cited Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a three-time presidential aspirant whose “Walk to Work” protests last year were violently quelled by the security forces.
“Whoever tries to cause problems, we finish them,” Museveni said. “Besigye tried to disorganize Kampala and we gave him a little tear gas and he calmed down. He didn’t need a bullet, just a little gas.”
Uganda, which has not had a single peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962, is on the cusp of becoming a major oil producer in Africa. Many here believe the country’s oil wealth likely will motivate Museveni to postpone his retirement.