The recent election campaigns in Uganda were marred by unprecedented violence in which at least 60 people have been killed in election-related violence, hundreds injured and more than 800 arrested.
On 26 January 1986, Mr Museveni’s National Resistance Army, a rebel group, liberated the country and toppled Ugandan leaders Idi Amin and Milton Obote, bringing an end to war and senseless killings. The NRM promised Ugandans a fundamental change through its blue print programme. The ten-point programme was to become his policy guideline in rebuilding the economy shattered and deeply divided country. Nevertheless, President Yoweri Museven is standing in his sixth election this on Thursday, 14 January, 2021.
Museven’s time at the top has been accompanied by a long period of peace and big developmental changes for which many are grateful. But he has managed to maintain his grip on power through a mixture of encouraging a personality cult, employing patronage, compromising independent institutions and sidelining opponents.
In course of the last election five years ago when he addressed the issue of him stepping down, he asked:
“How can I go out of a banana plantation I have planted that has started bearing fruits?”
Last year, the Electoral Commission issued guidelines to all candidates barring them from carrying out processions and huge rallies, limiting campaign meetings to 70 people and asking candidates to use social media, radio and televisions to campaign. The EC said this was to contain the spread of the coronavirus during the campaigns. The rule was later relaxed to 200 people.
However, most of the eleven candidates are vying to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for the past 35 years, have tasted the wrath of law enforcement agencies seeking to enforce the rules. They have either been arrested, blocked from accessing hotels, had rallies dispersed by tear gas, blocked from accessing rally venues in some districts or thrown out of radio and television stations.
Opposition parties point out that there was no effort to enforce the rules during the ruling NRM party primaries in October. They argue the rules are meant to handicap, not protect them.
Several military and police vehicles follow main opposition candidates, firing tear gas and live bullets to disperse supporters standing by the roadside to wave at them.
Several reports observed that Uganda’s main opposition leader has asked a tribunal in The Hague to investigate his country’s president for human rights abuses. At an online press conference, police accosted Bobi Wine and dragged him from his car earlier this month.
The ruling National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) complements this by projecting its hegemony in other ways too. In the last election cycle in 2016, for instance, the government recruited a volunteer force of “crime preventers” across the country. These individuals’ official role was to help reduce crime. In reality, they worked to convey the omnipresence of the military and carried out brutal assaults with no accountability. Other incidences such as the regular break-ins of the offices of human rights NGOs cannot be directly tied to the state, but also contribute to the NRM’s message of deterrence.
Meanwhile, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, is urging authorities in Uganda to ensure this week elections are free and peaceful, noting that the arrest of opposition candidates and their supporters are among several “worrying” developments ahead of the vote
“We are deeply concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Uganda ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 14 January and the challenges this situation may pose not only for voting day itself, but also for the post-electoral period,” Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said on Friday.
#Uganda: We are deeply concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation ahead of elections. We call on the authorities to protect #HumanRights, and to ensure a free & peaceful election process, incl. by taking measures to prevent electoral violence 👉 https://t.co/iYYa5c5K8G pic.twitter.com/cz7TlYgtEg
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) January 8, 2021
The East African Community (EAC) member states have sent a 74 man short-term election observers to witness Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary elections. They are to reinforce the work of domestic election observers and make recommendations not only for the benefit of Uganda but other partner states.
Holding onto power
President Yoweri Museven’s desire to hold on to the reins of power, resulted in an amendment to the country’s constitution that saw an increase in the age limit at which candidates can run. The Age Limit Bill, was passed in parliament in 2017. This enables incumbent Yoweri Museveni, 76, to stand for re-election.
Candidates have been arrested, rallies banned, and dozens of protesters killed in the chaotic and bloody runup to the January 14 election, which is going ahead despite a surging coronavirus pandemic.
Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary ballot, which pits Museveni and his dominant National Resistance Movement (NRM) against a host of opposition candidates and parties.
The military deployments
A key strategy of the Museveni, the powerful former Special Forces Commander’s regime is to clamp down as early and consistently as possible. Heavily armed security forces, including the army and military police, could be seen patrolling the capital Kampala and other towns, and have occupied several open spaces.
Last month, President Yoweri Museveni appointed Maj-Gen Paul Lokech, who earned the sobriquet “Lion of Mogadishu” for his exploits fighting against al Shabaab in Somalia, as the new deputy Inspector-General of Police. He replaced another army officer, Maj-Gen Sabiiti Muzeeyi. In recent times, President Museveni appointed Maj. Gen. Kayanja Muhanga to co-ordinate joint security operations involving the police, military and intelligence agencies. Gen Muhanga has previously worked in counterterrorism operations and also commanded Ugandan troops in the Africa Union Mission to Somalia.
President Museveni defended his action during his New Year address and said they were to guard against violence he alleged is orchestrated by his political opponents. He said that he had deployed army units that have experience in urban warfare in Somalia because of “weakness and corruption” within the regular police force.
The opposition reject claims they are planning violence and say the military deployments are an attempt to intimidate voters and opposition supporters in order to suppress voter turnout and enable vote-rigging.
This violent response of police and army units reinforces my view that Uganda must overhaul its national legal framework on the use of force and firearms during law enforcement. The current framework contains highly permissive and ambiguous standards which enable law enforcement actors to use excessive force with no clear lines of accountability.
The framework doesn’t address Uganda’s long-standing reliance on the army for strictly law enforcement tasks. Army officers deployed in this way are obliged to obey the orders of their superior working in collaboration with the officer in charge of the civil power. This is highly unlikely given the record of past brutally executed joint law enforcement tasks.
Social media shut down
According to a letter seen by news agencies on Tuesday, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) Executive Director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecommunications companies to “immediately suspend any access and use” of social media and online messaging platforms.
Meanwhile, a number of Ugandan government officials and ruling party members have had their Facebook accounts shut down as the internet giant accuses them of manipulating public debate ahead of key elections.
In December 2020, Uganda wrote to Google requesting that Bobi Wine’s YouTube channel Ghetto TV – one of his only reliable means of reaching voters be blocked on national security grounds.
However, he Committee to Protect Journalists yesterday joined 54 other organizations in a letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni calling on him to ensure open and unrestricted internet access during and after the country’s presidential election, scheduled for January 14. Highlighting that disruptions to internet access would undermine journalists’ ability to report on the election and would infringe on citizens’ right to “key information at a crucial moment in a democracy, damaging their capacity to make informed choices.”