An Uphill Struggle for Democratic Rights in Uganda

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“We expected the police to give us security, but instead the police reacted by deploying heavily and the people who attempted to come out and assert themselves were beaten badly and then arrested and taken to several police stations,”

While world dignitaries and African heads of state attending the African Union (AU) conference recently hosted in Uganda make their way home to their respective nations, democracy-seeking Ugandans are engaged in an uphill battle for democratic rights and freedoms preceding the 2011 elections.

The AU meeting was Uganda’s second major conference in two months. In June Uganda hosted the first review conference of the International Criminal Court.

But as the AU conference was wrapping up on Tuesday, July 27, police aggressively shut down demonstrations in 10 cities across Uganda.

The demonstrators were advocating for the disbandment of the current electoral commission -- the same commission that presided over the disputed 2006 elections -- which many observers claim were rigged.

At least 62 people were arrested following the demonstrations, according to Margaret Wokuri, interim director for the National Alliance for Free and Fair Election (NAAFE), a key organizer of the countrywide demonstrations.

Wokuri, who spoke to the Black Star News by phone from Kampala, described NAAFE as a newly formed coalition of political parties, civil society organizations, cultural institutions and “independent-minded Ugandans.”

Asked why the demonstrators had assembled despite the police ban on public demonstrations following the devastating World Cup bombings in Kampala on July 11, Wokuri replied that freedom of assembly was a right.

“It is a constitutional right, that people can assemble, can get together, and express themselves through peaceful demonstrations. There is no genuine reason why demonstrations should be banned.”

Wokuri says the demonstrations were intended to be peaceful and police were unnecessarily overhanded. “The violence came as a result of police reaction, and I should call it police overreaction” Wokuri said.

“We expected the police to give us security, but instead the police reacted by deploying heavily and the people who attempted to come out and assert themselves were beaten badly and then arrested and taken to several police stations,” Wokuri continued.

Wokuri says NAFFE was undeterred by the mass arrests and would continue to advocate for the disbandment of the electoral commission, in the pursuit of a more “credible and acceptable electoral result” in 2011.

“One of the reasons the demonstration was held was to tell our guests [attending the AU conference] that while Uganda is in preparation for elections, mobilization and assemblies are not being allowed in the country” Wokuri explained.

Appealing for support from all Ugandans and especially those in the diaspora, to back the coalition’s drive for free and fair elections Wokuri emphatically remarked, “this is our country, all Ugandans should support this; when we have a free and fair election we will be proud.”

NAFFE’s next campaign is a countrywide signature campaign calling for the disbandment of the electoral commission, which will be delivered to parliament.

Two days earlier, Olara Otunnu, President of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), was unexpectedly blocked from attending the AU conference opening ceremony held Sunday, July 25 at Munyonyo Resort in Kampala.

Leaders from several Ugandan opposition parties attended the event without incident, but the former UN Under Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict’s car was damaged en route to the event, as government vehicles rammed Otunnu’s car, pushing it into a locked gate.

Otunnu detailed the encounter in a Monday interview with the Voice of America (VOA), explaining his detention at the last gate.

“I handed my clearance paper to the security people, after which they said, ‘you must stop here, we need to clear you.’ And I said ‘but I’ve been cleared,’ and they said ‘no, you wait here, we need to get clearance,’ and they went to and fro, they were on the phone, speaking to other authorities.”

While Otunnu waited for two and a half hours at the security gate, he says he heard security agents guarding his car instructing three vehicles bearing State House license plates to hit his car from behind.

“I kept hearing them say ‘do it, hit it; run into this vehicle.’”

UPC press secretary Robert Kanusu told the Black Star News that he immediately notified several journalists covering the AU event about the incident unfolding at the security gate, but the journalists were blocked by security from proceeding to Otunnu’s location.

Following the incident, Kampala police chief Kale Kayihura offered a different version of events, maintaining in a press conference that Otunnu was stopped because he wouldn’t allow security to search his car.

In a related story, the AFP noted it was Otunnu’s “second confrontation with government vehicles since his return from exile last year,” referring to a December 2009 accident in which Otunnu’s car was “forced off the road by a convoy of trucks belonging to the presidential guard.”

The day after the incident, Otunnu was served with a court summons to answer charges of promoting sectarianism, following a radio interview in which he was decidedly critical of the ruling party. Otunnu is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday, August 3.

Otunnu’s legal team has filed a challenge to the Ugandan Constitutional Court regarding the provisions of the penal code that defines “promotion of sectarianism” -- a charge Otunnu describes as a “strange, exotic new crime that President Museveni has put into the law books.”

Otunnu told VOA he has “committed no crime whatsoever” and says he looks forward to explaining the remarks he made at the radio station and “laying out to the Ugandan people and the courts of law the crimes Mr. Museveni has committed.”

Photo Credit: Daily Monitor

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