Ugandan election: Violence against civilians and the opposition

The presidential elections in Uganda are turning into a war against its own citizens. Our writer reports on the country he had to flee for Berlin two years ago.

Election posters of the main candidates for president in Uganda: the incumbent president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (below) and the musician Bobi Wine (top), whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu and who is running for the opposition party NUP.
Election posters of the main candidates for president in Uganda: the incumbent president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (below) and the musician Bobi Wine (top), whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu and who is running for the opposition party NUP.AFP

Berlin-Uganda has never seen a peaceful transfer of power in the past. And the presidential elections to be held on 14 January have been characterised by all sorts of violence, as can be seen in the daily livestream of opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu's campaign Trail.

Let's look back: after winning a guerrilla war and overthrowing a legitimately elected government, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni became president of the east African country in 1986. Elections are held in Uganda every five years. Museveni has been able to maintain his power for 35 years because he suppresses the opposition by all means.

During the 2016 presidential elections, the Ugandan government blocked all social media platforms, blocked internet and mobile money transfer services, something that is also expected to happen in this election, intended to weaken the opposition. Election observers at the time criticised the lack of independence of the electoral commission, violence by the security forces against the opposition, the media and the public, violations of freedom of expression, press and assembly, and financial overreach by the president and his party. The verdict of observers in the upcoming elections is likely to be even more critical than five years ago.

With an African mixture of hip hop and rap, the musician Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, called for tolerance and freedom of expression and criticised corruption and injustice in the country through his music. Kyagulanyi is now running as a presidential candidate, which makes the 76-year-old dictator, who wants to defend the corrupt mafia structures of his country that have grown over decades by remaining president, incredibly nervous.

75 per cent of the population is aged 15-35

Bobi Wine, a 38-year-old opposition candidate from the "People Power" movement, scores points especially with the youths of the landlocked African country because he can easily associate with them and understand the struggles they go through. He wants to improve living standards and the entire political atmosphere in Uganda. In the country with almost 50 million inhabitants, 75 per cent of the population are aged 15-35. The popular musician reaches a large target group with his ideas for reform. He promises a new Uganda, wants to create jobs for unemployed youth, restore the rule of law - and equality for all. And he wants to reintroduce age limits and term limits for presidents, which President Museveni removed from the constitution in order to remain in office for life.

Running on the ticket of the opposition National Unity Party (NUP), Bobi Wine emphasises that he wants a non-violent transfer of power. And the video streams from Ghetto TV give voters an authentic view of the candidate and his cause. Almost without interruption, the live cameras of the "People Power" movement accompany the Bobi Wine campaign and offer authentic insights. You can see him in his red shirt standing in front of armed security forces and trying to de-escalate with calm words. Wine's campaign team is always unarmed. His weapons have become the cameras that document day after day the brutality of the Museveni government. The most recent example was on 27 December 2020, when one of Wine's cameramen was shot in the head. He was seriously injured and is currently fighting for his life in intensive care. On the same day, one of Wine's bodyguards was run over by a military truck and succumbed to his injuries.

Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu at a campaign event.
Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu at a campaign event.NUP/People Power

The Ugandan government refused to grant permission or accreditation to some international journalists who wanted to report on the elections, and some international journalists who where already in Uganda were expelled from the country. In order to prevent the brutal actions and human rights violations from being documented and made public, the government tried to force Google and YouTube to stop the livestreams of pro-Bobi Wine online media outlets like Ghetto TV. Since the government could not produce a court order to support their request, these efforts failed.

There have been regular roadblocks by Ugandan security forces under the command of President Museveni to prevent Bobi Wine from reaching some places in Uganda's 134 districts to campaign. It was during one such roadblock that Wine was arrested on 18 November in Luuka District in the east of the country. The unconstitutional arrest of a presidential candidate sparked demonstrations across the country, to which the government responded with brutality. Over 100 people who were peacefully demanding the release of Bobi Wine were killed. Kyagulanyi was put on trial and charged with the crime of spreading Covid-19 during his campaign appearances. The Ugandan government is politicising the corona pandemic to disorganise and oppress the campaigns of opposition politicians, especially Bobi Wine.

The German embassy supports the Ugandan police

Since the murder of over 100 innocent civilians on 18 November, various NGOs, institutions and countries have called on the Ugandan government to respect human rights, but nothing has changed. Recently, a prominent human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opio, was arrested and released on bail on 30 December 2020. All these actions are intended to create fear and unrest ahead of the elections on 14 January. Earlier in the month, Bobi Wine filed charges against President Museveni and nine security officials regarding human rights violations during his election campaign at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and on 7 January faced questions from the international press in a video conference on the matter. While he was speaking to journalists from his car, police repeatedly attacked his car and sprayed tear gas into the vehicle. 

Live videos document daily police reprisals against Bobi Wine's team and supporters. In past years, the German Embassy and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) have repeatedly supported departments of the Ugandan police. On the embassy's Facebook page, you can see how the respective acting ambassadors in 2019 and 2020 handed over cars, motorcyles and other equipment to police chiefs in Kampala together with a BKA officer.

The presidential election campaign in Uganda has become a state war against its citizens.

This support leaves a disconcerting impression on Ugandan human rights activists. Upon request, the German Foreign Office stated that the German government supports "projects on the ground to strengthen the rule of law and human rights, including projects aimed at improving the quality of the professionalism and civilian work of the police". Anyone who is currently following the actions of the police is left with the question of whether the quality of a police force that permanently violates human rights should be supported by Germany.

The presidential election campaign in Uganda has become a state war against its citizens. People who support the opposition are abducted by security agencies, others are illegally detained in so-called "safe houses". Many young men and women who support the opposition are in prison. If all this is happening now before the elections, what will happen on 14 January and afterwards? How many people will die to keep Museveni in power?

"The world is watching," chants a cameraman from Ghetto TV over and over again, while his livestream on Facebook shows police beating people with batons and firing live ammunition into crowds of supporters. Unfortunately, the world is not watching. One wishes for more international attention to the current incidents in Uganda. The Western media's lack of interest in a highly exciting and creative reform movement in Africa is regrettable. It almost seem deliberate, but then one does not want to believe that.

Edward Mutebi is 28 years old and came to Germany from Uganda two years ago. He had founded a human rights organisation in Uganda and had to flee the country. He is a scholarship holder of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and will start his Master's degree in Human Rights at the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences in October. At the beginning of 2021, he launched the portal "The World is Watching" ( to document and inform about human rights violations in Uganda and other countries.

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