Uganda’s elite red beret troops weren’t taking any chances. Forty-strong they marched – up and down and again and again – outside the youth centre where opposition leader Kizza Besigye was calling for protests against his huge election defeat by the country’s quarter-century president Yoweri Museveni.
Other soldiers stood guard all over the city centre, trucks full of armed policemen traversed the streets, riot police waited alongside the red berets.
“We make a call to action,” Besigye told the room full of journalists and nearly 200 supporters. “The time is now for the people of Uganda to rise and peacefully protest against the outcome of the 2011 elections.”
The crowd – some of them wearing T-shirts with his face splashed across the front – stood from their seats and cheered in raucous agreement. They looked out the doors and to the streets where the police and soldiers were waiting. And then they sat back down.
That was more than two weeks ago and, apart from a quickly quelled protest on Wednesday, there’s been no sign of major anti-government demos erupting.
Besigye – who couldn’t get through an interview without mentioning Egypt, Tunisia or Libya in the run-up to last month’s election – has made the first serious attempt to blow the winds of change sweeping North Africa south of the Sahara.
Museveni, in his sometime buffoonery-meets-menace style, threatened to eat Besigye “like a cake or a samosa” should anybody take to the streets.
There are Uganda-specific reasons why nobody did. Museveni has been in power for 25 years and the last couple of elections have been marked by rigging and other types of chicanery such as bribing rural voters with bars of soap.
But he is still popular with many Ugandans for nudging the economy into gear and, crucially, for bringing stability to a country once bedevilled by civil wars.
Though Africa’s sub-Saharan nations are as different as countries on any other continent there are also common reasons why, despite having 10 leaders in power for more than 20 years, things have stayed relatively calm.
Wednesday’s protests in Kampala were quickly and decisively put down by a massive show of force from security forces that have been known to shoot rioters dead in the past. Other African countries that analysts have fingered as ripe for North Africa-style uprisings, such as Zimbabwe, Angola, Ethiopia, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, have populations who also often fear the army and police. But some sub-Saharan leaders have straddled a fine line between developing their countries and holding dodgy elections. They have achievements to boast about and they have, to a point, gifted their people increasing freedoms.
Low levels of internet access, education and urbanisation all play a part, too.
“The one thing that all of these factors have in common is that they are being undone day by day,” an African Union official who did not want to be named told Monocle. “The youth are going to boil over sooner or later.”
Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, was recently reported to have ordered a €270m yacht in a country where 20 per cent of children die before reaching five years of age.
“That’s the kind of thing that will do it,” the official said. “We’re sick of it.”