Turbulent election period sees attacks on opposition, internet shutdown and police violence.
EU Will Have No Election Observers as Uganda Votes in 2021- Envoy https://t.co/QTUnwqlhMt— Uganda Radio Network (@ugandarn) June 19, 2020
Civic space continued to be under threat in the lead-up to the January 2021 general elections with attacks on journalists, violent dispersal of protesters and rallies, and arbitrary arrests and targeting of opposition leaders. Ahead of the elections, several key actors including the EU and US also announced that they would not be observing the elections as their permits had been denied. The US mission cancelled their diplomatic observer mission because more than 75% of its accreditation requests were denied by the Electoral Commission. Similarly, it was announced in November 2020 that for the first time in over 20 years, the European Union would not be observing the general elections.
On 14th January 2021, presidential and parliamentary elections were held across Uganda. Two days later, on 16th January, it was announced by election officials that incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, leader of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party had won, with 58.6% of the vote. Main opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (also known as Bobi Wine) reportedly won 34.8% of the votes. Turnout was 57%, the lowest since President Museveni was first voted into office in 1996. Despite losing the presidential vote, Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Party (NUP) made major gains in parliament, winning 56 seats, including 9 out of 11 for Kampala, and establishing the NUP as the largest opposition party.
The election was marred by violence in the weeks leading up to it, with the leading UN human rights body voicing concerns about the “deteriorating” human rights situation. There were also widespread internet shutdowns and restrictions and claims of election fraud. Shortly after the results were announced, Robert Kyagulanyi called the vote “the most fraudulent election in the history of Uganda.” There were mixed reactions from those officially observing the elections, with the African Union and other missions noting that while voting was largely peaceful and tallying uninterrupted, there were irregularities. The day after the results were announced, Kyagulanyi announced that the NUP would be challenging the election results.
Opposition leaders face attacks, arbitrary arrests and detention
On 24th October 2020, the National Unity Party (NUP) headquarters were raided by the military and police. Computers, candidate forms, red berets and other promotional items including merchandise were reportedly confiscated. According to Robert Kyagulanyi, documents needed to secure his nomination for President were also missing.
As election day neared, attacks on opposition members and supporters increased in frequency and gravity. On 27th December 2020, a personal bodyguard of Robert Kyagulanyi was hit by a military police car and killed when travelling with Kyagulanyi in southwest Uganda.
@FDCOfficial1 Presidential candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat is being arraigned before the Magistrates Court at Mpigi following his arrest on Sunday. @RonaldMuhinda #UgandaDecides2021#Uganda pic.twitter.com/Q3IuZx9CSW— Kungu Al-mahadi Adam (@AdamKunguAsks) January 11, 2021
On 29th December 2020, a group of UN human rights experts, including Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) Mary Lawlor, released a statement expressing concern at the increased violence towards political opponents, civil society leaders and human rights defenders (HRDs).
Despite this, on 30th December 2020, Kyagulanyi and several other NUP members were arrested while campaigning in central Uganda. Similarly, presidential candidate Patrick Amuriat was arrested and detained for several hours when campaigning in Jinja town for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party on 11th January 2021.
🇺🇬 Uganda keeps opposition leader Bobi Wine under house arrest to prevent him from challenging the results of last week's rigged elections.— UN Watch (@UNWatch) January 23, 2021
We ask you, U.N. rights chief @mbachelet: Will you speak out? https://t.co/ixt5OAbnOr
After casting his vote on 14th January 2021, NUP leader Kyagulanyi and his wife were effectively placed under house arrest. Army and police surrounded Kyagulanyi’s home, evicted his security and staff, and refused visitors’ entry, including his lawyers and the US Ambassador. Shortly after news of the Ambassador’s attempted visit surfaced, a government spokesperson accused the US of subversion. On 25th January 2021, the High Court ordered the military and police to leave Kyagulanys home, terming his confinement as unlawful and an infringement on his rights. The troops complied with the court order and withdrew from his home, effectively ending the de-facto house arrest.
A few days after the elections, on 17th January 2021, the NUP campaign coordinator made claims that he had been beaten and tortured by police after allegedly being abducted by security forces. The following day, on 18th January 2021, military personnel raided the headquarters of the NUP, where party members had been preparing a legal challenge to the election results.
Civil society efforts stifled by authorities
Civil society organisations and HRDs were also targeted and prevented from doing election-related work. On 30th October 2020, it was reported that Ugandan authorities had banned a coalition of more than 60 organisations formed to monitor the elections, stating that their activities were illegal. According to Uganda’s National Bureau for Non-governmental Organisations - which regulates the activities of non-profits - the coalition, dubbed the National Election Watch-Uganda, was not registered and some of the organisations under the group were neither registered nor had permits to operate in the country.
In a similar vein, on the day of the election, 14th January 2021, police raided Hotel Africana in Kampala where civil society organisations had set up an election observation centre and arrested at least 25 data clerks and two civil society organisation staff: Isabella Akiteng from Femme Forte Uganda and Perry Aritua from Women's Democracy Network Uganda. All were later released on bail.
In a separate bid to stifle the efforts of civil society, on 22nd December 2020, Head of Chapter Four Uganda and human rights lawyer Nicolas Opiyo and four of his colleagues - Dakasi Herbert, Odur Anthony, Esomu Obure and Tenywa Hamid - were arrested by security operatives while eating in a restaurant together. Opiyo was subsequently charged with laundering over $340,000 through Chapter Four’s account. Commenting on the charges, Chapter Four stated that they were “frivolous and fabricated” and were aimed at curtailing the work of civil society. On 24th December, Opiyo’s four colleagues were released on bail. Opiyo was granted bail and subsequently released from detention on 30th December 2020. He appeared before the Anti-Corruption court in Kampala on 11th January 2020 and was granted extended bail.
There were increasing concerns for the safety of the LGBTI+ community in Uganda throughout the election period, as President Museveni continuously used anti-LGBTI rhetoric to scapegoat the community. In an interview with Channel 4 UK, on 8th January 2021, Museveni stated that opposition members were agents of ‘foreign interests’ and blamed destabilisation on the LGBTIQ+ community in Uganda and abroad.
The continued targeting of members of the LGBTIQ+ community notwithstanding, in separate positive developments, Ugandan trans activist Chris Lordson was awarded the prestigious Steinert and Ferreiro Award in recognition of her work in LGBTIQ+ leadership. Lordson is the team leader of the African Centre for Refugees in Ontario, Canada, where she relocated after claiming asylum.
Environmental HRDs detained
Separately, outside of the elections context, land and environmental defenders continued to be frequently targeted while working to prevent resource exploitation and land grabs. On 15th October 2020, eight land rights defenders were released on bail after being held in detention since 17th September 2020 on charges of “threatening violence”. The defenders were accused of threatening a police officer guarding a plantation owned by Great Season SMC limited. Great Season SMC Limited is one of the multinational companies illegally evicting over 35,000 people from land in the Kiryandongo district.
Police brutality denounced by protesters
Concerns related to restrictions on the right to peacefully assemble and violations including police brutality and arbitrary arrest became more frequent throughout October and November 2020.
On 21st October 2020, activist and women human rights defender (WHRD) Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa Nalongo was arrested and held in police custody for protesting against police brutality in Ntinda, Kampala.
The following day, the hashtag #EndPoliceBrutalityInUganda was trending on Twitter, with most users pointing towards recent incidents of police violence against protesters and opposition supporters. Attention was brought to the cause due to escalating pre-election violence and other anti-police brutality movements in Africa, most notably Nigeria.
Days later, a video emerged online of Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers and police officers heavily armed and patrolling a market in Kampala on 26th October 2020 after dispersing protesters who had gathered to demonstrate against the government takeover of the marketplace.
Election-related protests and rallies violently dispersed
Election-related demonstrations ensued throughout the political party presidential nominations on 2nd and 3rd November 2020. The nominations took place in Kampala, where major roads were closed, and teargas was fired by police to disperse gatherings close to the event location. In a speech during the nominations, President Yoweri Museveni appeared to threaten demonstrators by announcing that anyone trying to cause unrest during the upcoming elections would be “dealt with”. After being nominated by his party, opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, was arrested, beaten and forcibly taken to his home upon leaving the event, followed by many of his supporters.
Other opposition leaders also faced obstruction and interference of their campaigns. General Henry Tumukunde, who was detained for months in early 2020, as reported on the Monitor, was stopped by police officers from entering Mbarara city on his campaign trail on 13th November 2020.
On 18th November 2020, Kyagulanyi was arrested ahead of a planned campaign rally, in Jinja, for allegedly mobilising large groups of people despite COVID-19 related regulations. When news of Kyagulanyi’s arrest emerged, protests broke out in Kampala and other areas, with supporters blocking roads and burning tyres. The police responded by firing live bullets and teargas, with reports that they fired indiscriminately into buildings. The protests continued for three days, and in total at least 45 people were killed, dozens injured and over 800 arrested in what has been characterised as the worst violence in Uganda in decades. Groups of young people set up barricades, burnt tyres and piles of rubbish in the streets of the capital, Kampala, and other towns, while reports of robberies and looting taking place, carried out by persons joining the protests were also made. Kyagulanyi was eventually released and immediately rejoined the NUP’s campaign trail on 23rd November 2020 in Tooro sub-region.
One week before the elections, on 8th January 2021, Uganda’s Inspector General of Police warned voters not to congregate around polling stations after casting their vote, threatening that anyone causing trouble would “regret why they were born”.
A day after the election results were announced, protests broke out in two areas of Uganda, one district north of Kampala and another in the southwest. It was reported that two people were killed by security forces and at least 23 arrested during the protests.
In the period before the election, attacks on journalists and members of the press increased in Uganda.
Media stations warned
On 28th October 2020, it was announced that TV stations had been banned from hosting politicians wearing red berets, a signature of the NUP headed by Robert Kyagulanyi. A government spokesperson stated that TV stations broadcasting anyone wearing the beret would be prosecuted.
Indeed, the pre-election period has been particularly dangerous & tumultuous for the media with journalists being targeted, detained & attacked. Uganda’s Inspector-General of Police even told journalists “We will beat you for your own safety”: https://t.co/gE1bpFLPZz— IFEX (@IFEX) January 19, 2021
Several journalists were targeted after the political party presidential nominations and during the pre-election unrest. A journalist working for Bukedde TV was arrested on 12th November 2020 in relation to a Facebook post, while a car carrying NBS TV crew covering the NUP campaign trail was vandalized on 12th November 2020, and the NBS crew were attacked by protesters, who also stole some of their equipment.
There were also reports of journalists being targeted while covering protests and violence, including journalist Ashraf Kasirye, who was shot in the head on 27th December 2020. In the same incident, two other journalists were hit by teargas canisters. Kasirye had previously been arrested and sprayed with pepper spray while covering an NUP rally on 18th November 2020. On 13th January 2021, a journalist for Vision Group, Emmanuel Ojok, was arrested, detained and beaten by army personnel when covering a raid at the home of an FDC party official.
Reacting to the violent targeting of journalists by security officials, on 29th December, over 100 journalists attending a news conference with Ugandan Military representatives walked out in protest after the chief general refused to apologise for journalists who had been injured when covering campaign trails.
In addition to physical violence, many foreign reporters also faced targeting through deportation, and all foreign and many Ugandan journalists were forced to reapply for their licences in December 2020. In the same month, the government announced that only journalists accredited by the state media regulator would be allowed to cover the elections. On 19th January 2021, the High Court of Uganda ruled that the new regulations concerning accreditation were illegal and should be stopped, following a challenge in court by the Editors’ Guild of Uganda and the Centre for Public Interest Law.
Internet is completely shut down in Uganda, and media is censored. However, nothing will stop the people of Uganda from ending this ' oppresive regime'. ~ Bobi Wine #UgandaDecides pic.twitter.com/a6d30fujB5— The Standard Digital (@StandardKenya) January 14, 2021
Internet, social media accounts shut down
Following the November 2020 protests in which at least 45 people died (see above in peaceful assembly section), the Ugandan Communications Commission (UCC) requested Google to shut down 14 YouTube channels for allegedly mobilising the protests.
On 11th January 2021, Facebook announced that they had closed several accounts linked to Ugandan government officials and the leading NRM party, accusing them of engaging in inauthentic behaviour designed to target public debate ahead of the election. In a nationally televised speech on 12th January 2021, President Museveni addressed the move by Facebook, accusing the social media company of “arrogance” and stating that the blocking of the site was “unfortunate but unavoidable”.
In the days before the election, the internet was drastically slowed down, and social media and messaging services were only available when using a virtual private network (VPN). On the evening of 13th January 2021, the night before the elections, there was a nationwide internet shutdown that lasted for five days over the election period. Although internet was restored on 18th January, social media and messaging platforms remained blocked for many and only accessible with a VPN.