Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-UGANDA: “Things Already Don’t Look Good”

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Feb 21 2006 (IPS) - Ugandans will go to the polls Thursday for their first multi-party elections in about 25 years, this after a campaign marred by violence.

Five candidates are vying for the presidency, while close on 1,000 are contesting parliamentary seats in 214 constituencies and 69 districts (the district seats may only be filled by women candidates). Additional seats in the legislature are reserved for particular groups, including the disabled.

Miria Obote, wife of former head of state Milton Obote, is standing for president on behalf of the Uganda People’s Congress. John Ssebana Kizito is representing the Democratic Party, while Abed Bwanika is in the race as an independent.

Current head of state Yoweri Museveni (candidate for the National Resistance Movement, NRM) and Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) are considered the front runners, however.

Opinion polls published by the ‘Daily Monitor’ and ‘Weekly Observer’ newspapers last week show that while Museveni has the edge over his main rival, neither he nor Besigye would win 51 percent of the vote at present. Failing this, a second round of voting will have to take place.

In the event that Besigye does upset expectations with a first-round victory, there are fears that the army might not support him.

The Uganda People’s Defence Forces have been accused of provoking campaign-related violence in several instances. Last week, a soldier dressed in civilian clothes fired on a crowd of Besigye supporters in Mengo township, in the vicinity of the capital – Kampala. Three people died in the incident, while the soldier claimed that the crowd was angry and that he had fired in self-defence.

Witnesses said the soldier first attempted to drive though the crowd in a car decorated with Museveni campaign posters.

The incident came a day after the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report claiming that this week’s poll was not likely to be free and fair, as government had harassed the opposition.

“The ruling party under President Yoweri Museveni is playing a dirty game of intimidating the electorate and undermining the opposition,” noted the document, titled ‘In Hope and Fear: Uganda’s Presidential and Parliamentary Polls’.

Four days later, seven armoured trucks filled with soldiers drove into a group of Besigye supporters in the eastern town of Mukono, causing a stampede that injured several people – two critically. The crowd had been waiting for Besigye to arrive from a rally in an adjacent town.

NRM head of security James Kinobe claims the FDC candidate’s followers have made a habit of holding rallies next to roads, so blocking traffic.

FDC officials believe these instances of violence go beyond harassment, and are part of a campaign to assassinate Besigye.

“Our candidate was within 100 meters of the shooting (in Mengo). We take it as the first attempt on his life,” the party’s international envoy, Sam Akaki, told journalists Monday.

Besigye, once Museveni’s doctor, is standing for the presidency against his former patient and guerilla bush war comrade for the second time.

In 2001, he campaigned on the Reform Agenda ticket and lost, subsequently going into self-imposed exile in South Africa. His departure came after officials had detained and questioned him over alleged links with a rebel group, an association Besigye has denied.

After his return towards the end of last year, Besigye faced a series of criminal charges for activities said to include treason, terrorism and rape. He was jailed, but later released on bail, weeks after the campaign had got underway.

Since then, Besigye has divided his time between court hearings and the campaign trail. Most recently, there have been calls for his candidature to be nullified on the grounds that his academic qualifications are suspect. According to the Human Rights Watch report, “…the opposition has its hands tied by politically motivated criminal charges against its leaders.”

Museveni took over power in 1986 after unseating Tito Okello, who had himself gained office through a military coup. Okello was preceded by Milton Obote, against whom the NRM waged a five-year guerilla bush war.

Multi-party politics were banned by Museveni after he took control of Uganda; however, citizens voted to reinstate the system last year, during a referendum.

The president amended the constitution in 2005 in a bid to gain a third term in office – a move that prompted several NRM members to throw their support behind Besigye’s FDC. Donors have also criticised Museveni’s attempts to remain in power, cutting funds to the East African country or withdrawing aid.

Recent events in Uganda have left many wondering whether the country is returning to the dark days of Obote and an earlier ruler, Idi Amin – both of whom presided over violence and rights abuses.

“We are being told to stock the house (with food), including fueling the car. I hope you are doing the same,” a Ugandan employee of an international non-governmental organisation told IPS.

Added Fred Kamuntu, a trader in Kampala, “Nobody knows what is going to happen. Things already don’t look good; business is slow.”

However, police spokesman Asuman Mugenyi says authorities will maintain law and order.

“We have intensified foot patrols and more vehicles for patrolling and responding to incidents. Also we have been reinforced by other security agencies to overcome the issue of shortage of manpower,” he told IPS.

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