As Ugandans prepare for their general election on the 18th of February, the political climate has been tainted by intimidation and violence from state security apparatus, Museveni’s ”crime preventers”, and increasingly by what government officials deem “militias” of the opposition. Museveni has expressed his intention to recruit at least 1.7 million young crime preventers, allegedly to help the police combat crime. With this programme well underway, there have been reports of intimidation of the opposition and its supporters, political rallying for the NRM and unprovoked violence by these crime preventers.

The politicisation of state security

Elections in Uganda have a history of violence perpetrated by state security forces to entrench the power of the ruling party. Shortly after the 2011 elections, Dr Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) led the ”Walk to Work” protests against high fuel and food prices. These protests marked an upsurge in the levels of electoral violence perpetrated by the state against the population. Human Rights Watch documented the abuses by government security, including the killing of at least 9 people who were not actively involved in the rioting; the beating of more than 30 journalists; and police firing indiscriminately into crowds. Besigye, the main opposition contender at the time, was also harassed and arrested a number of times during the demonstrations. Despite 105 organizations calling for an investigation into the violence, and accountability for the abuse of power of security forces, the soldiers and police involved were not investigated or held to account.

Five years later, the question is whether the coming elections will be more or less violent than in 2011. Violent tactics continue to be used by state security : police routinely harass the two main opposition candidates and citizens who attend their rallies, with incidents occurring monthly. In September 2015, police fired teargas at people who had peacefully gathered to listen to Amama Mbabazi, a former NRM Prime Minister under Museveni running as an independent candidate. In October 2015, Dr Besigye, leader of the FDC had his convoy illegally stopped by a police roadblock while he was on route to a rally, causing a car crash. Besigye and other opposition leaders were arrested, and alarmingly a female politician was stripped naked by the police. At the end of last year Christopher Aine, an aide to Mbabazi went missing. Mbabazi’s team is insisting that Aine was arrested on December, 14 2015 by police officers and taken away in a pick-up truck. The latest incident of this clamp down is the arrest, this month, of Uganda’s former Intelligence Chief, General David Sejusa, by the Uganda Peoples Defense Force (UPDF). The government spokesperson insisted the arrest is lawful, since the constitution of Uganda prevents military officers from engaging in opposition campaigning. However, Sejusa’s lawyer contends that the arrest was illegal as the UPDF produced neither a warrant nor an explanation for his arrest.

As well as the harassment of the opposition and their supporters, freedom of the press is also being clamped down on with journalists being targeted. Specifically, journalists working outside of Kampala in local languages are being harassed by government officials and police for covering opposition events. Museveni’s strategy of fear, intimidation and violence continually undermines the opposition’s ability to rally support and receive media coverage.

Despite the very tense political climate before the 2011 elections, the run up and the actual Election Day were relatively peaceful. The violence occurred primarily following the elections during the “Walk to Work” campaign and at the mayoral elections which occurred a few days after the presidential one. The almost systematic intimidation and violence towards the opposition and its supporters in the run up to the 2016 election sets the scene for potentially more violence on Election Day and post elections than the 2011 elections.

Mobilising youth for repression and intimidation 

Museveni’s decision to launch a large scale recruitment campaign of crime preventers signals a multi faceted attempt at controlling both the youth population through the promise of opportunity and the electorate, using the crime preventers as an instrument of intimidation. The government has been successful at recruiting many youths throughout the country: for example, in Lango sub-region the local police have claimed that 200,000 crime preventers have been recruited from a population of 1.5 million people. One of the reasons put forward by the administration for the recruitment of crime preventers is the need for more policing as the state security services are not sufficient.

The key election topics for youths are the lack of employment and economic opportunities. Becoming a crime preventer offers the opportunity to benefit from facilitation of payments for ”expenses” and includes the promise of a  job in government past the elections. This programme takes discontented youths off the street and gives them a future to hope for under an NRM administration. The crime preventers are being promoted as party neutral. However, the numbers recruited, the coordinator being the former NRM chairman of Makerere University, and the crime preventers occasional dress code of t­-shirts embossed with Museveni’s face on them suggest otherwise. In one of the regions, the training manual emphasises the secret nature of the work of a crime preventer, urging them not to disclose information to their wives. It ends with a statement of political propaganda: “every good thing you are seeing around is the result of good NRM governance” going on to extol the NRM’s provision of public services in the area. The widespread recruitment of crime preventers is a striking difference with the 2011 elections, and formalizes the use of youths supportive of the NRM for political purposes and intimidation. The sheer numbers pose an imminent threat to opposition candidates and supporters on Election Day.

International and local human rights organizations have called for the suspension of crime preventers. In a report released by Human Rights Watch, there is evidence of them being used for political intimidation and politicized violence. In Fort Portal, a town in the Western region of Uganda, a crime preventer admitted that an NRM candidate paid his colleagues to perpetrate violence against supporters of the opposition. Between May and October last year, during separate incidents of arrest and extortion, crime preventers beat at least 10 people. The violence and political partisanship already exposed in the run up to the elections could come to a head on polling day when scores of crime preventers will be deployed across Uganda, ostensibly to maintain order. The likelihood is that political intimidation and violence will be the order of the day to secure the election for Museveni. Human rights activists have called for a bill in Parliament to provide clear mandate and ensure accountability for actions taken by crime preventers, however, it is unlikely that this bill will be passed before Election Day, paving the way for violence with impunity.

The securitisation of the opposition candidates and their campaigners

The two main opposition candidates have been accused by  Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda of raising militia groups for the purposes of perpetrating violence on polling day if they should lose the election. This accusation has been supported by Ugandan police spokesman, who has indicated that government intelligence identifies Mbabazi’s ”militia” as including Iraqi and Afghanistan returnees, which Mbabazi has denied. Besigye has openly been recruiting groups of youths for his Power 10 group to campaign and protect FDC votes. However, the rhetoric on Besigye’s side has become increasingly rousing, with threats of settling election disputes in the streets rather than in the court room, if the electoral process is corrupted. Nevertheless, despite the recruitment of security details, vote protectors or even militias by the opposition, Museveni’s widespread recruitment of crime preventers far outweighs the mobilisation of youths by opposition candidates for protection or violence.

Looking ahead: post-election threats

Limited violence on Election Day and post-elections is inevitable. The return of Museveni to power is almost assured in the presidential elections. However, the parliamentary elections may pose more of a challenge to the NRM administration if the opposition makes significant gains. The key threat to the administration and stability is how willing the opposition candidates and their supporters will be to engage in disruption and violence to signal their discontent with the election result and a potentially corrupted process. If widespread protests and violence do occur, the challenge for Museveni will be how to maintain the veneer of legitimacy both nationally and when facing international partners whilst using the state security apparatus and crime preventers to secure his position and repress the opposition. A less pressing, but equally real threat to stability, are the mobilised crime preventers and their response to most likely unsatisfied expectations post-Election day. The patronage system which Museveni’s rule is based upon and the rhetoric coming from the government regarding the crime preventers imply a reward for loyal services in terms of government jobs, money and economic opportunities for these youths. If these expectations are not met, there is room for this group of discontented youths to mobilize against the administration. This is exacerbated by the short term recruitment of 36,000 Special Police Constables from the crime preventers to buttress the state security forces during the elections.

Saffienne Vincent.