Ugandan authorities have stepped up their repression recently by blocking all “political” meetings – even those held in private homes – and arresting opposition figures and journalists.
And this week’s arrest of the Uganda’s most high-profile opposition member, Bobi Wine, sets a worrying new precedent.
Last year, the Ugandan Electoral Commission authorized the People Power group, led by Wine – a parliament member and well-known singer whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – to hold consultation meetings as part of his 2021 presidential bid.
On Monday, however, police blocked the first of these public meetings in Gayaza, just outside the capital Kampala, saying Kyagulanyi had not met all the requirements of the Public Order Management Act. As Kyagulanyi and his group tried to access the grounds where the event was due to take place, police arrested them and fired teargas to disperse people from the area.
The next day in Gulu, the police blocked People Power from accessing a venue set to hold a similar meeting, and on Wednesday blocked another event planned by the group in Lira, where this time police detained Kyagulanyi, releasing him shortly after. Police also arrested journalists covering the events in Gayaza and Lira, and reportedly ordered at least one reporter to delete his footage of the events.
Police in Uganda have often used excessive force to disperse crowds during political opposition rallies and events, and have used the overly-broad Public Order Management Act to justify blocking, restricting, and dispersing peaceful meetings and demonstrations by opposition groups. The law, passed in August 2013, grants Uganda’s Inspector General of Police wide discretion to permit or disallow public meetings.
Last year, authorities used the law to clamp down on opposition members, blocking Forum for Democratic Change rallies in Lira, Kasese and Mbale, as well as blocking Kyagulanyi from hosting concerts. On Monday, a police spokesperson said the law would now also be used to block “political meetings” held in private homes.
Uganda’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly but just over a year away from the general election, these clampdowns do not bode well for how it will be conducted.