Protests and arrests as the president mulls amending age limits in constitution
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has ruled for more than 30 years now, creating a situation in which critical voices and opposition political parties operate in an environment of fear and repression. As 72-year old Museveni attempts to extend his rule over the country by abolishing age limits for presidents to campaign and be elected, civic groups and the opposition have mobilised to counter the president's plans to potentially prolong his hold on power. The authorities and police, in turn, have reacted with severe suppression of such actions, meetings and mobilisations perceived as a threat to Museveni's continued reign.
The following update by CIVICUS Monitor research partner covering developments in Uganda details some of the government's most recent and disturbing crackdowns on peaceful assembly and free expression that have occurred in response to citizens' actions against the president's proposed constitutional changes.
Museveni's allusions to a potential constitutional amendment to article 102(b) that would abolish presidential age limits have sparked a number of protests and meetings that the authorities have subsequently suppressed. For example, on 18th July police in Kampala arrested two people accused of burning tires and T-shirts with President Museveni's picture on it in protest over the proposed amendment.
The very next day, the Uganda police announced the arrest of 56 people, the majority of whom are opposition party members, for “holding unlawful assemblies”. Reuters cited Ingrid Turinawe, an official from Uganda's largest opposition party - Forum for Democratic Change - who stated that:
“They (police) suspected the meetings were for opposing the age limit matter, which is why they stormed them”.
Turinawe also fears the 56 arrested individuals may be ill-treated or tortured while in prison.
On 20th July, police arrested Democratic Party President Nobert Mao, Secretary General Gerald Siranda and Hakim Kizza, after they met to launch the “Togikwatako Drive” campaign, which literally translates as “hands-off article 102 (b)” at the Party's main office. The group was planning to hold a demonstration as part of the campaign, when they were taken to the central police station. All were later released from police custody but according to the Daily Monitor, Mao had responded to the arrest, stating that:
"I don't have any problem and what we are doing is very lawful. I don't know why we are being arrested, we are only making sure the constitution is not changed to favour the current president in the presidential age limit bill".
On 13th July, Uganda's Inspector General of Police Gen Kale Kayihura warned that he will not allow politicians to debate and discuss the controversial changes to the presidential age limit in universities and villages, citing reports that opposition leaders had been inciting youth and university students over the age limit bill. Kayihura stated that:
“Age limit debate is strictly in parliament, but not in schools or villages. It is supposed to be debated in parliament and should be among MPs”.
On 24th August, the Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda reported that police officers at Katwe police station had thrown stones at five journalists reporting on a fire at the station's staff quarters. The journalists who were attacked included Nassaka Joweria (Kingdom TV), Ivan Mbadhi (BBS TV), Rachel Mabala (Daily Monitor) Carol Nakibule (Delta TV) and Muhumuza Julius (Dream TV). In regards to the violence against the five journalists, HRNJ-Uganda National Coordinator Robert Ssempala declared that:
"We highly condemn the actions by the police officers whose core mandate is to keep law and order and ensure that Ugandans are protected. Police officers are expected to be exemplary. Such actions would not differentiate trained police officers from criminals”.
A government committee to prevent the distribution of pornographic material in the country began operating in late August 2017, acquiring top-end gadgets to monitor and intercept the downloading, watching, sharing, and the transmission of electronic material deemed seditious. With a staff of up to 50 members, the committee will spend two billion Uganda shilling ($555,000) a year to curb immoral materials that, according to Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo, cause "drug abuse among youths, incest, teenage pregnancy and abortion, homosexuality and lesbianism and defilement".