Uganda this week witnessed its worst violence in a decade when protesters took to the streets to protest the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wines. Violence and the state’s use of armed clothing raised alarms as President Yoweri Museveni, Africa’s longest-serving leader, faces a popular challenger in the January election.
The video, recorded from a family car full of audible panic 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 young men in T-shirts and jeans through the windshield can be seen with automatic rifles on the street.
The panic increases when the armed men start firing into the air thick with tear gas. “What ?! Jesus!” cries the woman. “Mom, mom, I’m very scared,” the woman whines as the heavy weapon shoots into the distance at chest level.
The video, posted on Twitter by leading Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, was just one of many disturbing images circulating on social media on Thursday as clothes and uniformed security officers shot protesters protesting the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine and killing at least 37 people.
This is not a war zone. It’s an election or what they call it in Uganda. We are quickly entering anarchy in here. We must restore calm and avoid bloodshed. The winner in these circumstances may be a legal but not a legitimate leader #StopTheBloodshed pic.twitter.com/o1dgWs8DDR
– Nicholas Opiyo (@nickopiyo) November 19, 2020
“In recent days, we have begun to see very unusual things in this country: individuals driving private cars, striking with weapons and shooting indiscriminately at someone they see on the streets. These signs are extremely worrying, Opiyo said in an interview with Jowharon Friday. “We believe that the government has employed paramilitary militia in the guise of maintaining law and order.”
The video, Opiyo noted, was recorded on Thursday by a colleague who wished to remain anonymous. “We saw many similar ones online yesterday, but I can guarantee this video because I know the person who shot it,” he said.
The election period can be a particularly filled time in Uganda. But this time the violence began early and with a severity that sounded the alarm bells and revealed the high political stakes of President Museveni.
‘Let Museveni know that we are not slaves’
Museveni goes to the polls in January 2021 after the country’s election commission on November 2 cleared sitting bids to extend his 34-year rule.
Since Museveni took power in 1986 after ousting a military government, the 76-year-old rebel soldier who became 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 who became a politician.
Uganda’s “ghetto president”, as he is commonly called, has captured the imagination of many voters and electrified his predominantly young fan base with his fearless calls for Museveni to leave his job.
Vin – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – was arrested earlier this week and charged with violating Covid-19 restrictions. After Thursday’s violence – the country’s worst unrest in a decade – he was released on bail on Friday and will return to court on December 18.
Talk to reporters after his release, a tired-looking wine sounded defiant. “Let Museveni know that we are not slaves and we will not accept being slaves,” he said. “We shall be free.”
The wine rest routine – release – despite the routine
Wines’ characteristic challenges following his frequent arrests have turned into a familiar feature on the Ugandan political scene since he was elected to parliament in 2017.
After an enchantment in prison in 2018, Wine had to travel to the United States for medical treatment for injuries he received during his imprisonment.
But if Uganda’s ruling party members had secret hopes that this young, green parliamentarian could be intimidated into staying in the United States, those dreams were soon shattered. After his treatment, the crowd in Museveni’s side returned to their homeland and promised not to be intimidated. “I am a free Ugandan with the right to move freely in my country,” he explained on arrival.
Win’s last arrest was the second in less than a month. On November 3, he was arrested shortly after submitting his presidential candidacy. After being blocked from going to his offices, Wine was taken to his residence, where he spoke to his followers, showed off his broken suit jacket and pointed out injuries that some of his employees had sustained during the arrest.
Uganda erupts after another arrest
But while Vin’s detention is not new, the public’s reaction to his arrest this week surprised experts and human rights defenders.
“Museveni’s grip on power has been achieved by visiting violence, intimidation, corruption and bribery – this is not new,” Opiyo said. “What’s new is the level of public reaction.”
The wine’s arrest on Wednesday sparked immediate protests in Kampala and quickly spread to other cities across the East African nation. At the end of Wednesday, the Red Cross said they had treated dozens of injured, including 11 people for gunshots. On Thursday evening, the situation had deteriorated with shop windows broken and looted and young people burning tires on the streets and demanding that Vin be released.
Ugandan police maintain that their forces included rioters targeting people who did not support Vienna’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party. “What we have seen in recent days, that is, violence, vandalism, looting, threats and threats, are crimes committed [against] people who are not pro-NUP “, says police spokesman Fred Enanga.” This is not something we can tolerate. “
‘Using Covid to gain political advantage’
While acknowledging that the situation had become “very intense”, Opiyo noted that the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by security officials had exacerbated the violence.
“There is no doubt that the brutality of the security agencies was met by the restless behavior of people who were outraged and who used all means to express their outrage,” Opiyo said.
In a country that is stuck in poverty and youth unemployment, public anger has increased against an aging, ruling clique that has arbitrarily deployed security authorities to enforce the law they deem appropriate.
While Wine was arrested for failing to comply with coronavirus restrictions, members of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party have held full campaign events in recent weeks that have been peacefully secured by law enforcement agencies.
“Coronavirus restrictions are being used as an excuse for violent repression by the opposition and to give the ruling party extra advantage,” Opiyo said. “It’s about using Covid to gain political advantage.”
The use of armed clothing on Thursday has also frightened citizens and increased concerns about insecurity ahead of the January 15 election.
“This is not the first time we see them on the streets, they often work with uniformed security personnel,” Opiyo explained. “But because they are government employees, it is often difficult to hold them accountable.”
While the mysterious shooters in T-shirts are allowed to “control the street” without impunity, human rights defenders in Uganda are defending for a particularly frightening campaign season.
One day after publishing the video and other images of armed men in civilian clothes, Opiyo acknowledged that 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 was told I was following. They are very unhappy that I am publishing these updates. Two days ago, civil society activists were stopped in their car and taken out and beaten, journalists beaten, every group that questions the authorities is brutalized, Opiyo says. “I do not feel safe, but this is my home and I am not going anywhere.”