With Yoweri Museveni leading in preliminary election results, there was violence in Kampala after the arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye (19 February).
Kizza Besigye, the main opposition candidate in Uganda’s presidential elections, was today arrested by police, prompting violent clashes across the capital Kampala. Votes are still being counted across the country, with a final result expected tomorrow. Preliminary results, based on nearly half of the polling stations, put long-term incumbent Yoweri Museveni on 63%, with Besigye trailing some thirty percentage points behind.
Opposition activists have accused the government of vote-rigging, and reports of irregularities are widespread. Some polling stations in Kampala were still open today after the late arrival of ballot papers prevented people from casting their votes before yesterday’s 4pm deadline (see ‘Watch and Wait’, 18 February).
Besigye, contesting his fourth election, had been due to address a press conference at the party headquarters of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Armed police stormed the compound, firing tear gas into the building and at Besigye supporters gathered outside. Besigye was later driven away in an unmarked vehicle as police pursued his supporters in surrounding streets, firing tear gas and rubber bullets (some say live ammunition was also used).
Police later said that Besigye was arrested to prevent him declaring his own version of results, in violation of electoral law. FDC activists across the country have been keeping parallel tallies and sending them in to party headquarters.
‘The results are fake,’ said Moses, an FDC activist at the scene. ‘People are ready to die.’ His sentiment is shared by many jobless youth in Uganda’s cities, who form the core of Besigye’s support. There were reports of clashes elsewhere in the capital as police and soldiers cleared the streets: one road into the city centre was littered with rocks, broken glass, and charred ashes from burnt-out fires.
Street patrols included not only armed police but also military personnel, and trucks of men in black uniforms and sunglasses. Young men were manhandled into vehicles as the sound of tear gas and gunshots continued to be heard. There were unconfirmed reports of deaths posted on social media, which has been blocked nationwide since yesterday (some tech savvy Ugandans know how to evade the firewall).
Coercion and consent
Political scientists describe Museveni’s thirty-year rule as one of ‘semi-authoritarianism’: not a dictatorship, but far from a functioning democracy. It is a shifting mixture of coercion and consent that has served the former guerilla fighter well, bringing a measure of stability to Uganda while keeping international donors on-side.
But the consent comes largely from the countryside, where Museveni retains widespread support. In the towns and cities, and especially in Kampala, his regime rests increasingly on coercion, suppressing basic rights of assembly and protest. Besigye, a one-time ally of Museveni, has been detained by police three times already this week. One man was killed and nineteen were injured in clashes on Monday as police blocked a Besigye rally in central Kampala (see ‘Showing Defiance’, 16 February).
Uganda is located in a troubled region, which includes such fraught states as Burundi and South Sudan. By those standards, Ugandans are lucky with their politics. But they do not feel lucky in Kampala tonight. Tomorrow the results are announced; many will distrust them. In Uganda’s restless urban centres, things may get worse before they get better.