Violence 'marring' Ugandan election

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Candidate Kiiza Besigye

«The escalating violence ... is frustrating my campaigns.»

Kiiza Besigye, 6 March - A renown US human rights group says violence and intimidation could undermine the credibility of Uganda's presidential election next week. In a new report, Human Rights Watch documents evidence of how President Museveni's government manipulates the 12 March elections. 

Five candidates are competing against President Museveni for the presidency, but under Uganda's "no-party" or "movement" system, they do not have a party base to help organize or campaign for public support. "The Museveni government is trying to win this election by bullying the opposition," said Binaifer Nowrojee, counsel for Human Rights Watch's Africa division. 

- The electoral playing field is definitely not level, Nowrojee continues. "Since the start of the campaign in January, the opposition have been threatened by violence, arrests, and intimidation, from soldiers and police." 

The 12 March elections are being held after a referendum in 2000 maintained the "movement political system" as the only system of politics in Uganda and thus upholding the continued suspension of multi-party politics. President Museveni has defended this system within the "African values" argumentation, not so different from the "Asian values" loosing terrain in South East Asia. Museveni however still has a high credibility in the international society for his ability to maintain peace in Uganda after the Obote and Amin dictatorships and following civil wars.

Originally there were up to 20 candidates running for the presidential office but after the screening process instituted in the 1993-1994 constitution, only 7 candidates were nominated, of which 6 remain. Under "the movement system", all candidates are campaigning on individual merits though most are affiliated with either multiparty politics or political organisation. President Museveni (in power since 1986) is campaigning for his second and last term within the new Constitution. Museveni first was elected president in 1996, winning a landslide victory of over 70% of the votes. 

Critics against President Museveni and his "movement system" have however mounted over the last years. The 2000 referendum, which failed to re-introduce a multi-party system, was heavily criticised by the opposition, which called for a boycott. Already then, opposition parties claimed there was no level playing field them during the campaign period and that "the referendum may not be free and fair" (Uganda Law Society). Also the 2001 elections have been criticised by the opposition for not being free and fair.

In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch claim to have found "extensive Ugandan government efforts to manipulate the elections". Its report, 'Uganda: Not a Level Playing Field', documents arbitrary arrests, attacks, and intimidation of the political opposition and its supporters, and campaign agents. "To a lesser extent, intimidation and assault have also been directed at Museveni supporters or perceived Museveni supporters," Human Rights Watch states. "Supporters of Kizza Besigye in particular have committed a number of acts of harassment and violence. The incidents have led to an atmosphere of tension and fear."

- It is more clear than ever that Museveni's movement system is in fact a means to perpetuate his power, through a system that does not allow free and fair democratic elections," said Binaifer Nowrojee. 

While all the opposition candidates have reported cases of government-sponsored violence, the largest number of incidents are directed towards supporters of Kizza Besigye, who has emerged as the strongest challenger to incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. 

The harassment of journalists and editors, self-censorship, and inequality in media access has intensified as the date for the polls nears. In addition, the electoral process has been marked by irregularities in the registration of voters, concerns over the tendering process for the ballot papers, and failures on the part of the Electoral Commission to act on these irregularities. 

While the US human rights group claim that the government has not taken steps to investigate or stop the violence and harassment suffered by him or other opposition candidates, Ugandan officials deny these charges. 

Uganda's army commander, Major General Jeje Odongo, recently was appointed head of a task force set up to oversee internal security for the elections, following the mounting number of complaints of campaign related crime. Odongo yesterday told a BBC correspondent that all the security agencies had "come together to prevent pre-election violence, violence during the election and post-election violence." Oppositional candidates however claim that the tight security maintained by General Odongo only serves to intimidate Museveni's rivals.

The candidates to the 12 March election are:

  • Yoweri Kaguta Museveni - the incumbent president, seeking his second and last term.
  • Kiiza Besigye - a former adviser to the minister of state for defence and a senior figure in the "movement system", who was recently retired from the army after making statements with regard to the lack of openness within the system. 
  • Aggrey Awori - a multi-partist who is the current Member of Parliament for Samia Bugwe North province and was a senior figure in the Obote regimes, holding ministerial and diplomatic portfolios. 
  • Chapaa Karuhanga - head of the National Democratic forum and participated in the 1970s rebellion activities against Amin. 
  • Francis Bwenge - an activist of the Democratic Party (DP). 
  • Charles James Ssenkubuge - a prominent actor and comedian with the Bakayimbira Drama Actors and also a radio presenter with Simba radio. 
  • Kibirige Mayanja - a candidate in the 1996 presidential elections and Director of Planning at Makerere University. 

Sources: Based on Human Rights Watch and afrol archives

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