Ugandans head to the polls February 18 amid a troubling increase in implied and explicit threats against anyone who might intend to protest the outcome. President Yoweri Museveni is running against seven other candidates, including long-time opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.
Recently, one ruling party official, Kasule Lumumba, was recorded telling people in a local language, Luganda, that if people come to protest election results, the state “will kill your children.”
Sadly, this is no idle talk. Human rights groups have documented cases of people, including children, killed by security forces during public demonstrations in Uganda in recent years. Two-year old Julian Nalwanga was shot and killed in Masaka in April 2011, and 13-year-old Daoudi Ssentongo was shot and killed in Kampala in September 2009, two of the starkest cases of the unlawful use of lethal force I have documented in my time at Human Rights Watch. No one has been arrested for Daoudi’s killing and his mother has pled for justice. Nalwanga’s alleged killer was arrested in 2011 but remains on remand before the military court.
No one should doubt the real possibility that there could be protests or demonstrations against the election process or the electoral outcomes. Since independence, there has never been a peaceful transition of power. After 30 years of President Museveni’s leadership, a whole generation of young voters have never known another president; they are entitled to express their views if they feel the electoral process was unfair, not free or rigged. And they have the right to peacefully protest without fear of being killed by security forces.
If protests emerge after the polls, there is a huge risk that protestors and bystanders – including children – will die at the hands of security forces. It has happened before.
To avoid bloodshed, President Museveni and other high ranking government and security officials need to publicly state that security forces are legally obliged to protect freedom of assembly, the right to peaceful protest and the right to life. There should be no ambiguity over the standard that security forces can only resort to lethal force if it is an absolutely necessary response to a threat to another person’ life, and use of any other force must be equally proportionate. Uganda’s development partners also have a role to play, especially since some have actively supported and trained the police in public order management in recent years. Development partners should clearly – and repeatedly – stress that Ugandans have the right to demonstrate in the post-electoral period without threats of brutality. And they should sharply denounce government or ruling party official statements that equate criticism of the integrity of the electoral process with a call for violence.