Military jets won’t be the only thing casting a shadow over President Yoweri Museveni’s inauguration on May 12. Uganda’s violent post-election crackdown on critics and media will also darken the ceremony.
It’s clear the February elections were deeply flawed. Local observers determined they were not free and fair, and international electoral observers presented a mountain of evidence of how the process fell short of international standards. The leading opposition party, Forum for Democracy Change (FDC) and its leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye, called for an international audit of the results. The government argues Besigye’s call for “defiance” is unconstitutional.
Now the state is pulling out all the stops to suppress any debate.
On April 29, the deputy chief justice, Steven Kavuma, in a hearing at which the FDC was not permitted to be present or offer counterarguments, issued an interim injunction against the party, its leader, Dr. Besigye, and any party supporters. The court order bans the opposition from “engaging in demonstrations, processions, other public meetings, or media campaigns, or pronouncements” related, but not limited, to their “defiance campaign” for up to four weeks. To underscore the point, this week police prevented at least four senior FDC leaders from leaving their homes. Then on May 5, the information minister announced that media houses reporting live on the opposition or anything related to their “defiance campaign” risk having their licenses revoked.
In some ways, this is nothing new. Ugandan security forces have regularly relied on bullets, teargas, “preventive detention” of opposition leaders, and endless fearmongering to silence government critics.
The media constantly faces state-orchestrated violence designed to intimidate. Officials have arrested and beaten over a dozen journalists this year – in some cases during live broadcasts – and in recent years, forced radios off air, ransacked newspaper offices, and banned individuals from going on air.
And the public hasn’t been spared, either. During the February elections, the government tried to shut down social media for five days, only to be outwitted by over a million Ugandans making use of identity protecting virtual private network (VPN) downloads. After the previous elections in 2011, alarmed by the Arab Spring, the government banned texting certain words such as “people power,” “dictator,” “teargas,” and “Egypt.”
As he enters his 30th year in office, Museveni may hope the inaugural fanfare will distract Ugandans and international partners from the violence and repression around them. The military jets may drown out criticism this week, but, as the social media ban in February proved, frustrated citizens find ways to circumvent efforts to silence them.