Thursday 10/28/21

Ugandan government 'preparing for war' as pop star runs for president

Every day, truckloads of heavily armed police and military forces converge at each opposition rally and fire bullets and tear gas at the crowds.

Opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, speaks during a press conference in which he announced a petition to the international criminal court to investigate rights abuses in the country. Photo: Sally Hayden/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire/dpa
Opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, speaks during a press conference. Photo: Sally Hayden/dpa.

These days, on a typical street in any Ugandan city, town or village, sound systems mounted on mobile trucks blast out music and political slogans, promises and appeals for votes.

The vehicles are covered with pictures of the candidates competing for Thursday's general elections, under which a head of state and more than 400 members of parliament will be chosen.

This form of electioneering was brought about due to the coronavirus pandemic, with the government promoting "scientific campaigns" that encourage candidates to use, among other things, radio, television, mobile trucks and social networks to get their message out there.

Long-serving incumbent President Yoweri Museveni is seeking re-election, but he faces a fierce opponent in singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, best known by his stage name, Bobi Wine.

Wherever Bobi Wine goes, thousands, even tens of thousands, of mostly young people gather around him. But in what's probably the most violence-ridden electioneering exercise in the East African country's history, on a daily basis, government security forces disperse rallies, mostly by the opposition, using tear gas and live bullets.

Eleven candidates are vying for the top seat, including two retired generals who turned against their former boss.

Uganda's government says it's breaking up the rallies because opposition leaders, especially Bobi Wine, are violating measures that were imposed to control the coronavirus' spread by allowing or encouraging large numbers of people to attend their rallies.


The state also accuses Bobi Wine of instigating the violence and accuses him of planning a post-election insurrection.

"It is Bobi Wine who is causing violence by inciting his supporters. There are signs that he will lose this election. ... Bobi Wine and his people are strategizing on how to cause chaos after the elections, and we are aware of this," says a spokesperson for the ruling NRM party, Rogers Mulindwa.

Sceptics believe that, although coronavirus measures are vital, Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is taking advantage of the pandemic to cut the opposition off from meeting the people.

Bobi Wine, the most credible threat to Museveni's 34-year rule, has been particularly targeted. Observers believe he is solidly leading the mass of young voters against the ruling generation.

Every day, truckloads of heavily armed police and military forces converge at each opposition rally and fire bullets and tear gas at the crowds.

Government rallies, on the other hand, are mostly left unbothered.

According to university historian and associate professor Godfrey Asiimwe, the situation may continue until voting time, and, when the results come out favouring Museveni, there will be riots and deaths. However, the demonstrators will not be able to sustain their protests because they are not organized and will be brought down by the state.

"People's anger will flare up, and they will rebel for days, but they are not organized enough to sustain the protests. There are likely to be heavy casualties because the state will retaliate with force. [The] Government has many coercive forces from local defence militias, police and the army," he explained.

Deadliest incident

In the deadliest incident, in late November, 54 people died, according to the government, when security forces put down a nationwide demonstration against the arrest of Bobi Wine. Hundreds of others were arrested, though opposition and human rights sources say the number of dead was much higher.

Now people are scared about what may happen on election day and after.

"There's going to be bloodshed, because Museveni cannot give up power and people are going to fight that. We are urging people to come out in large numbers, vote and guard the votes so that we get our people out of this hopeless situation," Pater Kakadde, a Bobi Wine party activist, said.

"We are seeing the army everywhere as if they are preparing for war. There is violence already even before the elections, and the number of people killed by security forces are more than those killed by Covid-19," says Allan Mawanda, a prominent mobiliser for Bobi Wine's party.

"We believe Museveni will rig the votes, but the youths will not be accepting the faked government results, and there will be violence," Mawanda, who has been arrested several times during Bobi Wine’s rallies, added.

Across Uganda, the situation is scary, with armed police and military forces patrolling the streets in each major city and town ahead of the elections.

But Museveni, 75, and one of Africa's longest-ruling heads of state, has defended the deployment, saying it's to protect people against opposition threats.

"I want to ask Ugandans that if a soldier stops you, please stop. Do not run. If they come to your home, and they call you, please come out and go with them to a police station. If you coordinate with the army, there will be no problem at all," he told a state newspaper in an interview this month.