There is growing anxiety within leading political parties that the government will use the July 11 terror attack on Kampala to stamp out opposition political gatherings ahead of the 2011 general elections. Following the bombings, most opposition parties put their politicking aside and joined in mourning those who lost their lives in the blasts.
Dr Kizza Besigye, the leader of the country’s biggest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), visited Mulago Hospital to empathise with the injured. He was accompanied by Conservative Party (CP) leader John Ken Lukyamuzi and Justice Forum (Jeema) president Asuman Basalirwa.
During the visit, Dr Besigye expressed his support for an African Union-led peacekeeping force in Somalia, but said a confrontational approach to trying to resolve the two-decade long conflict in Somalia has proved counterproductive.
Despite the support the government has received from the Opposition, the strong arm of the state was back in force on Tuesday this past week, with police blocking the planned nationwide demonstrations against the Electoral Commission as presently constituted with Eng. Badru Kiggundu at its helm.
At least 80 members of the Opposition were arrested during the Police crackdown on the protestors. They were later released on police bond after majority of them were charged with holding an unlawful assembly.
The Opposition, that previously opposed the deployment of Ugandan troops to the war-torn horn of Africa state, say they expect more “institutionalised harassment”, especially now that the government will use the terrorist attacks to justify clamping down on their rallies.
“Of course, we all lost our family and friends in the terrorist attacks but we, the Opposition, think that the regime in Kampala will take this as an excuse to further clamp down on genuine opposition activities,” Ms Alice Alaso, the Secretary General of FDC and Soroti Woman MP, said.
“We have had of cases where our people are arrested, labelled terrorists, tortured and denied bail. This attack will offer the most perfect excuse for the regime in Kampala to even do more than what they have been doing for so long.”
Dr Besigye told his newspaper that he was certain the government will use the July 11 attacks as an excuse to stifle civil and political liberties, as well as organising a sham elections in 2011. He described Tuesday’s violent police actions as another chapter in the long history of state repression.
“This is evidence to prove that the country is heading for a traumatic period because of the intransigence and stubbornness of government [which has refused] to organise free and fair elections.” The next general elections are slated for February next year and the EC said it will continue implementing its roadmap despite constant demonstrations by the Opposition against its activities.
EC secretary Sam Rwakoojo told this paper that they are committed to October 25 and 26 as official nomination dates for presidential aspirants to submit their required documents that will allow them to participate in the elections. According to the EC roadmap, the presidential and parliamentary elections will take place between February 12 and March 1 next year.
Ms Alaso said the Opposition recognises the security challenges caused by the terror attacks but insists that the government should not use this as an excuse to step on people’s rights to peaceful assembly, and to petition the government on any grievance.
“As we come towards 2011 elections, the regime in Kampala will totally become more intolerant of Opposition activities. The terrorist attacks, which we all condemn, has come at a bad time for us. The challenge we face is that all the security agencies in this country have become political and partisan. When you read most of their reports, you will find them referring to the Opposition as our ‘enemy’,” Ms Alaso said.
Democratic Party (DP) president Norbert Mao says his party will continue to exercise their constitutional right to organise political rallies irrespective of whether police objects or not.
“The bombings came at a time when the political field is restricted already and there is no doubt that the al Shabaab attack will be used as an excuse to clamp down on our freedom to hold political gatherings,” Mr Mao said, “But, we must never be forced to make a choice between security and freedom. Our freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution and it is the responsibility of the government to provide us with security. We can never let al Shabaab to put restrictions on our freedom.”
In the past 10 months, the Police and the club-wielding men known as Kiboko Squad have been involved in a deadly mouse and cat game in which they clobbered leaders of Inter-Party Cooperation (PC) who had gathered for a political rally in Kampala.
There have been running battles between the ‘Women for Peace’ wing of the mainstream Opposition and the police. While opinion remains divided, the prevailing suspicion is that the Police actions are politically inspired to hand the ruling party an unfair advantage by granting them unchallenged access to the population.
Immediately after the Kampala terror attacks, President Museveni hit the road, visiting the districts of Kisoro, Kabale, Bushenyi, Rukungiri, and is currently traversing parts of Ankole sub-region to popularise his fourth term project.
Some analysts say in light of his own busy itinerary, it will be hard for President Museveni to continue running against an Opposition whose hands are tied behind its back.
Indeed, the President two days ago told a workshop on prevention of violence during next year’s election that it is wrong for politicians to unfairly attack or frustrate their opponents. This may be interpreted to be a message to step back from its decidedly strong-arm approach this far.
But his message on violence may get lost in the regime’s double-speak whenever this subject comes up. Like Presidential Political Assistant Moses Byaruhanga told Inside Politics, the President prefers sees people who want to cause chaos in the city whenever the Opposition organise a rally in town.
“The President is not against any political rally,” Mr Byaruhanga said. “Let them work with the Police to ensure extra security at their rallies because terrorists can take advantage of such gatherings. Even at the President’s rallies these days, whoever wants to attend must be checked.”
But it is this very suggestion which meets with the Opposition’s ire because to them, the Police has made the full transition into a militarised outfit, complete with its recently adopted camouflage uniform, into a paramilitary unit designed to frustrate regime opponents from engaging in legitimate political mobilisation. As such, they cannot trust its intentions even when well-meaning advice is proffered.
In the interim, the matter seems deadlocked as President Museveni digs in, insisting that there is no need for other electoral reforms, not least a disbanding of Eng. Kiggundu’s team.
As the country heads for 2011, the number of demonstrations against the EC can only increase in number, meaning the permanent presence of heavily armed men in police uniform hanging along the perimeter fence of the EC headquarters in Kampala will remain a common feature for the period.