Why are campaigns taking a violent turn?

Clockwise: Supporters of NRM and those of Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi clash in Ntungamo District recently. A journalist flees after violence erupted between supporters of Jacob Oulanyah and Dr Kizza Besigye in Gulu District on Tuesday. Supporters of Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah and FDC presidential candidate clash in Gulu District on Tuesday. FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye. Go Forward candidate Amama Mbabazi. An illustration of candidate Yoweri Museveni fused with that of the President. Critics say the playing field is not level since the NRM candidate enjoys privileges of the President.

For as churning cream produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife,” reads Proverbs 30:33.

The presidential campaign has in recent weeks witnessed several churns, twists and stirs; the result, as the story continues to unfold, is not butter but rather the strife. If the current course prevails, there is wide concern in every public forum that some blood could be shed.

President Museveni on Sunday reaffirmed the fear with the “If you put your hands in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble” analogy.

The incumbent, seeking re-election for a fifth term in office, was referring to former prime minister Amama Mbabazi’s supporters/security who he described as “thugs” following the December 13 clashes in Ntungamo District.

Mr Mbabazi on Monday, who warned that his softness should not be mistaken for “weakness; for in weakness there is strength”, shot back, saying a snake, which is soft both in appearance and conduct, can do many dangerous things. “I have seen a snake swallow a cow,” he said.

Four-time presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, on Tuesday while campaigning in Gulu District came face-to-face with chaos. His supporters clashed with Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah’s supporters at a venue where Dr Besigye had been scheduled to convene for a rally.

The 2016 election, right from the start, was posited to be an interesting one with President Museveni expected return as the ruling NRM party chairman, the not-so surprise return of Dr Besigye under the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) ticket, the advent of Mr Mbabazi and chasing tails of a single Opposition candidate that followed.

But it is starting to charge now. Electoral laws are being broken in broad light; supporters are fighting in the presence of police, and provocations are intensifying amid candidates throwing around inflammatory statements.

Battle lines drawn?
FDC spokesperson Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda says much as violence is synonymous with elections in Uganda, it is those “sensing defeat” that are pushing the button in this campaign.
“Violence is a reaction of something that has been building up in this country for a very long time,” Mr Ssemujju, also the Kyadondo East MP, says.

“For this case, it is [President] Museveni who, because he has control of the State; money, army and police, thinks he can use them to continue being the master of everyone even where he is clearly not liked.”

On December 13, clashes erupted in Ntungamo District after people dressed in NRM T-shirts and chanting the ruling party slogans collided with Mr Mbabazi’s security team. Mr Mbabazi had been scheduled to campaign in the said area.

His Go Forward camp said just like on previous occasions, they were provoked. This time they said they could not take it any longer.

Various accounts claim egos jerked when one of the NRM supporters threw a stone at Mbabazi’s convoy. At least 12 NRM supporters were injured during the brawl.

The Tuesday incident in Gulu is yet to be investigated. Efforts to get Deputy Speaker Oulanyah’s comment for this interview was futile as his known phone number was switched off.
But Mr Ssemujju says, “much as it was an act of provocation we endeavoured to exercise maximum restraint.”

“If we did not agree to pull back, the country could have seen more damage in form of causalities. How do you explain the Ntungamo incident and what happened to us in Gulu?”

Museveni reacts
While commenting on the Ntungamo incident, a tough-talking Museveni said: “Those thugs will pay very dearly. You don’t attack; you have no right even to point a finger at me. I’m here, I am a Ugandan, I am a free person - you come and attack me like that. There is even an idiot I saw beating our people with clubs, hooo! He will regret.”

“You are in trouble, you are in trouble. Ho! Ho! I can’t believe how people could do so. NRM? you attack NRM people in Uganda here?! If it is in South Sudan or Kenya, yes we may have some problems. But in Uganda here?! Where do you go?!

So there will be no problem here. Those people made a big mistake, those individuals and those children are going to regret.

And whoever sent them will also regret if we come with evidence we shall go for him or her - the one who said ‘you go and beat them.”
Deputy NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo says the head of State was quoted “out of context”.

“He was speaking as a candidate and as head of State; the first person charged with maintaining law and order in the country,” Mr Opondo says. “It is not to threaten anyone or what you call an inflammatory statement.”

However, Mr Ssemujju says: “That means it is very wrong to lay a finger on any NRM person, even if you are provoked to the extreme. Where have you seen it happen that someone can offend you and you don’t react?”

What is election violence?
Prof Frederick Ssempebwa, in a paper titled Avoiding Election Violence: What are the Prospects for Uganda delivered at the Benedicto Kiwanuka memorial lecture in October indicated there seems to be consensus among observers that violence is not restricted to beatings, killings and displacements.

“It includes threats, perpetuation of terror, and denial of services. Any acts of coercion.

Intimidation, or physical harm aimed at affecting the electoral process constitutes electoral violence. Violence could be psychological, as when in 1996, the people were crudely warned as to the possibility of returning to bad days of the Obote era,” the paper reads in part.

Mr Opondo says, indeed there has been general decadency and breaking of electoral laws, but “largely it is in the case of Opposition candidates; take for example [Dr] Besigye who goes campaigning in hospitals and when stopped, to him that is violence.”

“He makes sure he goes visiting the hospitals with the media and cameramen to provoke police or security guarding these premises. To me I think the onus should be on us all as stakeholders. The NRM candidate has by far had the most orderly campaign. Why?” Mr Opondo says.

Who is pulling the trigger?
Many critics continue to point to the fact that the playing field is not levelled.

The NRM candidate continues to have nearly all State resources at his disposal as he is President.
Civil society organisations and Opposition parties since last year pushed for reforms in current laws which they said would ensure a free and fair election.

One of them was that the President should relinquish tactical command and control of the armed forces to the joint chiefs, and must not serve as chairman of UPDF High Command.
The police, headed by Gen Kale Kayihura who President Museveni once called a “good cadre”, have often been accused by a section of the public of being partisan.

Dr Kisekka Ntale, a political researcher previously working with the Makerere Institute of Social Research, told People and Power that election violence is a characteristic of elections in third world countries where politics is either built on entrenchment, patronage or tribal politics other than principles.

“The other dimension of this violence that is starting to unfold is that NRM will do anything to bring down Mbabazi; for they see him as a traitor,” Dr Ntale argues.

So when the President says “you can’t beat the NRM supporters” yet they have gone overboard in several instances, Dr Ntale adds, you create an environment where you are simply trying to stifle reaction, “that can’t happen”.

“This is, of course, added to the fact the incumbent controls all resources at his disposal,” Dr Ntale says.

A research paper published last year in the British Journal of Political Science by Ryan Jablonski, points out that leaders are more likely to crack down on opponents “when they think an election might unseat them (or their party) from power and they face few constraints on their authority and so have reason to believe they can get away with violence.”

Dr Besigye has twice gone to court to challenge poll results with the claim of violence in the electoral process, but courts have on both occasions declined to annul the election.

Will the violence explode?
While commentators have been preaching restraint, some have been quick to point out that the Ntungamo and Gulu incidents could be merely curtain raisers for more chaotic scenes the country could witness.

Dr Ntale says he does not see the election degenerating into more violence as feared. “I think the State can prevail on any situation,” he says.

Crispy Kaheru of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda says much as the Opposition in face of the violence is resigned to engaging actors like police or the Electoral Commission, “the Judiciary is a tool of help for them” instead of taking matters in their own hands.

“It is a very charged election, but that does not warrant any act of violence, hate speech or foul language as it is starting to unfold,” Mr Kaheru says. “Besides the electoral guidelines, I think candidates should pursue the avenue of the Judiciary [courts]. In case of disputing the results, if a candidate has been recording and filing petitions to police, EC or courts about cases of violence, I think it is a good ground.”