News

Statement by Africa Elections Watch on Uganda’s 14 January 2021 General Elections

On 14 January 2021, Ugandans will participate in a general election to elect a new president and members of parliament. We are deeply concerned about the widespread and egregious human rights violations ahead of the voting. Ugandans, including opposition presidential candidates, their supporters and journalists covering political campaigns have been subjected to various forms of violence and gross human rights violations by security forces, including by government supported militia groups. 

President Yoweri Museveni who is seeking a sixth term in office , has been in power for the last 35 years and seeks to add another five years to his tenure as president of Uganda. His unmitigated penchant for violence has been on display for all the elections since 2006. In the run-up to the 2021 election, Uganda’s government has systematically cracked down on rights of political opposition, human rights defenders, civil society actors and journalists in what is likely to undermine the prospects of a free and fair election in Uganda.

Other contestants in the presidential race include Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine representing the National Unity Platform (NUP) party, Patrick Oboi Amuriat for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Maj. Gen (rtd) Mugisha Muntu of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), and Nobert Mao, vying as a candidate for the Democratic Party (DP). 

The African Union (AU), United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and other regional and international intergovernmental organizations must pay attention to the escalating assault on democracy and state-sponsored human rights abuses by President Yoweri Museveni. 

Below we highlight specific human rights concerns: 

1. The weaponization of COVID-19 pandemic

Since March 2020, Ugandan authorities have used COVID-19 regulations as a pretext to violate the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association to clampdown on legitimate opposition and media activities. 

Over the course of the ongoing electoral campaigns, and since the beginning of November 2020, authorities have arrested hundreds of opposition political party leaders, activists, human rights defenders, and journalists on allegations of violating COVID – 19 regulations. Police and military personnel have used excessive force, including using live ammunition and teargas to disperse political gatherings allegedly for flouting COVID -19 guidelines, killing dozens of people. 

On 30 December 2020 90 NUP party supporters were arrested in Kalangala district, central Uganda by security forces during a campaign event by Robert Kyagulanyi for allegedly violating COVID -19 measures.  After spending 120 hours in police detention at their court appearance, some of them had visible injuries and could barely stand without support. They informed court that their injuries were as a result of torture and ill-treatment while in detention. Such incidents create concern that COVID-19 regulations are being weaponized to curtail the right to political participation. 

2. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings of young political activists

President Museveni’s government has pursued a shoot to kill policy announced by the Security Minister, Gen. Elly Tumwine, and other senior Ugandan military officials. Under this policy, innocent young Ugandan political activists and bystanders, mainly taxi cyclists (commonly referred to as boda boda) and market vendors, have been executed in indiscriminate and sometimes targeted killings. 

On 29 December 2020, Ugandan security officers killed Ugandan boxer Isaac Ssenyange alias Mando Zebra. Isaac Ssenyange was executed by a gang of security officials hooded and driving in cars with no number plates, a trademark of state-sponsored killers that are on a rampage in the country. During his end of year address, on 31 December 2020 President Museveni admitted that security forces had indeed killed Isaac Ssengange; however, he did not commit to the prosecution of those responsible. 

On 8 January 2021, a leading Ugandan daily reported that two candidates and four supporters of Robert Kyagulanyi’s NUP party were missing in the central Ugandan district of Mpigi. In all these cases, the pledges of investigations came to nothing, which is compelling evidence of state-sponsored terror operations against Ugandans.

3. Elections being run as a declaration of war on Uganda

Ugandan authorities are running the upcoming elections as a declaration of war on Ugandans who are perceived to support opposition political parties and candidates. Over the last two months, Robert Kyagulanyi and Patrick Amuriat Oboi, who are President Museveni’s leading challengers have been arrested countless times and their political rallies and events disrupted. 

The Ugandan military, police, and allied militia groups have used excessive force and violence, leading to the loss of lives and injuries. In the riots triggered by the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi on 18 and 19 November 2020, more than 54 Ugandans were executed extra-judicially on the streets of the Ugandan capital Kampala. More than 1,500 young people were arbitrarily arrested and are detained in Uganda’s numerous prisons without trial.

4. Attacks on journalists

Security forces in Uganda have, on several occasions, attacked journalists covering campaigns of opposition candidates. 

On 11 December 2020 six journalists covering the campaigns of opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi were brutally assaulted by security forces while they covered a standoff between the police and the NUP presidential candidate after the latter was blocked from travelling to his campaign venue. 

On 27 December 2020 police opened fire that injured at least three journalists covering Robert Kyagulanyi’s campaign. Kasirye Saif-Ilah Ashraf, a reporter for Ghetto Media, was shot in the head which left him gravely injured. On 30 December 2020, two journalists Scovia Nakamya of BBC TV and Derrick Wandera were arrested for recording the arrest of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi in Kalangala. Their phones and equipment were confiscated by security personnel.  In response to the attack on journalists, Police Spokesperson, Fred Enanga claimed that “[the] journalists were regrettably caught up” in a confrontation with NUP’s supporters in Masaka, a district in central Uganda and said that the police Media Crimes Unit had opened investigations into the incident. He said that police “pledge better protection cover” to journalists covering campaigns.

On 8 January 2021 the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Martin Okoth Ochola informed a press conference that “we [The Police] have been beating journalists to restrain them from going where there’s danger… [And that] police beat journalists to help them… [and] or their own safety.”The IGP refused to apologize for the brutal attacks against journalists.

The attack on journalists jeopardizes freedom of expression and undermines the public’s right to access information, which is vital to fully enabling citizens to participate in the decision-making process. The attacks on the media further undermine the transparency of the forthcoming election. 

5. The weaponization of the judiciary and administrative state institutions 

Ugandan authorities are increasingly using Ugandan courts and other administrative agencies as instruments of suppression and oppression against Ugandans, especially opposition politicians. Authorities have used courts to remand political opponents on trumped-up charges as a mechanism for disrupting campaign activities. 

On 8 January 2021, the Military Court Martial charged  Nubian Li, Mr. Eddie Mutwe, and 47 other members of Robert Kyagulanyi’s campaign team with possession of ammunition. This was after the Magistrate’s Court in Masaka on 4 January 2021 had granted them bail and ordered their release after they were arrested in Kalangala on 30 December 2020 and charged with acts of inciting violence and negligent acts likely to spread an infectious disease, a charge commonly used against those arrested in peaceful assembly after the Uganda Constitutional Court declared sections of the Public Order Management Act (POMA) that gave police overbroad powers to disperse rallies illegal and unconstitutional. 

President Museveni’s regime has been notorious for charging civilians in military tribunals as a means of suppressing dissent. Other administrative institutions, especially the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) are also being used to persecute lawyers, human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, journalists, and musicians. The FIA has issued extrajudicial orders to freeze the Uganda Women’s Network and the NGO Forum’s bank accounts over unfounded allegations of financing terrorism activities. 

On 22 December 2020, unidentified security personnel arrested one of Uganda’s leading human rights defenders Nicholas Opiyo, the Executive Director of Chapter Four Uganda alongside three lawyers and a staff of an opposition party. They were placed in overnight incommunicado detention at the Special Investigative Unit of the police at Kireka, Kampala. On 23 December 2020, the police released the four others on police bond but kept Nicholas Opiyo on trumped-up charges of money laundering before the High Court released him on bail on 30 December 2020. 

The Ugandan government has abused terrorism and money laundering regulations to repress civic space and prevent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from performing their critical role in promoting civic awareness, election observation, and documenting human rights abuses. The attack on NGOs and human rights defenders sends an unmistakable message that the Ugandan government is committed to persecuting anyone who speaks out against the Museveni government’s excesses and human rights violations.

Our calls: 

The actions of President Museveni’s regime are in blatant violations of its international obligations under international law. The ongoing attacks on the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly as enshrined in the UN  Charter and associated instruments, the instruments of the AU and the Treaty Establishing the East African Community (EAC). We, therefore, call upon:

  1. The international community within the framework of the UN to take urgent measures to restrain the Ugandan regime from undermining elections and engaging in a systematic process of human rights violations.
  2. The AU and African leaders to honour their commitment to African peoples with regard to ensuring respect for human rights and promoting democracy and rule of law on the continent. The rule of law in Uganda is under vicious attack. The deafening silence from the AU and regional leaders is quite frightening.
  3. Uganda government to investigate and hold to account the security personnel responsible for the extrajudicial killings, acts of torture, and violent attacks on opposition politicians, protesters, human rights defenders and journalists, and to ensure that victims are granted access to justice and effective remedies.
  4. Uganda government to respect press freedom and provide journalists with the protection and accreditation required to cover the election. 
  5. Uganda government to facilitate independent election observation groups, including by accrediting civil society groups and other local election observers. 
  6. The international community, including the AU and other African regional bodies, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), EAC, to send strong delegations of election observers to monitor the conduct of electoral integrity, observance of human rights standards before, during and after elections and to foster justice and accountability.
  7. Uganda authorities to immediately and unconditionally release or drop all charges of all those arrested and detained solely for participating in peaceful political assembly or exercising their right to freedom of expression and association, including Nicholas Opiyo.
  8. Ugandan authorities to stop weaponizing and using COVID-19 regulations as a pretext to violate the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association to clampdown on legitimate opposition and media activities. 
  9. Uganda government to stop abusing terrorism and money laundering regulations to target civil society actors and prevent NGOs from undertaking their critical role in promoting civic awareness, election observation, and documenting human rights abuses.
  10. For concerned parties to continue to document and share the details of all human rights violations during the elections and post-election period. 

We stand in full support of the people of Uganda as they exercise their democratic right to elect their leaders and participate in the governance of their country. We call upon Uganda’s government to conduct the 14 January 2021 general elections in a transparent, credible, free, and fair manner and respect the people’s sovereign will.

Yours sincerely,

Signed:

  1. Kenya Human Rights Commission – Kenya
  2. Inuka Trust Kenya
  3. Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network
  4. The Orature Collective – Kenya
  5. Open Bar Initiative – Nigeria
  6. Alliance for Africa
  7. Centre for Democracy and Development – Nigeria
  8. Centre for Strategic Litigation
  9. The Botswana Centre for Human Rights
  10. Article 19 East Africa
  11. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
  12. Prof. Chaloka Beyani
  13. Chidi Anslem Odinkalu
  14. Prof. Fredrick E. Ssempebwa
  15. Maria Sarungi Tsehai
  16. Jenerali Ulimwengu