In the first 21 days of presidential campaigns, opposition candidates and their supporters have stared defiantly into barrels of the gun, and at death every day, as hordes of armed policemen and soldiers continue to follow them at every turn, breaking up rallies deemed to run counter to the Covid-19 rules limiting gatherings to 200 people.
Candidates have been blocked from main roads; towns, campaign venues, booked TV and radio programmes and hotels.
“Supporters are constantly harassed, beaten and prevented from coming to our campaigns by the military, but the people of Buliisa made a statement today (Nov. 26),” presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi said in a tweet on November 26.
“Officers in Masindi have blocked us from speaking to our people in the area. They fired teargas to disperse the people that stood to welcome us & also denied us access to the venue that we had booked. This hasn’t stopped the people from asserting their voices calling for change,” he said in another tweet.
“Mr. Museveni; we are no longer scared. Give us liberty or death. You can’t kill us all. Luweero you see, you made it here to my rally because you overcame your fear,” Kyagulanyi said on November 29.
Residents in Luweero dogged bullets and choked on loads of tear gas to attend Kyagulanyi’s rally. The army had a very visible and disruptive presence at the rally. This election campaign is arguably the most policed electoral event and the biggest law enforcement operation organized under the National Resistance Movement’s 35-year rule whose deadly effects have rippled across the country.
So far, an estimated 54 people were killed and hundreds injured as police and the military violently put down the November 18-19 protests triggered by the arrest and detention of Bobi Wine.
?— Buffalo Soldier? (@BuffaloSoldierA) December 1, 2020
Campaigns in #Uganda are clearly not representative of who we are as a nation#UgandaIsBleeding?
Museveni & his militia are acting feloniously, with extra-judicial killings & gross #HumanRightsViolations#UgandanLivesMatter#StopStateTerrorism@DominicRaab @hrw @IntlCrimCourt pic.twitter.com/C7eQ4KjesI
“If there were four presidential candidates like Kyagulanyi in this presidential race, no police or army officer would remain in the barracks,” a Bobi Wine follower on the campaign trail said when interviewed for this story.
That statement sums up the military- siege situation Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and other candidates have had to navigate since they were nominated in November to challenge President Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni’s 35-year grip on power. Before Bobi Wine was nominated on November 3, dozens of army, the police and Local Defense Unit personnel besieged his Magere home in Kasangati town council Wakiso district.
Security officials publicly claim they are following candidates to ensure they don’t flout the Covid-19 guidelines that limit gatherings to 200 people. David Lewis Rubongoya, the secretary general of the Kyagulanyi-led National Unity Platform (NUP), says their presidential candidate’s campaigns have been disrupted as many times as the campaigns they have held.
“Throughout the campaign period that he has covered so far, Kyagulanyi and members of his campaign team and supporters have been selectively targeted and subjected to repeated acts of political persecution including torture, harassment, intimidation and humiliation by security forces in flagrant violation of the law,” Rubongoya’s letter to the Electoral Commission, reads in part.
Last week, the EC chairman Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama wrote to the Inspector General of Police Martin Okoth Ochola seeking answers to why his men and women are continuing to violently block and disrupt campaign activities.
“Please note that conducting campaigns as per the harmonized programme is a recognized activity under the Presidential Elections Act and the Roadmap for the 2021 Elections. In that regard, presidential candidates have a right to move and access the designated campaign venues and hold their campaign meetings...” Byabakama wrote on November 26.
Ochola wrote back a day later on November 27, asking for more details.
“Unfortunately neither the candidate’s names nor the dates and other necessary particulars of the alleged disruptions are mentioned in your letter to enable us respond to the allegations. We shall be in position to make specific responses to the allegations once the particulars are made known to us,” Ochola wrote.
Despite the letters, police and army have not let up in their crackdown on rallies. People continue to be shot and injured. In this article, we look at the sheer size of the army and police law enforcement operation trying to contain the spread of Covid-19 on the campaign trail.
One NUP official said they are shadowed by not less than 10 police vehicles – all full of policemen and women. These are sometimes joined by truckloads of the military and LDUs.
“There are normally four police pick- up trucks, three teargas and water canon vehicles, the mobile prison van, a minibus van and other double cabin trucks. These move with us normally everywhere we go,” the official said. More vehicles and personnel are also deployed along the roads that Kyagulanyi and other candidates use to access campaign venues. Asked how much they spend on fuel on a undisrupted campaign day, this official said they use between Shs 300,000 and Shs 600,000.
“It shouldn’t be expensive but police and the army force us to make very long journeys because they don’t want us to use main roads. You find that a distance that should cost about Shs 300,000, costs twice as much because of the double or triple journeys we make,” the official said.
The police and the army with bigger vehicles should be spending more money on their fleet, which trails Kyagulanyi. If a 1800cc van uses between Shs 300,000- 600,000 in fuel per day, police and army vehicles with bigger engines could be spending twice on fuel every day on the campaign trail.
Police and the military may be using not less than Shs 20 million to contain Kyagulanyi alone daily. Interviewed, one security official said they deploy not less than 300 security personnel at Kyagulanyi’s rally venues. The candidate holds three rallies every day in different districts.
And throughout the journey to campaign meetings, police and the army fire countless bullets and teargas to disperse frenzied youths, who make the bulk of Kyagulanyi’s support. Interviewed about the cost of the law enforcement operation, Police spokesman Fred Enanga said; “We don’t come up with costing of the logistical resources that support our policing and enforcement of political campaigns because we have existing manpower and logistical resources.” “...fuel is given to territorial and zonal commanders, which they use for movement of their personnel. How they use resources like teargas and other impact weapons is at their discretion but sometimes they are guided by management.
“So you cannot start costing and say we are going to use 30 canisters of teargas or we are going to use this amount of live ammunition; it’s quite ambiguous and I have not seen that happen in a number of policing activities even in other countries.” Jonah Atusingwize, a journalist at Pearl FM radio, said he has never covered anything like Kyagulanyi’s rallies.
“In 2016, I covered Amama Mbabazi and I also followed what was going on in Dr Kizza Besigye’s camp, nothing like this ever happened. You will be forgiven to think we are at war because of the intensity of the deployment,” Atusingwize said.
Mbabazi, a former prime minister, ran for president in 2016 under the Go Forward banner and Besigye was the presidential flag bearer of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Well, 2016 is different from 2020 significantly. We are now gripped by a pandemic, which limits the number of people who should gather, Enanga says. But everyone in the opposition says, the current crackdown has nothing to do with the pandemic.
“Unlike Kyagulanyi, neither candidate Museveni nor his campaign agents or supporters have been teargassed, pepper sprayed, beaten, arrested, detained or intimidated by security organs even when there is overwhelming evidence of them gathering by roadsides, making processions and addressing crowds of people without masks among other actions that breach Covid-19 guidelines. Museveni and his supporters have committed violations of Covid-19 regulations with impunity ...” Rubongoya’s letter reads in part.
He is supported by Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, the MP for Kira municipality and spokesperson for FDC. Ssemujju told this writer recently that President Museveni is achieving with Covid-19 what he wanted to achieve with the Public Order Management Act that limits public gatherings.
“The police brutality against the opposition has nothing to do with Covid-19 but it is somehow believable as a reason for the crackdown which they continue to wave in our face,” Ssemujju.
None of the 11 candidates, apart from the incumbent, has escaped the wrath of the army and police on the campaign trail. If you get terribly unnerved by the sound of live bullets, you don’t have a place on the campaign trail. FDC’s Patrick Amuriat, Independent candidate Lt. Gen Henry Tumukunde and Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu of the Alliance for National Tranformation (ANT) are also dutifully followed by police and the army.
And sometimes they are waylaid. In Kisoro, Amuriat was blocked by armed police. The road was cut off by barricades. Amuriat had to physically lift the barricades to clear the way. He kept warning his tormentors to “stop oppressing us.”
He was also stopped from addressing a rally in Kabale municipality. The army literary emptied the municipality by firing a volley of bullets dispersing Amuriat’s would-be audience. In a recent tweet, Independent candidate John Katumba’s campaign shared their candidate’s run-in with law enforcement.
“Police arrest Katumba, block his campaign rallies in Iganga and Jinja. Police led by Kenneth Muheirwe, the Iganga district police commander (DPC), managed to arrest Katumba before escorting him out of Iganga town.”
In his nearly two-hour address to the nation on Sunday night, President Museveni said it’s criminal for presidential candidates to gather crowds at rallies without any protection. The president blamed the November 18-19 chaos in the country on Kyagulanyi and FDC candidate Patrict Oboi Amuriat.
“When Kyagulanyi and Amuriat were arrested, criminal gangs funded by some political actors and supported by external forces decided to execute their long-planned mission of burning tyres, attacking civilians, robbing people and enforcement officers.” He said everyone must come to order.