Ahead of Ugandan presidential elections, violence against opposition, journalists continues

Due to sustained repression, Bobi Wine, the main challenger to president Yoweri Museveni in the upcoming January 14 election, has appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate government officials

January 11, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Bobi Wine: File Photo by Sahara Reporters

On Thursday, January 7, a week before the elections in Uganda, Bobi Wine, the leading opposition candidate, appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC), calling for an investigation against president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and nine security officials on charges of unleashing a wave of violence against the opposition.

The next day, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also raised concerns about the Ugandan government’s increasingly violent crackdown on opposition parties and their supporters in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for January 14. The high commissioner’s statement also pointed to the selective application of COVID-19 restrictions to hinder the opposition’s campaign against president Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.

Journalists have been systematically targeted with police violence in order to prevent them from covering the opposition campaigns.  A number of journalists have been injured, at least three of whom were in a critical condition battling for their lives when Inspector General of Police (IGP) Martins Okoth Ochola said in a press conference on January 8, “When we tell a journalist please don’t go there, and you’re insisting you want to get the news there, that is what happens.” 

Hinting that police violence against journalists will continue, the IGP said, if “you’re insisting you must go where there is danger, yes we shall beat you for your own sake to help you understand that don’t go there… we shall not apologize but we shall continue helping you.”

As per the statement released by the spokesperson of the heads of the human rights body, “In the run-up to the election, numerous human rights violations have been reported, including of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and participation, as well as arbitrary deprivation of life, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture.” 

A day earlier, Bobi Wine was forced to fly his children out of Uganda and place them under care of relatives in the US after allegedly receiving information of an imminent kidnapping attempt.

“I received credible information of pending physical attacks on my wife and [the] kidnap of our children,” said Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu. Wine has himself several times been subjected to violent attacks. His bodyguard was recently killed and a number of his supporters have been arrested and allegedly tortured in the run-up to this election. 

“My family has been a target since I declared my intention to take on President Museveni three years ago. I decided to yield to the requests from my friends abroad and ship my children out of this danger zone because they are minors and not voters,” he said. 

“That does not mean that my wife or I are any safer by remaining around,” he added. “But our effort is to ensure they don’t kidnap one of these minors and try to use them to coerce us into subjugation!”

The candidacy of Bobi Wine

Wine is the head of the National Unity Platform (NUP) and a popular Afrobeat musician who made his entry into politics in 2017 as an MP. He won 77% of the votes from the Kyadondo East constituency in the June by-election, defeating the candidates from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the main opposition, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).

He subsequently became the face of the People Power movement, which came to the fore during protests against an amendment to the constitution pushed through the parliament in late 2017, removing the age limit on presidency. This permitted the 76 year old Museveni to contest in the upcoming election.

Wine claimed in his statement that when heated arguments were taking place in the parliament against this bill in 2017, a bomb was hurled at his son’s bedroom window to deter him from participating in the debate, Uganda Monitor reported.

In his complaint to the ICC, he cited several cases since 2018 where the police and military, which were deployed against protests he led, resorted to “widespread use of shoot to kill, beatings and other violence”. During a by-election campaign in support of an independent candidate in August that year, his driver was shot dead while sitting inside his vehicle.

In recent by-elections, candidates backed by Wine and the People Power movement fared better than those from the FDC. The FDC was formed in 2004, mostly by former supporters of Museveni who had split from the ruling party.

However, repeated attempts to register People Power as a political party failed, following which the National Unity Platform (NUP) was launched as the political wing of the movement. The NUP is registered with the Election Commission.

Kizza Besigye, former president of the FDC, who was Museveni’s main contender for the presidency in the last four elections, announced in October 2020 that he will not be contesting the upcoming election. This decision was reportedly taken under pressure from opposition activists amid concerns that his participation would cut opposition votes from Wine, who had by then established himself as the main challenger to Museveni.  

The FDC has fielded its current head, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, as the presidential candidate. He was arrested on January 2 while campaigning in Nakasongola district but later released on bail. The journalists covering his campaign were also caught by the police, beaten, and forced to delete the pictures and videos they had shot.

But the main target of state violence ahead of the election has been the campaign of Wine, who is seen as an ‘outsider’ not hailing from the traditional political parties. Armed with a populist manifesto, and with the image of a rebellious popstar, Wine, who is nearly 39, is well-placed to capture the vote of the frustrated youth of Uganda. 77% of the country’s population is below the age of 25. Over 17 million Ugandans are registered to vote in the election.

Uganda’s Electoral Commission had decided as early as in February 2020 to not register a million Ugandans who had just turned 18 on the voter list, ostensibly due to shortage of time and resources. Despite this undercutting of potential votes for Wine, his campaign has systematically gained steam. With his rising popularity, attacks against his campaign have also increased.

Only minutes after he filed his nomination for the presidential race on November 3, Wine alleged being beaten up by the police. His arrest on November 18 led to mass protests. It is estimated that at over 40 people were shot by security forces which unleashed a crackdown. He was subsequently released on bail.

On December 27, in another attack on his campaign by the security forces, his personal bodyguard was killed after being run over by a military vehicle, allegedly while helping a critically injured journalist.

Again, on 30 December, “90 NUP supporters were arrested in Kalangala when security forces blocked (his) campaign event.. for violating COVID measures, among other offenses. At their court appearance, some presented injuries resulting, according to them, from torture during detention. In contrast, police have not enforced COVID-19 restrictions in such a strict manner for electoral campaign activities by the ruling party,” the UN body’s statement noted.

Another 100 supporters of his campaign were arrested on December 31 and were later released on January 4. During the police press conference on January 8, Deputy IGP Maj Gen Paul Lokech justified the arrest of 17 journalists covering Wine’s campaign by alleging that they were activists masquerading as journalists. The basis of this allegation was that they did not have an accreditation from the Media Council, which is the case with most journalists outside of the mainstream media.