After Violent Election, Ugandans Demand Justice

Anger and cynicism grip many Ugandans following deathly protests and a controversial vote that kept the incumbent president in power.

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After Violent Election, Ugandans Demand Justice

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Bavuga Jorum, a supporter of opposition leader Kyagulanyi Robert (also known as Bobi Wine), wipes a poster of the candidate before January’s controversial presidential election.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — In the early evening of Nov. 18, Isma Mukiibi sat in his living room watching the film “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.”

Suddenly, the power went out. Mukiibi, 17, found his brother, sister and mother in the kitchen. Then came curls of gray smoke in the sky and popping sounds – tear gas and gunfire.

Mukiibi, curious, walked outside and moved toward the commotion. Police were still shooting as crowds of panicked protesters scattered in his neighborhood in Wakiso district, just outside Kampala, the capital. Mukiibi, 500 meters (0.3 mile) from home, was caught in the crossfire.

“In 20 minutes, my son was pronounced dead,” his mother, Nakato Juliet, says.

Mukiibi was among scores of casualties in the election-related violence that rattled this East African nation after campaigning began in November.

Tensions climaxed in a controversial Jan. 14 vote that left many Ugandans – especially those who oppose longtime President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni – angry about the state of democracy in this country where, in recent years, election-related protests have become a bitter, sometimes deadly ritual.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s supporters dance and cheer in Kampala a few days before Uganda’s election. Faced with coronavirus restrictions, supporters drove around in vans to excite voters about their preferred candidates.

The latest unrest began in early November after the arrests of opposition presidential candidates Amuriat Oboi Patrick and Kyagulanyi Robert, better known as Bobi Wine. Thousands protested nationwide.

During the election, the government shut down the internet. National police spokesperson Fred Enanga told journalists they couldn’t report on the election and warned voters not to hang around the voting area.

“I cast my vote and ran home,” says Kibarama Deborah, a voter from Wakiso. “I did not want to be the next victim.”

Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, was declared the winner with 58% of the vote. Kyagulanyi, the runner-up, scored 34%. Kyagulanyi’s house, before and after the election, remained surrounded by soldiers.

The government capped campaign rallies at 200 people, among several coronavirus restrictions, in the months before the election. But after police arrested Kyagulanyi and Amuriat for allegedly ignoring the coronavirus orders, their supporters accused police of targeting only opposition events.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Voters in Wakiso district, just outside Kampala, wait for location slips that confirm the holder is a registered voter.

Enanga says 54 people – both protesters and bystanders – were killed in demonstrations, and 836 people were arrested. Those arrested included rioters, he says, who damaged government cars and attacked police.

Civil society activists say the casualty toll was higher, as police learned of some deaths – including Mukiibi’s – after they released their report.

“The brutality and arrest of protesters by police and other security agencies at opposition campaigns was a strategy by the ruling [National Resistance Movement] party to stop the opposition from reaching some parts of the country,” says Aol Betty Ochan, leader of the opposition in Parliament.

Election-related protests, and allegations of police brutality, aren’t new in Uganda. The recent unrest mirrored violence that jolted the country during elections in 2011 and 2016.

“Ugandan police’s handling of public order management has been a source of serious human rights violations over recent years,” Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization based in New York, reported during the 2016 election campaign. “Ugandan police brutality has played out countless times, often on television. While there has been plenty of condemnation, nothing ultimately changes.”

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Nakato Juliet hugs her daughter, Alisa Mukiibi, 10, who is struggling to process the death of her brother, Isma Mukiibi. He was allegedly killed by police during election-related violence in his neighborhood.

Crispin Kaheru, a former coordinator for the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, a local organization that observes the election process, says this time many share the blame for the protest-related deaths.

“The violence in campaigns resulted from misconduct of the various stakeholders – the political candidates who are failing to follow guidelines set up by the electoral commission [and] the electoral commission’s failure to coordinate with the security agencies for a peaceful electoral campaign amongst candidates of all political parties.”

Mutyaba Kim, 28, sells phones in Bwaise, a community of unplanned housing just west of Kampala. He had to close his shop when protests erupted there.

“I have known one leader all my life, a man who has been in power since before I was even born,” he says, referring to Museveni. “The protests came from the deep-felt anger of certainty by people that our current president is here to stay with or without elections.”

Mugisha Muntu, another presidential candidate in the recently concluded election, took to Twitter to say, “These results are completely fabricated.”

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Nakato Juliet points to the spot where her son was fatally shot, about 500 meters (0.3 mile) from their home just outside Kampala. She says she wants justice for her son, who was allegedly shot by police during an election-related protest.

Paul Bukenya, the electoral commission’s spokesperson, says the group organized free and fair elections, and those who oppose the results can go to court. The commission and the police also are investigating videos of alleged electoral malpractice, he says, which have circulated on social media.

Almost three months after Mukiibi’s shooting, confusion shadows his death.

After Mukiibi was wounded, bystander video shows the tall, athletic boy lying still on the rust-red ground. Blood pours from his left thigh. Witnesses wail and shout. They fashion a tourniquet.

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A good Samaritan finally placed Mukiibi and his brother on a motorbike and rode to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Nakato has talked with several police officials about her son. They all shun blame, she says.

Kemigisha Marclean, the officer of crime intelligence at the Nabweru police station, which oversees smaller police posts in Nakato’s community, says it’s hard to know who shot Mukiibi. Police post boundaries are murky, she says, so officers frequently cross into each other’s territory.

Museveni has vowed to compensate the loved ones of those who died innocently. Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo says officials will look at camera footage to see “who died running for dear life and who died lighting a fire or throwing stones.”

But Marclean says government cameras near where Mukiibi died are controlled from national police headquarters in Naguru, a neighborhood in Kampala. She says there is nothing she can do to access this evidence.

The elections now over, Nakato worries that Museveni won’t keep his promise.

“My son is gone and buried,” she says. “No amount of money can erase my hurt, but I want justice. Let those who killed him be brought to book.”

Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.

Nakisanze Segawa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.

Translation Note

Edna Namara, GPJ, and Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.