The state of security in Uganda ahead of elections


Student supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye burn posters of long-time President Yoweri Museveni, as they await the arrival of Besigye for a rally at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. Ugandan police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the crowd of opposition supporters and briefly arrested Besigye himself on Monday, raising tensions ahead of elections widely seen as close. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

BACKGROUND – Richard M. Kavuma, journalist for the Ugandan newspaper The Observer explains how the two camps – Museveni’s and Designee’s – clash again and again. About the role of the police in this, chaos and rumours.

One day is a long time in politics!

The ink of the historic photo showing President Museveni shaking hands with opposition candidate Kizza Besigye had barely dried on the paper when their two sides clashed on the streets of Kampala – less than three days to Thursday’s general elections.

Saturday night was only the second time that Museveni and Besigye have shaken hands in a decade and a half. But Monday morning was the umpteenth time that police was firing teargas to disperse Besigye supporters and arresting the opposition leader.

The reason for the clash seemed rather benign. Besigye was marching to a rally venue and the police insisted he uses a back road. He insisted on using the main road. Chaos broke out, as police fired tear gas and detained Besigye, before driving him to his home, some twelve kilometres outside the capital Kampala.

Hours later, Besigye supporters again clashed with the police as they attempted to march him to his rally at Makerere University. Blasts of tear gas went off, and police fought running battles with Besigye’s supporters for two hours.

The police says that opposition supporters have been plotting to burn the city, although, rather curiously, no one has been prosecuted over this evil plan.

Besigye’s party, the FDC, and other opposition figures have predictably cried foul. An FDC spokesman said the police action was simply part of a broader plan by the Museveni government to lock Besigye out of central Kampala, where he is almost as revered as the police is loathed. And Besigye said on Tuesday that the Museveni government was simply panicking, after sensing defeat.

Independent presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi was among the first to speak out, condemning the police arrest of Besigye as a move to try to influence the result of Thursday’s presidential elections.

Thirty-six hours earlier, the mood in Uganda had been one of near-euphoria, as, for the first time, all presidential candidates participated in a televised presidential debate that soared to number two on Twitter’s trending topics. This was significant because only a month earlier, Museveni had refused to attend the first debate, describing the exercise as a ritual for school children.

Museveni, Besigye and Mbabazi were among the eight candidates that held hands in a prayer for peace at the debate. Museveni had further charmed his audience when he arrived and shook hands with each candidate.

Besigye’s arrest on Monday, complete with the firing of tear gas, was only the latest signal that what many Ugandans feared remains a real possibility. In recent weeks, ordinary Ugandans, religious and cultural leaders and politicians as well as media houses have chorused the country’s desire for peace during these elections. Ironically, every extra voice calling for peace only appears to have heightened the sense that violence is looming.

In an interview I had had with him a week earlier, I had asked Mohammed Ndifuna, the chief executive officer of the Human Rights Network-Uganda, about the threat of violence and he had been unable to preclude it.

He had said the difference between a peaceful and a violent election would lie in the management of public perceptions around key institutions such as the police and the Electoral Commission, whether people trust them or not.

‘There might be triggers; if there are arrests of opposition leaders either in the run-up or in the aftermath of voting could trigger violence,’ Ndifuna had told me.

A week later, his prophecy came to pass.

Another issue Ndifuna said could trigger violence was ‘rumours’. Why? Because elections tend to be a very emotive affair and, in such an environment, rumours quickly acquire authority and force that many facts would be envious of.

The police action outraged not just Amama Mbabazi but also ordinary Ugandans, and otherwise-waning rumours regained their vigour on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

The government, some Tweets wrote, was trying to create grounds for postponing the elections, now that Museveni appeared to be struggling (another opinion poll had given him 53 per cent of the vote). Another Twitter-user claimed the police had to provoke violence because they had requested for money to manage election violence and could not risk having to return it to the Treasury.

What is much more discernible, and perhaps holds the key to peace, goes back to what Ndifuna said: management of perceptions. Take the perceptions of the Uganda police. At one point nearly two decades ago, Museveni functionaries claimed the police hated the president so much they would rather vote for any object such as a jerry can if it ran against him. These days the police, led by army general Kale Kayihura, is largely seen as an appendage of the ruling party rather than a neutral enforcer of the law. And the police, it seems, is developing institutionalized suspicion against any credible opponent of Museveni’s – particularly Besigye.

Monday’s confrontations, for instance, appeared fairly avoidable, if the police had chosen to secure Besigye’s passage to his rallies rather than trying to put him ‘in his place’. When Besigye was nominated for president on last November, he moved with his mammoth procession for ten kilometres from Namboole stadium to Nakivubo stadium in the heart of the city; but save for the traffic snarls, there was no outcry over looting.

A more telling incident happened at Wandegeya near Makerere University. After a tense standoff, the police commander was arranging to clear Besigye to go to the university campus for his scheduled rally when – all of a sudden, other policemen started firing tear gas.

All hell broke loose! Charged supporters hit back, pelting the police with stones and whatever they could find. It was like a war zone.

Regional policy

Wars, of course, are one of the most enduring facets of Uganda’s foreign policy within the East-African region. Former Ugandan leader Idi Amin was overthrown by a war launched from Tanzania, Uganda’s neighbor in the South. Museveni fought his guerrilla war with logistical bases in Kenya to Uganda’s east. The government in Rwanda – to Uganda’s south-west – was installed by a force commanded by Ugandan soldiers of Rwandese descent. To the north, Uganda sent soldiers in December 2013 to fight off rebels fighting the government of President Salva Kiir of South Sudan. Earlier, Museveni had backed the SPLA as it fought the Khartoum government, before Juba seceded from Khartoum. And in the West, Uganda has a 10 billion dollar reparation bill from the International Court of Justice, after our soldiers plundered mineral resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990’s.

So, during the second presidential debate last Saturday, which dwelt on foreign policy, Ugandans were eager to to understand the various foreign policy propositions the candidates represented. The major points of contention were on Uganda’s invasion of Congo. While Museveni insists this was justified because Congo was harbouring Ugandan rebels, Dr Besigye said if elected, he would pursue a less confrontational approach and negotiate a way out of the huge compensation claim.

Another critical foreign policy issue remains Uganda’s military deployment in Somalia over the last nine years. Museveni’s rival Kizza Besigye did not suggest that if elected he would be hostile to foreign deployments. His only quarrel was the way it has been done by Museveni – without following Ugandan laws.

Besigye has run a campaign themed on defiance against what he sees as illegitimate actions of Museveni’s government. As polling day neared, fears intensified that the standoff between alleged illegitimacy and dogged defiance could plunge the elections into debilitating violence. Such fear is not good for voter turnout. And low turnouts often favor incumbents.

Op donderdag 18 februari zetten we de discussie live voort in Den Haag tijdens de verkiezingsavond ‘Uganda Votes’. Klik hier voor meer informatie over dit evenement.

Richard Kavuma

17 februari 2016