Are Ugandans going to vote in a free election? The answer to this question depends on whom you are asking depending on one’s political affiliation and largely that person’s ethnic group.
But what is clear and visible is that the electoral process has been heavily militarized and the independence of the Electoral Commission in managing the elections is questionable.
Walking in Kampala one would think the army has positioned itself for a war. Foot soldiers in the night hours keep tormenting civilians. And police patrols and illegal arrests are a common sight. Just a week to polling day, some voters cannot trace their names in the registers.
The opposition groups and their supporters think the election is a fraud and will likely trigger a much anticipated uprising after the January 14 polling day.
Religious leaders under the umbrella organization, Uganda Joint Christian Council that brings together the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Church, have even appealed to the state to postpone the elections for three years to cool down tempers on both sides fighting for state power.
The Catholic Bishops in Uganda have warned the Uganda Police against inviting the army into the management of elections instances where it is not necessary saying the practice has created tensions that can be avoided.
The Chairman of the Uganda Episcopal Conference Bishop Joseph Antony Zziwa, in a detailed Pastoral Letter by all the Bishops has also warned the Electoral Commission against abdicating it’s responsibility of firmly managing the electoral process such that the outcome is fair and acceptable to every stakeholder.
In fact, opposition leaders are convinced that the only remaining option to remove President Yoweri Museveni from power is to trigger and facilitate an uprising, which they argue is provided for under Art 3 of the country’s constitution.
“People are in a strangle-hold. We must fight to free ourselves from that strangle-hold. It is the duty of all Ugandans to raise up against injustices,” Col. Dr Kizza Besigye, who has four times contested against his former guerrilla leader, President Yoweri Museveni, said in an exclusive interview with NBS television on Monday Jan 4.
The Lord Mayor of Kampala, Mr Erias Lukwago, concurs with his mentor Dr Besigye that Ugandans should rise up and “resist the overthrow of the constitutional order.”
“Mr Museveni is fighting against the people of Uganda as his enemies because of paranoia. The state wants Ugandans to be obedient, subservient and submissive. But peace must be accompanied by justice. It is the obligation of every Ugandan to rise up according to article 3. There is a call for the oppressed majority to rise up. We must marshal all our energies and capacities to deal with these challenges,” Mr Erias Lukwago said during an NBS television political talk-show on Saturday January 2.
Nine days to the general elections tears continue to flow from eyes of many desperate and bitter Ugandans that have lost loved ones since campaigns started. Some youngsters have been disabled or are nursing serious injuries. All this arising out of sustained state violence.
The violence started with the ruling NRM party primaries when about half a dozen Ugandans were killed. The violence was more prominent in Western Uganda and was orchestrated by Ministers and members of Mr Museveni’s family.
Across the country, the NRM elections were rocked by chaotic or violent scenes with aspirants and their supporters involved in bloody clashes to the extent that the party’s electoral commission chairperson, Dr Tanga Odoi suspended the exercise in certain areas.
Then later over 50 Ugandans were killed by security forces in cold blood during the November 18 and 19 riots triggered by the violent arrest of star presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu alias Bobi Wine.
Since then incidences of killings, targeted assassinations, regular assault meted on the civilian population and harassment of opposition supporters have not stopped. More than 1000 Bobi Wine supporters were arrested and held in different prisons after the riots.
Recently, Bobi Wine’s childhood friend, former national boxing captain, Isaac Ssenyange alias Mando Zebra, was brutally gunned down by security personnel. Ssenyange was shot nine times by about 12 armed men dressed in black attires resembling those of Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT) or Counter-Terrorism who were moving in numberless vehicles, according to Museveni’s personal intelligence after reviewing CCTV footage.
Ssenyange was killed a few minutes after midnight on December 30 morning—about 40 metres from his home in St. Francis Zone, Bwaise III Parish, Kawempe Division, in Kampala. Some bullets were found stuck in metallic poles near the murder scene. Witnesses said that the killers did not know Zebra but went looking for him using a photo.
In the same night and same area, another boxer, Robert Mukasa alias Soja-man, who has been the manager of Zebra Boxing club, was reportedly kidnapped by unidentified people dressed in police and military uniform. He was blindfolded and driven off to an unknown place where he was allegedly tortured. He is currently hospitalized at Lincoln Clinic in Bwaise with serious injuries.
Another boxer, Justine Jjuuko, had also been kidnapped while he was campaigning for his party, the Forum for Democratic Change. After a habeas corpus was filed forcing the state to produce him, he was charging with illegal possession of firearms but was later released unconditionally.
Security forces have also extended the brutality to journalists covering elections. Ghetto TV journalist, Ashraf Kasirye, was shot on the head while covering presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi’s rally in Masaka. An NTV journalist, Ali Mivule was also shot in the leg. Witnesses say members of the army and police, including some men in plain clothes, opened fire with live rounds in Masaka city as hundreds of people waited for Bobi Wine outside church.
As Bobi Wine’s entourage transported the badly injured journalist from Masaka to Kampala, the presidential candidate’s bodyguard, Kalibala Francis, was knocked dead in Busega, an entry/exit point of the capital city.
Eye witnesses said Kalibala, was deliberately knocked dead by a military truck no. H4DF 2424 in Busega.
Later, 126 Bobi Wine’s entourage were arrested in Kalangala District where they had gone to campaign. About 100 of the suspects, who include members of Bobi Wine private security team, were arraigned in Masaka Magistrate’s Court on charges of assault of police officers, incitement to violence, malicious damage, doing a negligent act likely to spread an infectious disease and inconsiderate use of a public road, among others.
Another 25 of the suspects were sent to Kalangala Chief Magistrate’s Court on the same charges after the Director Public Prosecutions (DPP) sanctioned their files.
Among the suspects was Bobi Wine’s singing partner, Ali Bukeni alias Nubian Li, and Mr Eddy Ssebufu aka Eddie Mutwe (Bobi Wine’s personal bodyguard).
There is a lot of fear and suspicion amongst Ugandans as many young people supporting the opposition continue to be kidnapped, tortured and in some cases killed or made to disappear.
Mr Lukwago says on average courts of law have been registering five applications filed for habeas corpus for missing persons.
The country is polarized along ethnic lines. President Museveni’s tribesmates are being warned that they would be attacked by people from other ethnic groups should Mr Museveni lose power. Some urban dwellers have retreated to their villages in anticipation of violence during and after the polls.
The state has also boldly moved in to curtail media space after Museveni’s government noticing that internet media was aggressively publicizing opposition campaigns and capturing excesses committed by security forces.
First, government demanded that all journalists covering elections apply again for accreditation. Paul Ekochu, the chairman of the Ugandan government’s Media Council, said the scrutiny is needed if journalists’ security is to be guaranteed. One of the causalities of this decision was Solomon Kaweesa of NTV, who had produced Bobi Wine’s campaign audio advert.
Then in an unexpected move, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wrote to Google Inc on December 9, 2020, urging the search giant to block all Ugandan YouTube channels that were reportedly spreading negative sentiments during elections. All of the YouTube channels that UCC wanted blocked belong to opposition pundits.
They are; Ghetto TV, Map Mediya, Busesa Media Updates, Uganda Empya, KK TV Uganda, Ekyooto TV and Bobi Wine 2021. The others are; Namungo Media, JB Muwonge, TMO Online, Lumbuye Fred, Trending Channel Ug, Uganda Yaffe and Uganda News Update. The said channels had more than 59 million views and 300,000 subscribers as of December 15.
In the letter to Google, UCC claimed that these channels contain extremist or anarchic messages including messages likely to incite violence against sections of the public on account of their tribe and political opinions. Government said that these channels may compromise national security and cause economic sabotage.
But in response a few days later, the head of Communication and Public Affairs for Africa at Google, Dorothy Ooko said “it is very hard to just have a channel removed due to a government request.”
UCC had also requested all social media bloggers and online publishers to register with it. The directive was ignored since UCC doesn’t control or have any powers to regulate the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
The state harassment has not only targeted the media but also human rights activists and civil society generally.
Late last month human rights defender Nicholas Opiyo was arrested and charged with money laundering. Opiyo, the executive director of chapter four, was arrested with four other lawyers; Herbert Dakasi, Anthony Odur and Esomu Obure and NUP’s human rights officer, Hamid Tenywa investigating the November 18th and 19th 2020 killings, in which over 50 people were shot dead during protests triggered by his arrest.
Opiyo’s arrest followed a break into his home in September when his communication devices were stolen.
Prosecution told court that on October 8, 2020, at Absa bank Garden City branch in Kampala district, Opiyo’s organization, Chapter Four-Uganda, where he is the executive director received $340,000 (over Shs 1.2 billion) through account number 6004078045 well knowing that the money in question was proceeds of crime.
Opiyo’s arrest was conducted barely a week after he represented two NGOs – Uganda National NGO Forum and the Uganda Women’s Network – whose accounts were frozen by security forces over terrorism allegations.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have raised concerns over the pre-election environment in Uganda, which has been characterized by increased restrictions on civic space.
“It is a unique election,” Electoral Commission chairman Justice Simon Byabakama says.
But incumbent President Museveni and his ruling political party, the National Resistance Movement, and their supporters argue that all excesses that have so far characterized the shambolic campaigns are a result of the enforcement of Covid 19 guidelines.
Political analysts believe that Museveni has utilized the Covid 19 guidelines to his advantage as the President seems especially interested in purging Bobi Wine and his supporters, which has led Uganda into a political crisis.
For example, nearly a month into the campaigns, some NRM leaders in Ankole on December 7 called for total ban on all forms of rallies due to the escalating Covid-19 community infections.
“As people of Isingiro, we have seen the campaigns of our opponents and the coronavirus has escalated. We are asking for a lockdown and to go to polls without campaigns,” said the State Minister for Animal Husbandry, Lt Col Bright Rwamirama.
The Minister, who is a cousin to the President’s wife, Janet Museveni, was reading a consolidated memorandum prepared for the President by the NRM party delegates from greater Mbarara at the Boma Grounds of Mbarara.
Mr Museveni also announced his campaign program would end on December 31, 2020.
Shockingly, this call was followed by the Electoral Commission’s suspension of election campaigns in 16 districts and cities. The districts where campaign meetings were banned are Kampala, Wakiso, Mbarara, Kabarole, Luwero, Kasese, Masaka, Wakiso, Jinja, Kalungu, Kazo and Tororo.
The EC explained that the suspension of campaigns in those districts was based on the grave concern expressed by ministry of Health at the December 23 meeting over the candidates’ and supporters persistent violation of Covid-19 preventive guidelines amid surging infections and deaths.
The Lukwago, the Lord Mayor of Kampala, has petitioned court to nullify the EC decision since his constituencies is one of the affected areas.
Surprisingly, at least half of the 16 districts/cities where campaigns were cancelled have each cumulatively recorded less than 400 infections in the last 10 months.
This undermines the credibility of the claim that campaigns were banned in the 16 districts because of the high Covid-19 infections.
Many believe cancellation of campaigns in those areas was politically motivated to prevent the opposition from campaigning in their strongholds, especially in Kampala, Mukono and Wakiso. Hon Betty Nambooze, who represents Mukono Municipality in Parliament says she has failed to trace Covid cases in her constituency. Bobi Wine himself has been stopped from campaigning and some of his campaign team members that were arrested recently have been forced to stay away from campaigns as a condition for their bail.
Also either out of coercion or bribery by the NRM government some supporters and members of Bobi Wine’s party have defected to the ruling party.
NRM officials claim that 22 NUP candidates out of 77 countrywide have crossed to their party leaving Bobi Wine with only 68 flag-bearers out of the 354 parliamentary constituencies.
Mr Museveni has also reshuffled security returning his son Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba to head the presidential elite guards. Muhoozi had been relieved of his duties as commander of Special Forces Command and promoted to become Senior Presidential Advisor of Special Operations.
The First Son has severally had verbal exchanges with Bobi Wine over security and political issues ever since the Arua fiasco.
In August 2018, while Bobi Wine was in Arua campaigning for a colleague during a by-election at one of the rallies violence erupted. People started throwing stones, and government security forces led by Special Forces Command opened fire, killing Yasin Kawuma, his driver. Bobi Wine was imprisoned, badly beaten and charged with treason.
The bad blood between the two did not end with Arua. Immediately after presidential nominations, Muhoozi warned he would deal with Bobi Wine.
It is believed that Muhoozi is positioning himself to succeed his father. Proponents of what has come to be known as the ‘Muhoozi Project’ in Uganda argue that the first son has been fast-tracked through the army hierarchy, as a way of grooming him to control the armed forces and eventually take over as head of state.
In 2013, the then coordinator of intelligence agencies in Uganda, General Sejusa alleged that individuals opposed to the alleged ‘Muhoozi Project’ were being targeted for assassination.
Sejusa, in a letter that was leaked to the media alleged that president Museveni and his closest family members were plotting to install Muhoozi as president.
But Muhoozi has on several occasions distanced himself from reports of the succession plot, saying he is too busy with military work to nurse political ambitions.
“I don’t have the ambition to be president. I am very happy being in the military and that is where I intend to stay for some time,” Muhoozi said following his promotion to Major General in 2016.
“It [Muhoozi Project] doesn’t exist, non-existent – that is a red herring. You have never heard of a message where I promote myself, it is always from the promotions board. That is the process in the military,” he added.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2013, his father President Museveni said the question of whether he can be succeeded by his son, can only be answered by ‘Muhoozi and the people of Uganda’, adding that ‘it is not in the short run’.
The president also ‘advised’ his son to go through the procedures laid out in the constitution if he is interested in the presidency.
As the polling day draws near it is unlikely that the international community will ignore the human rights violations being orchestrated by the state.
A US Representative Eliot L. Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs called on the Trump Administration to take immediate action to address a worsening human rights situation in Uganda prior to general elections next month.
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Engel asked the US government to immediately call President Museveni to order by slapping sanctions on his administration and suspending all military aid to Uganda.
Consequently, a number of senior military officials were placed under sanctions.
The Trump administration appears to have invoked the Magnitsky act to punish General Peter Elwelu, the Commander of Land Forces, General James Birungi, commander of the presidential protection force and General Abel Kandiho, the head of military intelligence.
Others are; the former deputy Inspector General of Police Steven Sabiiti Muzeyi, and Colonel Chris Serunjogi Ddamulira, the head of crime intelligence in the police force.
Washington uses the Magnitsky legislation which came into force in 2012 to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption.
“The United States is a longstanding partner of Uganda. We expect our partners to live up to their obligations to hold free and fair elections. We are paying close attention to the actions of individuals who seek to impede the ongoing democratic process,” said Mike Pompeo, the Secretary U.S. Department of State in a tweet.
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