KAMPALA (Reuters) – Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye, President Yoweri Museveni’s closest rival in February elections, was injured while taking part in a protest against high food and fuel prices, he said on Thursday.
Military police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a crowd of more than 1,000 led by Besigye marching to the center of the Ugandan capital Kampala in protest against steep rises in food and fuel prices, Reuters witnesses said.
“Shortly after the firing began I was hit and I suspect it was a rubber bullet. I had sharp pain and so this ring finger started bleeding,” Besigye told reporters at the Kampala Hospital before he was taken for treatment.
“Our protest does not call for any procession or any assembly, we are just asking people to walk to work two times a week and we want to do so to show solidarity with the already tens of thousands of people who are walking to work every day because they can no longer afford the cost of public transport.”
Prices have been rising because drought reduced food production across Uganda, while higher global oil prices have increased transport costs, in turn pushing up food prices further in urban areas.
The consumer price index jumped 4.1 percent in March from February, pushing the year-on-year inflation rate to 11.1 percent, the fifth straight rise.
“WALK TO WORK”
Besigye, who marched with the demonstrators in a Kampala suburb after defying police attempts to scatter them before they reached the city center, said the government has been spending recklessly to sustain itself in power.
Protests were also reported in the second busiest commercial town of Jinja in eastern Uganda, where security forces used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters, while in Masaka in south western Uganda, about 10 protesters were arrested.
Government officials were not available to comment.
Besigye wore swimming goggles and a surgical mask over his face. He was engaged in a scuffle with police as they dragged him across a dusty road with his supporters gathered around.
One of Besigye’s supporters lay on the ground with blood dripping across his face from cuts on his forehead where a tear gas canister hit him, other protesters said.
“If we have to sleep here we shall sleep here, they will take the colonel (Besigye) nowhere. For him to walk is not a crime, we are not getting out of here, we shall defend Besigye,” said one of the protesters who declined to be named.
After the presidential election in February, Besigye called for peaceful protests against Museveni’s 25-year-old rule, saying the poll had been rigged, but they failed to get off the ground.
Opposition and civil society groups launched their first “walk to work” protest against steep rises in the cost of living on Monday but it was swiftly stifled by police, and opposition leaders were detained.
Besigye was charged with inciting unrest and released on bail after Monday’s protest.
“The heavy-handed crackdown by the security forces has exacerbated the situation, and drawn much more publicity than the walk to work protest would otherwise have gotten,” said Joseph Lake of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“We have seen an increasing amount of state intervention (to stabilize prices) across Africa since protests brought down the Tunisian and Egypt regimes, and it would not be a surprise if the government introduced food or fuel subsidies to appease those demonstrating.
(Additional reporting by Jocelyn Edwards, Issa Aliga in Masaka, Mike Segawa in Jinja and Barry Malone in Addis Ababa; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by David Clarke)