Is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni Fearful of A “Boxer Rebellion”?

Boxer rebellion

China’s soldiers during the Boxer Rebellion.

What is really going on with the boxing fraternity and Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government? Why are the boxers being attacked? Is there regime fear of a “Boxer” rebellion in Uganda?

A few weeks ago, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change’s Justin Juuko (FDC), who is a party leader in Masaka District, was arrested and detained incommunicado for several weeks until he was released without charge. Justin “The Destroyer” Juuko is a retired professional boxing champion.

Isaac Ssenyange, alias Zebra Mando, a former captain of Ugandan boxers, was gunned down a week ago by government soldiers, according to President Yoweri Museveni to himself. The President said in his New Year message that he had come to learn that Zebra was mobilizing for the NRM party in his area of Kawempe Division in Kampala, so his slaying seemed to be a case of friendly fire. 

On the flipside, however, there have been reports that Zebra had been training boxers who would in turn attack security personnel and other people in case the January 14 polls are stolen by President Museveni. In words straight out of American rapper Coolio’s song “Gangster’s Paradise,” Museveni has spoken repeatedly about some players—read supporters of the National Unity Party; the party led by Bobi Wine—creating “no-go areas” in Kampala City, the capital.

The president alluded to boxers as being responsible for the alleged “no-go areas” and that’s why security forces have taken a deadly interest in boxers recently. There are claims within security circles that NUP has, as part of its post-election blueprint, a plan to have citizens trained in martial arts to “defend its victory”. The boxers are key to this alleged strategy. 

Whether this is true or not, boxers in Kampala are running scared. Many refuse to go to the gym or be identified as pugilists. Ugandan boxers under their umbrella body, the Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) have demanded answers from the NRM government on why their members are being arbitrarily arrested by security. 

According to UBF President Moses Muhangi, to date four boxers are missing and their whereabouts remain unknown. These include: Coach Robinson Mudde Ntambi, the former UBO World Super Flyweight champion who was reportedly picked from his home; Michael Kiiza, a boxer and sports trainer at Mengo Social Centre; Joseph Lubega who participated in the 2004 Olympics; and, Robert Mukasa.

“And he made it clear that he was aware of the people who killed Zebra Mando,” Muhangi said, referring to Museveni. “He said it was a security operation and he was still investigating to get to the bottom of that situation…He said, ‘I know those who killed him but am still investigating to get more information.’ What he didn’t hint about is the issue to do with justice that we expect for a person of Mando because if you say you know those who killed him, then what action is going to be taken against those individuals? So we expect justice, we expect transparency on how this matter is going to be handled.”

Although this whole story seems bizarre, it does have historical precedent.  In China, around 1900, during the Ching Dynasty, there occurred an uprising that would later be called the “Boxer Rebellion”.  These “boxers” were actually martial artists who were part of a secret society and wanted to kick out foreign imperialists occupation of China. Their rebellion later inspired Bruce Lee to devise a form of martial art called Jeet Kune Do, in 1967. 

In a way, this changed the world. For behind this rebellion was the substance that the so-called “little man” could throw off the yoke of oppression. In late June 2014, in Kampala, Ugandan boxers also attacked the authorities for closing down their Kisenyi gym. And it seemed the ghosts of the 1900 rebellion had descended on Kampala. 

Indeed, both Ugandan protesters and Chinese rebels were asserting freedoms; as their protagonists perceived them. 

Certainly, in 2014, it might have been easier for Ugandan boxers to drop their placards, knuckle up and guard their grills. But the police that were brought in to quash the would-be uprising had guns and a license to use them. So the boxers stuck to saber-rattling, as their words became the arsenal of their freedom.

As is wont with civil disobedience in Uganda, their protest petered out. Or maybe it has morphed into a silent rage that simmered below Uganda’s superstructure until it boiled over into our recent political crisis.

Today’s Ugandan boxers need not waste this crisis. When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. 

The opportunity inherent in this case is not only protecting any win Bobi Wine may achieve next week. The opportunity will be found in boxers punching above their weight by demanding justice. They may even use this as an opportunity to train the police. As they take the police through the meat grinder of intensive training, sparring will be in order. 

Here they can knock the cops’ collective lights out. So that the only sirens the police will be left with will be the chirping birds lazily circling their dazed heads. That’s when the boxers can take charge of the city, through such civil disobedience. Think about it, the possibilities would be boundless with boxers at the helm of mass action against the government. 

We might even put the hydras of poverty, corruption and misrule out of commission with several TKOs. So let us support boxers everywhere as they give us a literal blow-by-blow account of themselves in the struggle against Museveni’s dictatorship. 

Columnist Philip Matogo can be reached via [email protected]

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