KAMPALA, Uganda — Opposition leader Kizza Besigye swooped into town Thursday, stealing the spotlight from Yoweri Museveni who was preparing to be sworn into a fourth term as Uganda's president.
The showdown between two politicians who have dominated Ugandan politics for years drew yet another display of the government’s intolerance toward opposition.
Besigye, who led the recent protests in Uganda over rising food prices, had been blocked from returning to Uganda on Wednesday. He was in Kenya seeking medical treatment after a violent arrest last month.
Kenya Airways prevented Besigye from flying out of Nairobi. Airline officials said it believed Besigye's plane would be prevented from landing if he was on board.
So, instead Besigye returned on Museveni’s inauguration day — just as heads of state, including Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and other invited guests gathered for a swearing-in ceremony on a military airstrip in the center of the capital.
Besigye landed at Entebbe airport 25 miles outside Kampala, drawing a crowd of tens of thousands and far outnumbering the few thousand who gathered to cheer Museveni.
Museveni, who seized power in 1986 as the head of a rebel army, celebrated his inauguration with fighter jet flybys and a 21-gun salute. His fourth term of five years will take his 25-year rule to 30 years.
“Disrupting schemes will be defeated,” he declared during his speech.
It was clear what Museveni was referring to: On the road from Entebbe, Besigye was making his way to Kamapala in a convoy of vehicles. Besigye and his wife stood out of their car’s sunroof waving a two-fingered victory salute at crowds who gathered alongside the road or walked alongside his car.
Supporters waved branches torn from trees and old election posters from the February poll in which Besigye was defeated — for the third time in a row — by Museveni.
The parade started in a celebratory mood but later descended into a series of short-lived but violent scuffles between security forces and opposition supporters. At least one person was killed when police fired into a crowd after stones were thrown at a car carrying Nigeria’s recently-elected President Goodluck Jonathan in town for the inauguration.
In the afternoon Museveni and Besigye passed within yards of each other as the lengthy presidential convoy raced towards Entebbe where the president was hosting a post-inauguration party.
As the president drove by opposition supporters jeered.
“We don’t want Museveni,” shouted some. “Get rid of the dictator,” cried others.
It was an embarrassing display for the president whose guests saw the army patrolling the streets in armored personnel carriers mounted with machine guns. VIPS saw the army fire tear gas to clear roads of crowds of anti-Museveni protesters.
Eddie Kagombe, an unemployed 22-year-old, complained that there were no jobs for young people. “Ever since I entered the world there is only Museveni. I need a change,” he said.
Others echoed Besigye’s complaint that Museveni’s government is corrupt and out-of-touch with the struggles of ordinary folk.
While inflation creeps ever upwards making life more difficult for average Ugandans and sparking a series of “walk-to-work” protests, Museveni spent $1.3 million on his inauguration celebrations. He has also earmarked $740 million to buy new fighter jets and, according to local reports, spent $340 million on his successful re-election campaign in February when he took 68 percent of the vote.
As Besigye’s convoy made its snail-paced progress toward Kampala and the hours dragged on, tensions between the riot police and soldiers escorting him and his supporters frayed.
Rowdy crowds would gather before being dispersed with tear gas, water cannons and gunfire. Sometimes the police fired first, sometimes Besigye’s supporters threw rocks starting the fracas.
As the afternoon wore on the military took over and at times the security presence was so heavy that there were more uniformed and armed men than civilians on the road.
Besigye reached Kampala as night fell triggering more tear gas and baton charges by soldiers and police seeking to disperse cheering crowds.
Museveni has been criticized for his government’s suppression of the protests, led by Besigye, that have broken out since his reelection in February.
Besigye organized several "walk-to-work" marches during the month of April and security forces broke them up brutally. At least nine people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Besigye was arrested four times, shot in the hand with a rubber bullet and was temporarily blinded when he was sprayed at point blank range with pepper spray.
Besigye’s rough treatment has boosted his popularity.
“Museveni has become a dictator,” said 29-year-old Timothy Owor. “If they can arrest Besigye like that, what can they do to me?”
Museveni’s increasingly repressive reflexes are also worrying observers.
“We are headed towards a much more oppressive political dispensation, it’s a very dangerous direction,” said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a senior research fellow at Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research. “If we carry on this way the endgame will be a violent one.”