By Haggai Matsiko
More chaos feared as police clamps down on opposition to Museveni
Uganda could be entering a new phase of chaos as the security forces defending President Yoweri Museveni turn their wrath on leaders of opposition political parties.
Opposition leaders, diplomats, the Internal Affairs Minister, army Gen. Aronda Nyakairima and the Police Chief, army Gen. Kale Kayihura have been in marathon meetings to ease the tension.
Meanwhile, political pundits like Makerere University political scientist Sabiiti Makara say the situation portends danger for Uganda’s fledgling democracy.
“The government is creating a police state,” Makara says, “which is very dangerous.”
With tensions rising, others have expressed fear that the opposition might be forced to resort to violent means, thereby ushering the country into chaos.
Opposition leader Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party (DP) recently told The Independent they are weighing their options.
“If we cannot bring change peaceful, we must consider the option of violent change,” he said.
Makara warns “anything could happen’.
“It is not good to push people to the hard wall,” he said.
President Museveni appears to have let loose his security forces with orders to sabotage a joint countrywide campaign by leaders of top opposition parties and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) dubbed “Free and Fair Elections Now!”
Launched in February, the campaign threatens to awaken opposition in the countryside where the opposition has not campaigned aggressively in the past and Museveni has remained unrivalled.
The opposition leaders are holding rallies and radio talk shows to ask citizens to back their demand for electoral reforms before the 2016 elections.
Worst police brutality
But their effort has been met with the worst form of police brutality.
On March 29, the Rwenzori regional police commander, Thomas Kasimo, led an operation, raiding and stopping a Kasese Guide Radio talk show on which the leader of Uganda’s biggest opposition party; the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), army Gen. Mugisha Muntu, was appearing.
Police had just blocked a group of other opposition politicians from staging a rally and town hall meetings in Kasese.
Kasimo claimed he was acting on “orders from above” to stop Muntu whose presence, he alleged, was inciting violence in the area.
Police had the same day foiled a political rally, which Muntu was supposed to attend together with his predecessor Kizza Besigye, Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao, retired Bishop Zac Niringiye and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) leader, Olara Otunnu.
If the incident in Kasese, was shocking, two other incidents in Soroti and Mbale, the previous week had been horrible.
In Soroti, on March 23, police operatives held Bishop Niringiye, a highly respected civil society voice on the campaign, by the belt like a common criminal as teargas rent the air. Scores of civilians that had gathered were dispersed. In Mbale, there was more chaos. One of the pictures taken at the events, shows Muntu taking cover behind a big tree.
The same police officers had blocked Niringiye from delivering a talk at a University in Kampala and he and other opposition leaders from staging a rally and holding a radio talk show.
Critics are decrying this as one of the worst crackdowns on the opposition.
U.S. diplomats engaged
The U.S’s top diplomat in Uganda, Scott DeLisi, has been engaged in the saga. On April 2 he held a meeting with the opposition politicians at his residence. According to details from the meeting to which The Independent is privy, the discussion focused on police attacks on the opposition.
Earlier, DeLisi pledged to talk with both the government and opposition leaders to ensure continued growth of democracy in Uganda.
“We believe that while government must preserve order and security,” he noted, “it also has an obligation to facilitate, rather than prevent, the exercise of free expression and political assembly. After all, a strong and viable democracy needs a strong and viable opposition.”
To most Ugandans, the current crackdown brings back the memories of the 2011 crackdown down on Walk to Work protests, in which police killed over 10 people and injured thousands, terribly denting the country’s image.
The worsening situation led the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, to recommend in parliament that Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, who oversees the police and the Police Chief Kayihura, meet with opposition leaders to sort out the issue.
Shortly after meeting DeLisi, the opposition leaders went into another meeting with the Internal Affairs Minister; army Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, who oversees the police and the Police Chief, army Gen. Kale Kayihura.
Other government officials at the meeting included; the Minister of State for Internal Affairs, John Baba, Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander, Andrew Felix Kaweesi, and the In-Charge, Police Operations, Grace Turyagumanawe.
The meeting took place in the Boardroom of the National Security Information Systems Project Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds.
Leader of Opposition, Wafula Oguttu, noted that the meetings were “relatively fruitful” which does not say a lot.
Kyadondo East Legislator, Ssemujju Nganda, who sits on the parliamentary committee that oversees police, is still sceptical.
“Those meetings can happen but to me, they will not change much, they are just a soft landing for the agents that Nyakairima and Kayihura are,” he said.
Ssemujju added that Kayihura and Nyakairima know that they are wrong to harass opposition politicians but they do it because they are just agents of President Museveni.
“It’s not them that close town hall meetings or raid radio stations,” he said, “I think they are now going back and explain to the emperor (Museveni) that we are going to contain them (opposition) in town halls, we won’t allow them to go the streets, that is all.”
Outgoing Police Spokesperson Judith Nabakooba, denied the police was cracking down on the opposition. The rallies that police blocked, she says, were outside of the law.
She says the opposition leaders were blocked from speaking on radio because they intended to mobilise for the attendance of meetings which were “illegal since their preparation had not followed the procedure in the law.”
Unlike in the past, the new Public Order Management (POM) Act signed by President Museveni on October 2, 2013, gives the police powers to block oppositions rallies on a whim.
Groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) say that the POM law remains vague, making it open to abusive application.
Cases of individuals held as political prisoners, previously unheard of under Museveni’s earlier rule, have been on the rise. According to a Uganda Country Report on Human Rights Practices compiled by the United States Department of State, police held 81 political prisoners in 2013.
“Authorities released many of these individuals without charge but charged others with crimes such as treason, inciting violence, and holding illegal rallies,” the report noted.
Prof. Oloka-Onyango recently said such laws are being “openly used as a mechanism to consolidate and perpetuate dictatorship and autocracy”.
In this case, the leader of the opposition campaign, Olara Otunnu, says he wrote to Gen. Aronda and copied in Gen. Kayhura on Feb.13. The Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs also summoned Gen. Kayihura to explain.
When he appeared, Kayihura faced a furious committee that accused him of using the police to meet the political interests of the ruling party.
Kayihura denied the charge and said opposition politicians “were out to demonise the police”.
But Kayihura is facing criticised right at the heart of the ruling party, NRM, to which he belongs. The wife of the Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who is also the Secretary General of the NRM, has accused Kayihura of becoming “Afande Teargas”.
The Premier’s wife, Jackline Mbabazi, was provoked after Kayihura detained youths who publicly announced their support for her husband. Premier Mbabazi also lashed at Kayihura for detaining people “because of their political opinions”.
Kayihura maintains that the youths “may be terrorists”, according to intelligence he has gathered. Not many people believe him because at the parliamentary hearing, he also feigned ignorance about the police he has deployed permanently at the residency of former FDC president Kizza Besigye. He also could not explain why Gen. Muntu was blocked from the radio station in Kasese.
Gen. Muntu tested
Since he became the leader of Uganda’s leading opposition political party in November 2012, many of his supporters welcomed it as a new era in opposition politics.
Unlike his predecessor, Rt. Colonel Kizza Besigye, they argued, Muntu was a moderate and would close a chapter of combative politics that was, in some cases, provoking security operatives into unleashing terror on the opposition.
Besigye has spent the better part of his political career, almost in street warfare with security operatives. His fearless character has seen him take on police, brave teargas and even fight security operatives attempting to either block him or arrest him.
Consequently, police operatives, have unleashed full force on Besigye, sometimes almost blinding him with pepper spray, manhandling him, his supporters and killing eleven of them in the 2011 walk-to-work protests alone.
With Gen. Muntu at the steering wheel, some pundits claimed, the confrontation between police and the opposition would end.
But alas, the on-going country-wide opposition campaign dubbed `Free and Fair Elections Now!’ has exposed police confrontation and brutality with or without Besigye.
Muntu, has been involved in grassroots canvassing for support for the party beyond the capital Kampala and in rural areas which usually overwhelmingly vote for Museveni.
To his admirers and supporters, this approach was the solution to the police’s hard and intolerant whip that his predecessor Col. Kizza Besigye’s street battles appeared to provoke.
But with the police closing in on Muntu’s largely peaceful ring and moving to foil several peaceful rallies, this might be the indication of how much political space has shrunk in Uganda.
Muntu says that the police behave like this because the institution has been subjected to wrong political decisions; including ensuring the political “survival of an individual”.
“Police’s will and professionalism to act in fairness and according to the law has been crashed,” he told The Independent in an interview, “They are in a dilemma, they know what is right but they want to survive on their job, if they act professionally, they are out.”
Clearly, the growing suppression of the opposition, less than two years before the 2016 elections is a worrying trend for those interested in a peaceful transition from President Museveni’s near-30 year rule.