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Rioters fuel a burning barricade during riots in Kampala on April 29, 2011, a day after Uganda's opposition leader Kizze Besigye was arrested (MARC HOFER/MARC HOFER/AFP/Getty Images)
Rioters fuel a burning barricade during riots in Kampala on April 29, 2011, a day after Uganda's opposition leader Kizze Besigye was arrested (MARC HOFER/MARC HOFER/AFP/Getty Images)

African strongmen crush attempts to emulate pro-democracy uprisings Add to ...

As a flurry of street protests grows stronger across Africa, some of the continent's toughest rulers are proving they can still crush dissent and maintain their grip on power.

The protests have led to violent crackdowns from Gabon to Uganda, exposing the apparent limits to the popular uprisings that were born in North Africa in January. While many of Africa's longest-ruling autocrats are facing mounting opposition, none of the revolts has threatened their dominance so far.

Building protest movements in sub-Saharan Africa is more difficult than in North Africa and the Middle East because of lower incomes, weaker Internet access, greater ethnic and religious divisions, less urbanized populations and stronger military support for the ruling regimes.

So far the political unrest has ranged from street rallies in Gabon and Swaziland to food-price protests in Burkina Faso, and from walkouts by university lecturers in Malawi to underground meetings of activists in Zimbabwe.

Uganda: The protest hot spot

The biggest and most persistent of the protests is in Uganda, where former guerrilla commander Yoweri Museveni has ruled the country since seizing power in 1986. He won another disputed election this year, but soaring gasoline and food prices have provoked growing anger.

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Kampala in a "walk to work" campaign, leaving their cars at home to express solidarity with those who cannot afford the cost of fuel. The protests began small, but gained momentum as Ugandan police responded with brutality.

The most prominent protester, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, has been arrested four times in the past three weeks. In one incident, he was shot with a rubber bullet. Then, last week, police used a gun and a hammer to smash the windows of his car, douse him with pepper spray and drag him into custody. He was temporarily blinded and flown to Kenya for specialized hospital treatment.

In response, protesters set up roadblocks and threw rocks at police, who fired live ammunition at unarmed people. More than 200 people were injured, two were killed and 360 were arrested.

The unrest continued this week when about 300 lawyers gathered in Kampala to protest against the violent crackdown. And yesterday, after more protests, the police arrested the leader of the second-biggest opposition party.

Analysts say there is little chance of a regime change. Mr. Museveni appears to have firm control of the security forces and he has vowed to continue the crackdown against the protesters, whom he has denounced as "looters." His police have harassed and beaten journalists, and his government has even ordered the temporary shutdown of Facebook and Twitter on local Internet providers.

Burkina Faso: Soldiers join the protests

In the West African nation of Burkina Faso, street protests have also been growing. The president, former army officer Blaise Compaoré, has ruled the country for 24 years after seizing power in a military coup. He has won a series of elections since then, always claiming to have captured more than 80 per cent of the vote, but the opposition parties often have boycotted the elections or complained of vote-rigging.

The unrest began on Feb. 20 when students reacted to the death of a young man in police custody. Buildings were torched and six people were killed. The government closed down universities and tried to halt the protests, but cotton growers and market traders have joined the demonstrations. Soldiers and police have mutinied, firing shots in the air and ransacking shops to protest against rising food prices and unpaid wages.

Mr. Compaoré has tried to defuse the protests by dissolving the government and firing some of his senior military staff. But he has also used force. This week, trade unions and civil society groups cancelled a planned protest for fear of violence. As in other African countries, the veteran strongman is showing no signs of stepping down.

Elsewhere in Africa: Protest falters

In Mauritania, where President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz came to power in a military coup in 2008, protesters have held frequent demonstrations against the government since February, saying that the President has too much power. Last week, protesters occupied more than a kilometre of the capital's main street in an attempted "day of rage," but police broke up the demonstration with batons and tear gas, arresting 20 protesters.

In Gabon, one of the earliest sites of protest this year, opposition supporters took to the streets to fight the family autocracy that has ruled for more than four decades. They were quickly crushed by soldiers and security forces.

In the small kingdom of Swaziland, where political parties have been banned for 38 years by Africa's last absolute monarchy, protests have been violently crushed. The latest attempt last month was swiftly broken up by police, who fired tear gas and clubbed the protesters.

In Malawi and Zimbabwe, authorities have acted pre-emptively to prevent protests. In Malawi, the government simply shut down the university campuses where the unrest was happening. Even a private meeting of activists in Zimbabwe to discuss the North Africa uprisings was raided by police, who arrested more than 40 people.

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