FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye and other senior party officials were lucky to escape with minor injuries when police opened fire and unleashed tear gas in a violent attempt to prevent the politicians from meeting locals at Teriet camp in Bukwo District yesterday.
Dr Besigye is the second Opposition candidate to come under police fire as the State machinery intensifies actions aimed at restricting their access to the local population.
Already, visits to hospitals, churches and other public places have been restricted after the poor state of public health infrastructure was captured by media accompanying the Opposition politicians – thereby upsetting the government.
In Lango, Go Forward candidate Amama Mbabazi’s campaign faced a similar tear gas and bullets attack slightly over a week ago.
Under the country’s electoral laws, politicians running for public office are free to enjoy unfettered access to the electorate as they canvass for votes.
But the prevailing restrictions on those challenging Mr Museveni’s 29-year hold onto power amplify criticisms that the ground for the 2016 election, like previous ones, is unfairly tilted in favour of the incumbent.
In yesterday’s violence, a man identified only as Kweyei was struck by a rubber bullet.
He was rushed to Bukwo Hospital as police continued trying to forcefully stop Dr Besigye from responding to a demand by the locals that he visits and sees the poor living conditions at an internally displaced person’s camp in Kapkoros, Teriet in Senedet Sub-county, Bukwo District.
Teriet camp is one of the five in which people who lived on the land that was gazetted into Mt Elgon Forest Reserve in 1993 were resettled.
Those living in the camps say their condition is bad and that the government has in some cases reallocated the land it had given them.
In the scuffle at Teriet, Dr Besigye himself escaped with a scratch on the leg, and FDC secretary general Nandala Mafabi and party mobilisation secretary Ingrid Turinawe were slightly injured too, as was Mr Sadik Amin, the party’s secretary for defence and security.
Mr Arap Mutai, a resident of Kapsegei camp, said his family was among those allocated land totalling to 12 acres per family in the camp in 2008.
In April 2015, he says, the government brought in other people and reallocated the land to the new settlers. The other camps include Benet, Yatui, Kisangani and Rwanda.
The FDC presidential candidate, on his way from a rally at Suam at the border with Kenya to another rally at Amanang, was stopped by a group of mostly elderly people who said they are residents of Teriet camp. They demanded that they show him around the camp, which they said was in a bad state.
Mr Gerald Twishime, the regional police commander Sipi region, ordered Dr Besigye not to go to the camp. Dr Besigye stepped out of his car and joined the cheering crowd, which he led through a police barricade to proceed to the camp.
Police first fired live bullets in the air with the view of dispersing the crowd but the march continued uninterrupted.
Tear gas was then lobbed into the crowd, throwing many of the people into disarray as a small group remained around Dr Besigye, who was still intent on proceeding to the camp.
Here, as elsewhere, the question of land and land grabbing is one of the key issues Dr Besigye focused on as he campaigned in the hilly, remote district that borders Kenya.
He also dwelt on the poor state of roads in the district, saying it takes one six hours to cover the 45km stretch between the bridge at Kiriki to Bukwo Town.
Yesterday’s journey through the hills over rugged roads strewn with boulders took about four hours, but Dr Besigye argued this was because we were travelling in big cars.
Mr Mafabi, speaking at Suam, said Parliament negotiated money for tarmacking Kapchorwa-Bukwo road and that President Museveni, in his State-of-the-Nation address five years ago in 2011, promised that work on the road would start. The road is yet to be built.
Mr Abel Kiplangat, a resident of Riwo, Bukwo, said: “Our roads are very bad. We are cut off from the rest of the country so we sell our produce in Kitale, Kenya (which is two hours away) instead of taking six hours going to Kapchorwa.”
Mr Kiplangat said they collect water from more than a kilometre away, an issue Dr Besigye hammered at in different places. Dr Besigye is looking to gain ground on Mr Museveni, who in 2011 won a commanding 91 per cent of the 22,871 votes cast in the district. Dr Besigye settled for just eight per cent of the votes.
Mr Wilfred Sali Makusita, the LC III chairperson of Senedet Sub-county, said shortly after yesterday’s violence that he had crossed from the ruling NRM party to FDC, accusing NRM of stifling competition.
“This is like having a beautiful girl in a village; every eligible man can talk to her so that she decides (who to marry),” Mr Makusita said.
Last month when NRM presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni visited the Sebei sub-region, residents who were not comfortable to be named said disappointed supporters walked away from the campaign rallies in Kween and Bukwo dejected after the President seemed not to have immediate solutions to their grievances.
The thorny issues that stood out among the residents included the road from Kapchorwa to Bukwo through Kween, the displaced people in Teriet and about 434 people living in Rwanda and Kisangani in Kween District, who were evicted from the park by Uganda Wildlife Authority in 1the 1990s, among others.
The next day on December 9, Mr Museveni was accompanied by Kenyan deputy president William Ruto in rallies in Kapchorwa District.
Speaking in Kalenjin, a dialect similar to Kupsabiny spoken by Sabiny, Mr Ruto asked residents, especially those that had been displaced, to value land and use it wisely whenever government availed them land.
The two groups in IDPs have since been condemned to living in make-shift structures and brewing alcohol, among other petty businesses, to earn a living.
The residents in a petition recently informed local leaders and MPs that they cannot cultivate, they have become beggars, or cross to nearby Kenya to provide labour in Kenyan gardens.
Background of the Teriet Internally Displaced Person’s camp
In 1938, much of the Mt Elgon forest landscape was gazetted as a forest reserve by the British colonial government.
However, some people were left to live around the boundary and to some, inside the gazzeted area.
Successive post-independence governments maintained the status quo, leaving the residents to live and survive on Mt Elgon forest resources until 1983, when a decision was made by the second Milton Obote Government to resettle them on 6,000 hectares of reserve land in the Benet side of then Kapchorwa District.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), by that time, the increased population was impacting negatively on the forest reserve resources and their presence inside the area was legitimising and catalysing illegal encroachment from forest criminals and other non- indigenous communities.
In February 1993, when Mt Elgon Forest Reserve was elevated to a national park status 4,000 residents living in the Park were violently evicted by UWA rangers and the UPDF soldiers.
It was not until 2012 that government decided to relocate about 400 of these groups in Kapkoros Teriet Internally Displaced Person’s Camp in Senedet Sub-county, Bukwo district.
The group now accuses government of negligence and want better conditions such as expansive land, health services, education and roads.
Additional reporting by Allan Chekwech