ARUA – The Arua Municipality by-election in August had been billed to be one of the usual political tussles between the opposition and the ruling NRM party.
The previous ones held this year in Rukungiri, Jinja East and Bugiri Municipality had all been tightly contested and the Opposition, especially Bobi Wine’s people power political pressure group, had won them.
So the Arua Municipality seat declared vacant following the death of the incumbent, Col Ibrahim Abiriga, was bound to be another tough contest.
As usual, the Opposition bigwigs, including Bobi Wine and Dr Kizza Besigye, and President Museveni, in his capacity as the chairman of the ruling NRM party, all descended on Arua Municipality to campaign for their respective party candidates.
On the final day of the campaigns, an unprecedented incident happened. Violence broke out when one of the vehicles in the presidential convoy was allegedly hit by stones from supporters of Kassiano Wadri, then independent candidate in the poll. This was at the tail end of the campaigns in the evening.
The result was soldiers under the Special Forces Command, an elite group that guards the President, started shooting and arresting opposition supporters and leaders. In the ensuing chaos, the driver of Bobi Wine was shot dead while MPs Gerald Karuhanga (Ntungamo Municipality), Paul Mwiru (Jinja East) and Kassiano Wadri were arrested. Francis Zaake (Mityana Municipality) and Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine (Kyandondo East) suffered the most as they were brutalized by SFC soldiers.
Their torture and eventually being charged with treason later attracted condemnation both globally and locally and put the government in the limelight over human rights violations.
In the resultant protests in Kampala on Monday, August 20, several journalists such Hebert Zziwa, Ronald Galiwango and Juma Kirya, all of NTV, James Akena of Reuters and Alfred Ochwo from the Observer were brutalised by security agencies while covering the riots. Akena sustained a clot in the back head as a result of the Monday beatings.
Parliament at one point threatened not to pass Bills if President Museveni did not punish members of his Special Forces Command for beating up and torturing two Members of Parliament (MPs).
In a heated debate, the members from both opposition and ruling party condemned what they described as impunity of the ruling party in condemning torture of MPs Robert Kyagulanyi (Kyadondo East), Francis Zaake (Mityana Municipality MP), Gerald Karuhanga (Ntungamo Municipality) and Paul Mwiru (Jinja Municipality East) following arrest over the Arua election chaos.
Leader of the Opposition Betty Aol Achan was the first to draw blood. “This is not the first time [soldiers are beating up MPs. The first time, members were tortured right here. This is the second time. There will be a third and fourth time if we continue to move like this,” Ms Aol said.
The African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME), an organization that promotes professional journalism in Africa, also condemned the arrest, torture and brutality of journalists by security officers during the Arua chaos and in Kampala over the detention of several Opposition MPs, including Robert Kyagulanyi, aka, Bobi Wine.
“Clearly, the security forces that have responded to protesters in the last week want to carry out their wanton abuse of the rights of Ugandans in darkness,” said Dr Peter Mwesige, the ACME Executive Director, in a statement released on Tuesday.
Globally, the US House of Congress warned the Ugandan government against “suppressing political dissent” in the wake of the arrest of Members of Parliament and others in Arua by-election chaos.
It has also asked Kampala to drop all charges against Kyadondo East Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and others who were arrested in the August 13 chaos.
In a September 21 letter to the Ugandan Ambassador to the US Mull Katende, the US Congress said the continued suppression of political dissenters by the Uganda government contradicts the principles of cooperation which the two countries share.
“We urge the government of Uganda to immediately drop all charges filed against Robert Kyagulanyi and his colleagues, we also call for a thorough investigation into all allegations of violence against Kyagulanyi, his colleagues, demonstrators and journalists,” reads the letter in part.
It adds: “Suppressing political dissent is a dangerous trend – one must be reversed if Uganda wants to truly embrace democratic ideas.”
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Congress also condemned the continued use of tear gas and live ammunition on demonstrators during and after the arrest of Bobi Wine and beating journalists.
The US added that it has worked with Uganda to promote rule of law and protection of human rights as well as support the advancement of health and economic well-being of the country, which values must be respected.
On Thursday, September 13th, the European Parliament accused Uganda of continued violation of human rights during and after the Arua municipality by-elections.
The European Parliament also asked Uganda drop what they described as trumped-up charges against Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine and all other suspects implicated in the Arua chaos.
“The EU parliament expresses its deep concern at the arrest of opposition parliamentarians in connection with the Arua by‑election; Stresses that it is vital for Ugandan democracy that the President and Government of Uganda respect the independence of the country’s Parliament as an institution and the independence of the mandate of its members and ensure that all members of parliament can freely pursue their elected mandates and Calls on the Ugandan authorities to drop what appear to be trumped-up charges against Bobi Wine and to stop the crackdown against opposition politicians and supporters,” part of the resolution reads.
The Arua Municipality chaos, therefore, was a turning point in the political history of the country as it exposed the worst side of the government.