KAMPALA – Election season is with us and the police are in overdrive to beat the hell out of opposition candidates. The leading and perhaps most popular opposition presidential candidate is without doubt the leader of the National Unity Platform, formerly People Power, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. Immediately after he was nominated, police beat him up and tore his suit. The spokesperson of his party, Joel Senyonyi, was also beaten and left almost naked.
Yet for all the drama of these scuffles, there was nothing new. Using the security services to manhandle the opposition has been a characteristic feature of presidential elections in Uganda since 1996. For then, Paul Kawanga Ssemogerre, who posed almost no threat to President Yoweri Museveni in that election had his rallies blocked and his supporters beaten. Election violence reached its apogee in 2001 when Dr. Kizza Besigye, an NRM insider, challenged Museveni in the presidential election of that year.
Nearly 156 people died of election violence. A subsequent parliamentary investigation concluded that most of the violence was orchestrated by security agencies – the army, the police and intelligence organizations. And there were also militias allied to the NRM such as the notorious Kalangala Action Plan (KAP) under Maj. Kakooza Mutale who was also a presidential advisor to Museveni. This violence was repeated in 2006, it subsided in 2011 but returned with fury in 2016. There today we are seeing more of the same.
The issue therefore is to understand why electoral violence has been an important item on the menu of our campaigns. I think it is driven by a convergence of different but compatible interests between the key players – the president, the security agencies and the opposition politicians.
It seems to me that Museveni tends to panic in the face of electoral competition. Given that he is a specialist in violence, it seems to me that he gains psychological security from seeing his opponents, especially those strong enough to threaten his job security, being manhandled by the security agencies. May be that makes him feel in control.
I also suspect that there is a bigger political calculation. Museveni understands that peasants do not go to the polls to choose a president. Rather they go to affirm who has powers. Thus, if peasants see Besigye or Bobi Wine being bundled onto a police pickup truck by ordinary police constables, they are likely to conclude that such a candidate has no power and hence cannot control the state. The attitude will therefore be to vote for Museveni or resign into not voting.
We must always remember that the NRM is a child of the NRA, now UPDF. It is the NRA that captured power and invited the NRM to rule. In fact in 1986, the NRA was militarily strong (having overthrown a government). But the NRM was still weak with a shaky political base. Being a smart political operator, Museveni realized that he could not use the strength of the NRA to compensate for NRM’s political weaknesses. Rather than rule militarily, he chose to rule politically. So he allied with other political parties, especially DP, in a broad-based government to win legitimacy.
Of course Museveni used the period 1986-96 to emasculate other others and build the political base of the NRM. Once he was secure in power, he transformed the broad-based into a bread-based government. However, Museveni kept the military has his last line of defense. To put it bluntly, the UPDF has always been his iron fist hidden under the velvet glove of the NRM. Thus whenever there is a political challenge to his power, he resorts to the army, police and intelligence organizations to regain the strategic initiative.
It seems to me that the players in the security arena understand and appreciate these two considerations: the president’s personal psychological insecurity and the broader political calculations that are needed to retain power. This suspicion comes from the fact that individual police and army officers that do these brutal acts do little to stop journalists from filming them. On the contrary they seem to enjoy being filmed beating up opposition activists and leaders and bundling them pickup trucks. We must ask why.
Clearly the individual police or army officers do this knowing that their enthusiasm must be dramatized and televised for their superiors to see. It is from such enthusiasm that they get their career advancement – promotions and strategic deployments. There may be exceptions to this rule but by and large it holds true. Few officers from police, the army or the intelligence agencies have risen without demonstrating this partisan political bias especially during elections.
This brings us to the opposition politicians. The argument of the police to intervene and rough-up opposition politicians is that they are violating the electoral rules, and for the most part the police are correct. Anyone who has observed these politicians closely knows their penchant for taking extreme positions and of deliberately provoking the security services to beat them. They benefit from not just breaking the rules but also from being beaten by police. If you claim to be fighting a dictatorship, your claims can only win legitimacy if you get manhandled and roughed up.
Therefore, we need to understand that it is in the interests of the opposition to actually provoke police into beating them. This not only legitimizes their claim of fighting a dictatorship, but it also brings them free mass publicity, with the media projecting them as victims of tyranny. Given that most opposition activists are angry, believing Uganda is under the tight grip of an ageing tyrant, the actions of the police only reinforce this sense of grievance and fires their enthusiasm. It is possible that without police brutality the opposition in Uganda would lose the gas to fire the enthusiasm of their base.
So Museveni, the security agencies and the opposition leaders (not to mention their supporters) have an unwritten bargain. Each one of them is a beneficiary of police violence and none can do without it. If electoral violence is persistent, it is because all the three sides have a vested interest in its continuation. The best illustration is that if any opposition leader fails to provoke the police to beat them, the opposition base will accuse them of being moles inside their ranks and of being on Museveni’s payroll. Their rallies will not draw passiona and enthusiasm. This is the dilemma the noble Mugisha Muntu faces in the ranks of the opposition.
Andrew Mwenda is a Ugandan veteran journalist and proprietor of The Independent Magazine