As opposition leader Kizza Besigye navigated through the congested Jinja road into the Central Business District of Kampala on the morning of February 15, he was brought to a halt by the police.
There ensued an altercation with Besigye, the flag bearer for Uganda’s leading opposition party, whose supporters had gathered around. The opposition leader argued that according to his campaign schedule, he was meant to be in Kampala Capital City starting in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb at 9am, then Nasser Road at 10am and later on move to Nakasero and Kisseka markets before proceeding to Makerere University at 2pm.
The police plan and Besigye’s didn’t seem to be the same. When Besigye threatened to paralyse the streets- something that the Inspector General of Police warned wouldn’t be tolerated-the opposition leader was advised to take an alternative route to Nasser road through an industrial area, an offer he declined to take, a sign of defiance- a slogan under which he is campaigning.
On the orders of Aaron Baguma ,the District Police Commander of Kampala Central Police Station, Besigye, who was forcing his way into the city, was whisked away in a police van, briefly detained at Kira Police Station and later driven to his home in Kasangati before being allowed to continue with his campaign under tight security.
At his home, Besigye called for calm among his supporters, describing his detention as intimidation by the NRM regime, the same words he used when commenting on the arrest of renegade general and former spy chief David Sejusa aka Tinyefuza who was arrested recently, court martialled and remanded to Luzira Prison until after the polls. The intelligence head was convicted on several charges including absence without official leave, participating in political activities and insubordination.
“I appeal to my supporters to be calm. Let us remain firm and law abiding. We shall assert our rights,” Besigye told a local TV station at his residence in Kansangati, Wakiso district.
Teargas was soon unleashed on his supporters in Kampala, arguably his biggest voting block, as has become the norm. In the incident an undisclosed number remain in detention. Besigye’s arrest sparked condemnation from an unlikely quarter. Former prime minister Amama Mbabazi – now challenger of his boss of 30 years -described the arrest and use of teargas to disperse his rival’s supporters as ‘inappropriate.’
Mbabazi accused the police of partisanship in favour of the the incumbent NRM government. He has been, unlike other candidates, a primary target of the police brutality during these presidential campaigns but has attracted little sympathy. This might be because he served in the NRM regime for 30 years and was the architect , while he was Minister for Security, of the draconian laws such as the Regulation of Interception of Communications Bill of 2010, which gives powers to security officials to listen in on private communications and the internationally condemned Public Order Management Act (POMA), legislation that outlaws a conversation of more than three people without prior police notification and clearance.
Anyone who has been following the elections in Uganda since 2001 would argue that Besigye has enjoyed a peaceful campaign this time round. Previously, his rallies attracted not only teargas but also rubber bullets, live ammunition, brutal and gruesome arrests of his supporters, aides and family for indefinite periods; some police officers even undressed women activists who support him.
In fact, in a presidential debate (read more), when asked what his most regrettable moment has been, he pointed out that what he regretted most about his decision to go into politics was the huge backlash on his family and friends, people, he said, who “were never part of my decision.”
Police on the spotlight:
Ugandan police brutality has played out countless times, often before television cameras. While there has been plenty of condemnation, ultimately nothing changes. The sad truth is that this is not about a poorly trained police force. Uganda’s police is highly trained and equipped. Just recently, on February 4, Ugandan police received 35 CS/VP3 armoured personnel carriers as well as riot control vehicles from China’s Poly Technologies.
Ugandan Police Force branded police vehicles were seen at the Kenyan port of Mombasa where they were unloaded for delivery to Uganda. The consignment included CS/VP3s, riot control vehicles fitted with water cannons, as well as at least one cement mixer. Most opposition leaders and Civil Society Organisations expressed concern not only about these purchases, but also about the big recruitment of crime preventers, a civilian militia/vigilante of sorts created to reinforce the standing police , a development naturally defended by the police. Its deputy police spokesperson, Polly Namaye, explained the shipment as necessary, especially ahead of the forthcoming polls.“In the process of ensuring that we secure the election … we have had to purchase equipment that we believe will help us in transportation, in crowd control and public order management,” Namaye said.
In a recent Human Rights Watch Report, the organisation said the brutality of the Ugandan Police against political opponents risked undermining the credibility of the February 18 polls. The report noted that until Ugandans can freely assemble, listen to divergent views, and weigh how to use their vote without fear of teargas, bullets, and batons, the freedom and fairness of Uganda’s elections will be in question
Arrests of opposition activists and dispersals of their gatherings deny the population the right to hear divergent views, Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher with the New York-based advocacy group, said in an e-mailed statement to this writer.
With only one day left for the eight presidential candidates to convince the electorate, the selective implementation of the law by the police has left many observers and CSO questioning the impartiality of the force .
A local paper, Daily Monitor, quoted the police chief, Gen. Kale Kayihura warning Besigye against campaigning after 6pm, a time designed by the Electoral Commission as the official closure of daily campaigns. In the same article, Kayihura, was also quoted defending President Yoweri Museveni, the NRM presidential candidate, who has violated the same guidelines. Kayihura has also been on the spot for his recent pronouncements, quoted in the press, that the over 170,000 crime preventers were to be equipped with guns to ready them for a possible ‘war’, reports he has denied, pointing out that he was quoted out of context. To redeem himself, Kayihura signed on the #IChoosePeaceUG pact, an all-inclusive youth-led social action campaign to promote love, brotherhood and solidarity before and after the 2016 elections pact as a peace ambassador.
“I am a peace maker; I am a peacekeeper. That is what policing and military is all about. We will make the peace and keep the peace. I am committed to ensuring that this country enjoys total peace,” Kayihura said as he signed the peace document.
In an interesting turn of events, the embattled IGP on Friday 12 ordered the removal of effigies for all presidential candidates from the streets. Although he argued that this was an order by the chairperson of the Electoral Commission, Eng. Badru Kiggundu, the removal of these symbols has largely targetted opposition candidates. There have also been reports that unknown people were defacing posters of the opposition candidates or replacing them with the incumbent’s.
In early January Kayihura flew to the western district of Ntungamo and airlifted NRM supporters, injured during a face-off with those of candidate Amama Mbabazi, so they could get first class medical attention at the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital. He later made a public statement defending his actions and asserting that he served at the pleasure of the president, a statement that went viral, adding credibility to the doubt that hang over his partiality.
On January 20, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) took off air Endigito Radio, a western Uganda based radio station two days after it hosted presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi. The official story was that the radio station owed the national broadcasting regulator licence fees of nearly $11,000, but the manner and timing of the operation left a bitter taste in the mouths of so many. Robert Sempala, of Uganda’s Human Rights Network For Journalists (HRNJ), said he suspected the shut down was, “a political move because it involved an opposition presidential candidate.”
Sempala said since October, 40 journalists have been allegedly arrested or assaulted, have had material or equipment confiscated, blocked from covering events or lost employment after speaking to opposition figures or supporters. Three have allegedly been shot by police. That aside, Nation Television, popularly known as NTV Uganda, had been sidelined from covering the incumbent campaign rallies after the station refused to broadcast as news party footage shot by a drone camera of Museveni’s rally, arguing that it was not only unethical but also unrepresentative of the real picture. After days of negotiations however, NTV Uganda finally succumbed to executive pressure and resorted to using the NRM drone footage as news material.
As noted in the European Union Elections Observation report for 2011, the clampdown on FM radio stations, coupled with new stricter legal proposals through the Press and Journalist (Amendment) Bill 2010, created an atmosphere of intimidation.
Forty or so significant incidents affecting the media’s freedom have been reported during the campaign period. These included the wounding of 10 journalists covering events on election day. Six other journalists sustained severe injuries following assault by NRM militants while covering alleged ballot‐stuffing in the cancelled Kampala mayoral elections set for 23 February.
These incidents give rise to concern about the ability of the media to fully exercise their fundamental right and freedom to report during the election period. “The media in Uganda is consistently under attack” and is “concerned about the declining safety and security environment for journalists in Uganda, and the growing overall threat to freedom of expression in the country, ” wrote the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda in a recent report.
The Electoral Commission guidelines to cover the forthcoming polls are not only stringent but also unlawful. The commission, widely criticised as partisan and unable to deliver a credible free and fair election, issued a statement on Friday February 12 outlawing the use of cameras or mobile phones within the precincts of a polling station.
“Taking photographs within the polling stations during voting is strictly prohibited,” so said the EC chairman Badru Kiggundu. Kiggundu explained that the prohibition is meant to protect the privacy of voters. Also, use of phones within the polling station will not be tolerated – not even for election observers. In fact, voters at the polling station are advised to switch off their phones.
Media houses that announce election results before the official declaration(s) will be closed down by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). According to the EC statistics, over 15 million voters are expected to turn up for the highly anticipated voting exercise but if the intimidation, arrest or threat of arrest, and violence continue to dominate Uganda’s public sphere, voter turnout could go down as in past elections , affecting the outcome of the election. The US State Department on Monday stressed the need for a “peaceful, transparent and credible electoral process” and called on all sides to “refrain from provocative actions or rhetoric that raise tensions.”