Three opposition presidential candidates on Friday told two US secretaries that they strongly believe that the February 18 general elections will not be held in a free and fair atmosphere. The short but intense meeting was held at the US embassy between the US Deputy Secretary James Steinberg, Ass. Secretary Johnnie Carson, Dr Kizza Besigye of Inter-Party CooperationPC, Mr Olara Otunnu of Uganda Peoples Congress and Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao among other officials.
The meeting was primarily to brief Mr Steinberg and his team on what the opposition has seen as challenges in the coming elections.
The three leaders openly expressed disappointment over, among other things, what they called an organised rigging machinery that has been set in motion.
The secretaries, who later met President Museveni, had wanted to have an overview of the situation from the opposition’s point of view. This later formed the basis of their engagement with President Museveni. Dr Besigye later held a press conference in Kampala where he delivered a bold message to the army prior to the Tarehe Sita celebrations set for today.
At the meeting
During the meeting with the U.S. official the three expressed concern over the continued bias shown by electoral officials. They are also concerned over the fact that millions will be allowed to vote without voters’ cards. Mr Steinberg and Mr Carson were told that militia groups were being trained secretly at all levels around the country. Their purpose during these elections will be to antagonise the opposition and engineer the rigging of the elections.
This is not the first time US officials are meeting the opposition over elections. A similar engagement happened the last time Mr Carson was in Uganda. According to a source, however, this particular meeting was difficult to put together because one of the opposition candidates had initially refused to be part of the meeting. The source said it took great persuasion for this candidate to agree to be part of the Friday meeting.
The US mission in Kampala kept the arrival of the two US secretaries a secret. The Public Affairs Officer at the US embassy, Ms Joann Lockard, on Thursday declined to comment on their visit. “I can only say that a very high profile visitor will be coming into the country soon,” Ms Lockard said.
In his message, Dr Besigye asked the army not to dishonour the memory of 300,000 people who died in the liberation war that brought the NRA into power. “Thirty years today, the ideals which huge risks were taken, have been forgotten by the NRM government. Uganda is still be-deviled with the same ills that sparked the actions of Tarehe Sita,” Dr Besigye said.
“Soldiers welfare is almost non-existent and promotions are made without proper guidelines. This is why many soldiers are demoralised,” he said. “Retired generals and politicians are using the UPDF as an outfit for business to enrich themselves at the expense of junior officers and this nation.”
Fear of Upraising
Dr Besigye added that the situation in Uganda was ripe for anything. “Anything can happen in Uganda now. It could be the same situation that took the NRA to the bush or a popular uprising. Trying to stop me from saying it will not solve this problem.” “Dictators cannot be removed by free and fair elections,” Dr Besigye added.
He declared that if the February 18 elections were rigged, they would be the last elections of the kind Uganda will ever see. “The struggle for change is not mine alone. I will not go to the court of law if these elections are rigged. It is useless. I will seek the court of public opinion,” Dr Besigye said.
He said Uganda has never had free and fair elections and that he will move with the will of the people. “I will support a popular protest against an illegitimate decision of the election.” He added that the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, has never had a day’s training as a police officer “He is just like a militia man. I wish the police well in their preparations. I do not think Kayihura has tools that could prevent a protest like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Relations between Washington and Kampala have been smooth in the recent past. Uganda is a key strategic partner to the US in its role in maintaining regional stability. This relationship suffered a slight setback in 2009 when the US Congress, as part of its foreign appropriations Act, issued a directive to US Secretary of State Clinton to monitor Uganda in its preparation for the 2011 general election, the voting process and the eventual outcome.
In her first report, Ms Clinton heavily criticised the government on its handling of the opposition, the heavy handedness on the media and the continued restriction on journalists, Uganda’s deteriorating human rights record and the restrictions in freedom of expression among other key issues.
It was also highly critical of the independence and the composition of the Electoral Commission of Uganda and the method its commissioners are selected, an issue that has concerned the opposition time and again. Reacting to the report, the government dismissed it saying it was biased, had not been made in good taste, and was not representative of the views of the majority in Uganda. In her response to the Clinton report the NRM party spokesperson Mary Karooro Okurut said the report lack legitimacy.
The second and third reports were expected in August 2010 and January 2011 respectively. “The next report has not been submitted yet,” Ms Lockard told Sunday Monitor on Thursday. “It is due later this month.” She added that a final report will be released 30 days after the elections.
Some members of the opposition are worried that the US was softening its stand on government and may have abandoned its initial efforts to monitor the country’s track record.
“Support for democracy in Uganda remains a top priority for the United States in our bilateral relationship,” Ms Lockard insisted. “We urge Uganda to ensure that the Feb. 18 elections are free, fair, and peaceful.”