Last Monday, following weeks of deadly encounters between its supporters and Ugandan security agencies, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu’s National Unity Platform tweeted: “This is war, not presidential campaigns.”
A few hours later, a police car ran over his supporters in an attempt to block the opposition presidential candidate from accessing a campaign rally venue. One supporter was killed and at least four others injured.
At the next campaign stop police fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse his supporters. The injured this time included one of the police guards officially allocated to the candidate, shot in the face with a rubber bullet.
At the third rally of the day, police fired live bullets at the candidate’s car as he attempted to drive through a military barricade set up to block him from driving through the centre of Jinja City Centre. One bullet struck the windscreen of Mr Kyagulanyi’s car, missing a fellow MP Francis Zaake, who was in the co-driver’s seat, by a whisker. It wasn’t 4pm yet.
Mr Kyagulanyi had seen enough. He suspended his campaigns, returned to Kampala and met the Electoral Commission chairperson to demand an intervention.
A month in, this is already the bloodiest general election in Uganda’s history with more than 50 people shot dead last month in protests that broke out after Mr Kyagulanyi’s arrest. The violence springs from the manner of campaigning in an election many saw as a foregone conclusion last year.
Earlier this 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 10 candidates seeking to end President Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year grip on power 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.
Police spokesperson Fred Enanga told The EastAfrican the force is only enforcing Electoral Commission guidelines.
President Museveni campaigns by addressing small groups of party candidates and top local officials and has defended the robust enforcement of the Covid-19 social distancing rules by law enforcement agencies.
However, local ruling NRM party leaders and handlers often mobilise masses to make processions and stand by the roadside to wave at him and his motorcade as it drives by, with the police looking on.
The Inter-religious Council of Uganda, some cultural leaders and other opinion leaders last week condemned the violence and asked police to investigate and bring all culprits to book.
While the security forces are using CCTV camera footage to identify and arrest rioters, no security officer has been arrested in connection with the killings.
President Museveni last week said the government would compensate the families of those killed innocently in the riots, but not those who participated in the riots. In a live broadcast on his Facebook page, Mr Kyagulanyi said Ugandans need their right to life respected, not post-humous compensation.
According to Dr Miria Matembe, the chairperson of the Citizen’s Coalition for Electoral Democracy (CCEDU), this is the most violent campaign under the Museveni administration.
“This is extremely unfortunate. It is evil and it is deliberate from the side of the government. They are just using Covid-19 as an excuse to carry out these crimes,” Ms Matembe told The EastAfrican.
Ms Matembe also worries the rhetoric from top government officials – President Museveni warned that protesters would be “crushed” while Security Minister Gen Elly Tumwine said police had a right to shoot at them – could fan more violence.
The violence casts doubt on the credibility of the January elections, according to Ms Matembe. “The campaigns have become meaningless. In Uganda, elections have become a formality rather than a democratic process to change leadership but even in this formality, why can’t you let the presidential candidates tell their manifestos to the people?”
The Ugandan constitution gives the Electoral Commission the mandate to oversee the entire electoral process but opposition and civil society groups say that the security forces have already hijacked this mandate.
On Wednesday, following the shootings at his car while on the campaign trail, Mr Kyagulanyi met the EC chairperson amid heavy security deployment with two requests: Take charge of the process or resign.
Who is in charge?
EC chairperson Justice Steven Byabakama said the view from critics that security agencies have taken over the electoral process was incorrect. “Why did candidate Kyagulanyi come to us if we’re not in charge? We’re in charge,” Byabakama told journalists.
On November 26 the EC boss wrote to the Inspector General of Police Okoth Ochola expressing discomfort over the continued disruption of scheduled campaign meetings of the presidential candidates.
“Please note that conducting campaigns as per the harmonised programme is a recognised activity under the Presidential Elections Act and the roadmap for the 2021 general elections.
“In that regard, presidential candidates have a right to move and access the designated campaign venues and hold their campaign meetings in compliance with the standard operating procedures and guidelines issued by the electoral commission,” Byabakama wrote.
In his reply, the IGP requested the EC to provide particulars of the candidates and places where they had been blocked to access campaign venues. After the crisis meeting with Mr Kyagulanyi, the EC promised a joint meeting between the police, EC and all presidential candidates to solve the impasse.
Mr Kyagulanyi did not appear convinced. When he resumed campaigning on Thursday, he appeared in a bullet proof vest and helmet – the same attire many journalists on the campaign trail have been spotting.
“This dress code is certainly giving our country a bad image,” government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said, reacting to a picture of journalists on the campaign trail dressed for a conflict zone assignment. “Election isn’t a war and campaign meetings shouldn’t be war zones.” The opposition camps would beg to disagree.