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Armed men in T-shirts enforcing the law raise fears of election violence in Uganda

Uganda this week witnessed its worst violence in a decade when demonstrators took to the streets to protest opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine’s arrest. The ferocity of the violence and the state’s use of armed plainclothes militias raised alarm bells as President Yoweri Museveni, Africa’s longest-serving leader, faces a popular challenger in the January election.

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

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

The panic mounts as the armed men start shooting wantonly into the air thick with teargas. “What?! Jesus!” cries the woman. “Mummy, mummy, I’m very scared,” whimpers the woman as the heavyset gunman shoots into the distance at chest level.

The video clip, posted on Twitter by leading Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, was just one of many disturbing images circulating on social media sites on Thursday as plainclothes and uniformed security officers shot demonstrators protesting the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine, killing at least 37 people.

“In the last couple of days we have begun to see very unusual things in this country: individuals driving private cars, wielding guns and shooting indiscriminately at anybody they see on the streets. These signs are extremely worrying,” said Opiyo in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Friday. “We believe the government has been hiring paramilitary militia in the guise of maintaining law and order.”

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

Election season can be a particularly fraught time in Uganda. But this time, the violence started early and with a ferocity that raised alarm bells, exposing the high political stakes for President Museveni.

‘Let Museveni know that we are not slaves’

Museveni is running for re-election in the January 2021 polls after the country’s election commission on November 2 cleared the incumbent’s bid to extend his 34-year rule.

Since Museveni took power in 1986 after ousting 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’s popularly known, has captured the imagination of many voters and electrified his primarily young fan base with his fearless calls for Museveni to step down.

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

Speaking to journalists after his release, a weary-looking Wine sounded defiant. “Let Museveni know that we are not slaves and we shall not accept to be slaves,” he said. “We shall be free.”

The Wine arrest-release-defiance routine

Wine’s characteristic displays of defiance following his frequent arrests have turned into a familiar feature on the Ugandan political scene since he was elected to parliament in 2017.

Following a 2018 spell in jail, Wine was allowed to travel to the US for medical treatment for injuries sustained during his incarceration.

But if Uganda’s ruling party members harboured secret hopes that this young, green parliamentarian could be intimidated into staying on in the US, those dreams were soon dashed. Following his treatment, the crowd-gathering thorn in Museveni’s side returned to his homeland, vowing not to be intimidated. “I am a free Ugandan with the right to move freely in my country,” he declared upon arrival.

Wine’s latest arrest was the second in barely a month. On November 3, he was detained shortly after filing his presidential candidacy. After being blocked from going to his offices, Wine was taken to his residence, where he addressed his supporters, displaying his torn suit jacket and pointing to injuries sustained by some of his associates during the arrest.

Uganda erupts after another arrest

But while Wine’s detentions are not new, the public reaction to his arrest this week caught experts and human rights defenders by surprise.

“Museveni’s hold on power has been achieved by visiting violence, intimidation, corruption and bribery – this is not new,” said Opiyo. “What’s new is the level of reaction from the public.”

Wine’s arrest on Wednesday triggered immediate protests in Kampala and quickly spread to other towns across the East African nation. By late Wednesday, the Red Cross said it had treated dozens of injured, including 11 people for gunshot wounds. By Thursday night, the situation had deteriorated, with shop windows broken and looted, and youths burning tyres on the streets, demanding Wine’s release.

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

‘Using Covid to obtain political advantage’

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

“There’s no doubt the brutality of the security agencies was met with unruly conduct by people who were outraged and using every means to express their outrage,” said Opiyo.

In a country mired in poverty and youth unemployment, public anger has been mounting against an ageing, governing clique that has arbitrarily deployed security officials to uphold the law as they see fit.

While Wine was arrested for flouting coronavirus restrictions, members of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party have held packed campaign events in recent weeks that have been peacefully secured by law enforcement officials.

“Coronavirus restrictions are being used as an excuse for violent repression of the opposition and to give added advantage to the ruling party,” said Opiyo. “This is about using Covid to obtain political advantage.”

The use of armed plainclothes men on Thursday has also terrified the citizenry, adding to insecurity fears in the run-up to the January 15 elections.

“This is not the first time we have seen them on the streets, often times they work alongside uniformed security personnel,” explained Opiyo. “But since they are government employed individuals, it’s often difficult to hold them to account.”

While the mysterious gunmen in T-shirts are allowed to “control the street” with impunity, human rights defenders in Uganda are bracing for a particularly intimidating campaign season.

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

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

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