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Uganda’s Church leaders struggle with impartiality as pre-election tensions rise

President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power in Uganda since 1986, is gearing up for another election win on 14 January. He has used the Covid-19 pandemic to prevent his opponents from holding large rallies. Police brutality against opposition presidential candidates, resulting in arrests, riots, and confrontations with supporters, have characterized the electoral campaign. Church leaders — an influential group in a country that is largely Catholic and Anglican — have also been caught up in the political tensions.

Uganda goes to the polls on 14 January. Election campaigning began on 9 November under peculiar circumstances. The Election Commission authorised what it has termed a “scientific election” that bans large rallies due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the “scientific election” game play, presidential candidates are required to follow a very strict campaign schedule that has been pre-approved by the Electoral Commission. The calendar stipulates the date and venue at which election activities may be held. Candidates may not have more than 200 supporters present at meetings. Vehicle convoys are banned. The Electoral Commission has also encouraged political parties to use the media as their primary campaign instrument.

In theory, it sounds fair. In practice, the guidelines have, for the most part, been ignored.

President plays by the rules

President Yoweri Museveni has played by the rules. Some political analysts say that the reason for this is two-fold: He is in the risk category for Covid-19 and frequently reminds Ugandans that Burundi’s former president Pierre Nkuruniziza died from the virus because he underestimated its threat.

Museveni, who has been under pressure to step down due to his advanced age (76), needs to prove that he is still the beloved leader.

But there is another reason. Museveni, who has been under pressure to step down due to his advanced age (76), needs to prove that he is still the beloved leader. A “scientific campaign” offers him a chance to prove that he does not need to be out on the campaign trail to win the votes, sending a clear sign that the opposition do not have what it takes to wrest power from the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

Opposition hits a wall

This is only half the story of the Ugandan election campaign. A heavy police presence is visible during opposition campaign events. Presidential candidates are barred from entering towns for their scheduled meetings. Military and police officers regularly use tear gas and live bullets to disperse their supporters. Reasons given include: violation of Covid-19 protocols, inappropriate or double-booked venues, crowd control. The list goes on.

Tweet by Robert Kyagulanyi, describing one of nearly daily confrontations with the authorities during his electoral campaign // Twitter, 7 January

Matters came to a head on 18 November when police arrested two prominent opposition presidential candidates: Patrick Amuriat, from the main opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known as musician Bobi Wine, who leads the newly formed National Unity Platform (NUP). Both were arrested for defying the Electoral Commission regulations and “spreading a deadly virus.”

The arrests trigged mass riots in Kampala and throughout the country. NUP and FDC supporters demanded the release of their leaders. The security forces, frequently dressed in plain clothes and armed with rifles, clashed with the protestors on 18 and 19 November. The clashes left at least 69 people dead and the police arrested over 800 people for inciting public violence.

As the election campaign enters its final day on 12 January, opposition the opposition campaigns were a daily confrontation with the security forces and supporters, often resulting in scuffles and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

Media join the fray

The opposition has also been frustrated in its media campaign. Opposition parties have complained that the cost of radio and television airtime is prohibitive. Furthermore, many stations refuse to host opposition candidates for fear of repercussion from the authorities. The police had already warned television stations against allowing anyone on air who wears a red beret — the NUP symbol — on grounds that it constitutes the illegal use of military clothing.

Many stations refuse to host opposition candidates for fear of repercussion from the authorities.

Journalists covering opposition campaign events have also been targeted by the police. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in mid-December that the police have “attacked and obstructed journalists” from covering campaign events and at least one foreign journalist was deported.

In late December, journalist Kasirye Ashraf, who works for a television channel affiliated with Bobi Wine was shot in the head and remains in critical condition. At least two other journalists have sustained injuries while out on the campaign trial.

The latest obstacle to unfettered election coverage is a decision by the Uganda Communications Council to call for all journalists to register in order to receive permission to report on the election. Fortunately, the Electoral Commission overturned this just days ahead of the election, following pressure from civil society groups.

Rising temperature on social media

In this climate, social media has become a powerful campaigning space for the opposition. Social media chatter about the elections — mostly among users located in the capital, Kampala — has increased exponentially since the start of the electoral campaign.

#UGDecides2021 is a popular hashtag for election-related conversation and is largely sympathetic to the opposition. Similarly, #FreeBobiWine was trending in Uganda in the days following his arrest on 18 November.

Young, digitally connected urban dwellers typically support Bobi Wine.

The divide is clear: Young, digitally connected urban dwellers typically support Bobi Wine, but this does not necessarily mean that he enjoys widespread support. The social media noise ignores the large rural populations where Museveni traditionally has his largest support base. These communities typically receive information from radio and, to a lesser extent, television, two mediums that the ruling NRM controls.

With days to go before Uganda goes to the polls, the Ugandan Government asked Facebook and Google to delete Bobi Wine’s social media accounts as well as the YouTube channels of news outlets that are affiliated or sympathetic to him on accusations of inciting violence. In a surprising turn of events, Facebook and Instagram deactivated the accounts of about 500 Ugandan social media users, many of them pro-government supporters.

Election observers not welcome

In late November, the EU announced that it would not be sending election observers to monitor the 14 January polls. They say that their recommendations for free and fair elections have gone unheeded.

The authorities froze the bank accounts of four NGOs that work on electoral-related issues, citing “friendliness” to the opposition. The heads of two international NGOs were also deported on allegations of working to effect “regime change.”

Churches call for calm

Religious authorities play an influential role in Uganda, which is a predominantly Christian country. Data shows that nearly 40% of Ugandans are Catholic and 32% are Anglican.

Officially, church leaders have warned that the current political climate does not bode well for free and fair elections. They have called for calm and the cooling of the current political tensions. However, some Catholic and Anglican clergy have publicly urged their congregants to vote for specific candidates.

The Ugandan Catholic Bishops Conference — in a statement — called on the police to act responsibly while enforcing security on election day. The document added the military should only be called in as a “last resort.” The statement added that intimidation, restrictions and attacks on the media, the enforcement of the Covid-19 protocols, and inadequate voter education have marred the “credibility” of the election.

some Catholic and Anglican clergy have publicly urged their congregants to vote for specific candidates.

Kampala Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, who has been accused of plotting the assassination of Bobi Wine — allegations he has publicly denied — also recommended that the election be postponed, saying that conditions are not favourable for a free a fair election. His statement has been met with a large public outcry.

WATCH — Archbishop Lwanga cautions openly partisan priests // NTV Uganda, YouTube

Mostly recently, Lwanga has called on his fellow confreres to desist from further dividing the electorate by using the pulpit to promote one or another political contender. In another case, a priest in Kabale Diocese refused to baptise a child because its parents had voted for the “wrong” candidate during a recent local election.

The Uganda Joint Christian Council called for three days of national prayer ahead of the election from 4-6 January in efforts to cool political tensions. The country’s Muslim leaders also held a national day of prayer at all mosques on Friday, 8 January to intercede for a peaceful election.

What happens after the election?

The terrain has been set for continued tensions between the opposition and security forces. Daily Maverick concludes that these factors do not augur well for free and fair elections on 14 January, and given the entire state infrastructure at his disposal, everything indicates that Museveni will be re-elected.

What remains to be seen is how the opposition presidential candidates and their supporters will react if they feel that the election has been stolen from them. Without support from the country’s security forces any protest action, similar to the mid-November riots will most likely be quelled quickly, further frustrating the opposition’s desire for regime change by democratic means.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.