Gunmen in T-shirts enforce law, raise fears of election violence in Uganda

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Uganda experienced its worst violence in a decade this week when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine. The ferocity of violence and the state’s use of armed undercover men have sounded the alarm as President Yoweri Museveni, Africa’s longest-serving leader, faces a popular challenger in January elections .

The video clip, recorded from a family car filled with audibly panicked limbs on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, documents 45 seconds of raw human terror.

“These guys are shooting,” a female voice said from inside the car as through the windshield young men in T-shirts and jeans can be seen wielding automatic rifles in the street.

Panic mounts as the gunmen begin to fire tear gas into the air. “What ?! Jesus!” the woman shouts. “Mum, mum, I’m very scared,” the woman moans as the big gunman shoots away at chest level.

The video clip, posted to Twitter by senior Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, was just one of many disturbing images circulating on social media sites Thursday as plainclothes and uniformed police fired at protesters protesting against the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine, killing at least 37 people.

“In recent days, we have started to see some very unusual things in this country: individuals driving private cars, brandishing guns and indiscriminately shooting anyone they see on the streets. These signs are extremely worrying, “Opiyo said in an interview with TBEN on Friday.” We believe the government has hired paramilitary militias under the guise of maintaining public order.

The video, Opiyo noted, was shot Thursday by a colleague who wished to remain anonymous. “We saw a lot like this online yesterday, but I can vouch for this video because I know the person who shot it,” he said.

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The election season can be a particularly difficult time in Uganda. But this time the violence started early and with a ferocity that sounded the alarm, revealing the high political stakes for President Museveni.

‘Let Museveni know we are not slaves’

Museveni is running for election in January 2021 after the country’s electoral commission on November 2 authorized the incumbent president’s candidacy to extend his term by 34 years.

Since Museveni took power in 1986 after overthrowing a military government, the 76-year-old rebel soldier-turned-president has never lost a single election in his political career.

But he faces a serious threat next year from Wine, a 38-year-old musician-turned-politician.

Uganda’s “ghetto president”, as he is popularly known, has captured the imaginations of many voters and electrified his predominantly young fan base with his fearless calls for Museveni’s resignation.

Wine – real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – was arrested earlier this week and accused of flouting Covid-19 restrictions. Following Thursday’s violence – the country’s worst unrest in a decade – he was released on bail on Friday and is scheduled to appear in court again on December 18.

Speaking to reporters after his release, a weary-looking wine sounded defiant. “Let Museveni know that we are not slaves and that we will not agree to be slaves,” he said. “We will be free.”

The Wine Arrest-Release-Defiance Routine

Wine’s characteristic displays of defiance after his frequent arrests have become a familiar feature of the Ugandan political scene since his election to parliament in 2017.

Following incarceration in 2018, Wine was cleared to travel to the United States for medical treatment for injuries sustained while incarcerated.

But if members of Uganda’s ruling party had secret hopes that this young Green parliamentarian might be intimidated into staying in the United States, those dreams were quickly dashed. After his treatment, the thorn that gathered the crowd alongside Museveni returned to his homeland, vowing not to be intimidated. “I am a free Ugandan with the right to move freely in my country,” he said on arrival.

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Wine’s latest arrest was the second in just over a month. On November 3, he was detained shortly after applying for the presidency. After being prevented from coming to his offices, Wine was taken to his home, where he addressed his supporters, showing his torn suit jacket and pointing to the injuries sustained by some of his associates during the arrest. .

Uganda erupts after new arrest

But while Wine’s detentions are not news, the public reaction to his arrest this week has surprised experts and human rights defenders.

“Museveni’s grip on power has been achieved through violence, intimidation, bribery and bribery – this is nothing new,” Opiyo said. “What is new is the level of public reaction.”

Wine’s arrest on Wednesday sparked immediate protests in Kampala and quickly spread to other cities in the East African nation. Late Wednesday, the Red Cross said it had treated dozens of wounded, including 11 with gunshot wounds. By Thursday night, the situation had deteriorated, with shop windows smashed and looted, and youths burning tires in the streets, demanding Wine’s release.

Ugandan police maintain their forces contained rioters who targeted people who did not support Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party. “What we have seen in recent days, namely violence, vandalism, looting, intimidation and threats, are crimes that were being committed [against] people who are not pro-NUP, “said police spokesman Fred Enanga.” It is not something we can tolerate. “

‘Using Covid to gain political advantage’

While admitting that the situation had become “very intense,” Opiyo noted that the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by security officers had exacerbated the violence.

“There is no doubt that the brutality of the security agencies has met with unruly behavior on the part of indignant people and using all means to express their indignation,” Opiyo said.

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In a country mired in poverty and youth unemployment, public anger is mounting against an aging government clique that has arbitrarily deployed security guards to uphold the law as they see fit.

While Wine has been arrested for flouting coronavirus restrictions, members of Museveni’s national resistance movement party have staged busy campaign events in recent weeks that have been peacefully secured by law enforcement.

“The coronavirus restrictions are being used as an excuse for the violent crackdown on the opposition and to give the ruling party an added advantage,” Opiyo said. “It’s about using Covid to gain political advantage.”

The use of armed men in civilian clothes on Thursday also terrified citizens, adding to fears of insecurity as the January 15 elections approached.

“It’s not the first time we’ve seen them on the streets, often they work alongside uniformed security personnel,” Opiyo said. “But since these are people employed by the government, it is often difficult to hold them to account.”

As the mysterious gunmen in T-shirts are allowed to “control the streets” with impunity, human rights defenders in Uganda brace themselves for a particularly intimidating campaign season.

A day after posting the video clip and other footage of armed men in civilian clothes, Opiyo admitted he was concerned for his safety and that of other human rights defenders and civil society activists in Uganda.

“I slept in my office last night because I found out I was being dragged. They are very unhappy that I am posting these updates. Two days ago, civil society activists were arrested in their car, taken away and beaten, journalists beaten, any group that questions the authorities is brutalized, ”Opiyo said. “I don’t feel safe, but this is my home and I’m not going anywhere.”

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