Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni accused the opposition yesterday of exploiting a dispute between his government and the leaders of an ancient kingdom to foment last week’s deadly riots.
Local media say at least 21 people were killed in two days of street protests that convulsed the capital Kampala and other towns in the country’s central region.
In comments to parliament, Museveni asked why Kizza Besigye, a former ally who now leads the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), would want to see more bloodshed in Uganda.
“Why does a political leader like Dr Besigye, or any other leader, promote riots?” Museveni said. “There are legal ways in the constitution to deal with any eventuality.”
East Africa’s third biggest economy has been hailed for its political and macroeconomic stability over the last two decades after years of civil war during the 1970s and 80s.
Museveni has been widely admired for his fiscal reforms and poverty alleviation programmes. But critics, including some Western donors, accuse him of rights abuses and repression.
A fight with Buganda, one of Uganda’s four ancient kingdoms, adds to the pressure on him after the opposition said major reforms were essential if the next election in 2011 was to be free and fair.
Last week’s clashes between members of the Buganda and police broke out after the authorities barred the Buganda king from visiting a flashpoint town east of the capital on territory that Buganda claims.
Former leader Milton Obote abolished the traditional kingdoms in the 1960s, but Museveni a former rebel leader reinstated their traditional and ceremonial powers in 1993.
But they were restricted from getting involved in politics. Experts say last week’s violence was spurred by long-simmering rows over land, power and corruption.
Besigye rejected Museveni’s claims. He said the protests were triggered by the government’s actions, and that he was habitually used as a scapegoat by the president’s team.
“There is absolutely no truth to it. The riots in Kampala were completely spontaneous,” Besigye told Reuters by telephone.
In his speech, Museveni said the security forces should in future use minimal, non-lethal force to deal with demonstrators but that rioters should be shot if they attacked civilians.
Human rights groups have criticised the “heavy-handed” response to the riots by the police and Ugandan military, which used live ammunition on crowds, beat and arrested journalists and shut down five radio stations.
One popular local radio talk show host, Robert Serumaga, was freed on bail yesterday after being charged with six counts of sedition. He said he had been throttled and beaten by security agents during his detention over the weekend.
Pic: President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda at a military parade