Uganda Police Arrest Bobi Wine, Fire Tear Gas On Supporters

On January 6th 2020, Ugandan singer-turned-presidential hopeful Bobi Wine was arrested alongside two other opposition members of parliament and journalists covering the events in his constituency of Kampala, preventing him from holding his first public meeting with supporters. The authorities were deployed before dawn to the site, inciting protests by supporters who were initially intent on listening to Wine discuss his plans to challenge longtime President Yoweri Museveni in the 2021 presidential elections. The police, backed by firefighters, fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd in response to some protestors setting car tyres alight and blocking roads. Tensions rose as the police blocked Power People, a resistance group led by Wine, from accessing venues in Lira where another meeting was planned for the next two days. It was then that Wine, whose actual name is Robert Kyagulanyi, and his entourage were detained. Whilst the number of people injured from Monday’s events are unaccounted for, those arrested are currently temporarily being held in the police station in Kasangati. 


The arrests and retaliation by the authorities were enacted on the grounds that Kyagulanyi was not authorised to hold his meeting in that location. Edson Muhangi, a police commander, claimed that because it was “not an enclosed place,” they could not “allow them to be [there],” continuing that the police force were “reliably informed that their [Power People’s] aim [was] to engage us [the authorities] so that they can be seen exchanging words, fighting with the police and tarnishing the image of Uganda.” Additionally, police spokesman Fred Enanga suggested that Kyagulanyi opposed Ugandan election laws by “going early and conducting campaigns,” rather than holding “consultations” which are only allowed 12 months prior to the official nomination of candidates, as written in Uganda’s 2000 election law. 


However, both the election law and the Public Order Management Act of 2013, used to “regulate the exercise of the freedom to assemble…,” have been increasingly utilized by Ugandan police forces to justify the “blocking, restricting, and dispersing of peaceful meetings and demonstrations by opposition groups,” as seen by the obstruction of Forum for Democratic Change rallies in Lira, Kasese and Mbale, and Kyagulanyi’s concerts in the last year, according to Human Rights Watch. Despite his compliance by first sending a letter to the Electoral Commission, officially introducing himself and outlining his plans, on 3rd December 2019, Kyagulanyi’s arrest indicates how “high-handed and unlawful” police response has been, as condemned by the Head of the Human Rights Network for Journalists, Robert Ssempala. 


Kyagulanyi, who first came to political prominence in 2017 when he successfully became a Member of Parliament for his constituency, resonates largely with Uganda’s educated but unemployed youth, who amount to 77% of the country’s population. With visions of transforming healthcare, education, and democracy in Uganda, Kyagulanyi acquired the support of people whose rights “have been abused” under Museveni’s 30-year-long regime, according to Kyagulanyi himself. Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement, who continues to retain the loyalty of Uganda’s security services and rural population, has twice seen the alteration of the country’s constitution in order to maintain his rule, first in 2005, where the two-term limit on one’s presidency was overturned, and then in 2019, after parliament passed a clause allowing people above the age of 75 to hold office. 


Although Museveni is held in high regard internationally for his contributions to peace-building efforts in countries like Burundi, Somalia, and South Sudan, his critics accuse him of utilising “legal manoeuvring and authoritarian tactics to maintain power” (Deutsche Welle). Ugandan human rights lawyer, Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, further adds that the entire political opposition in Uganda should expect the worst, saying “Museveni has never been kind to any one he considers a problem,” as seen with the hacking of Kyagulanyi’s phone and his alleged torture by members of Uganda’s presidential guard, after being detained in August 2018. 


Yet, as indicated by the attacks on citizens, Museveni’s government will stop at nothing to ensure his position. With the launching of live bullets into supporters of former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, alongside the firing of tear gas at around 50 journalists who attempted to deliver a petition protesting police brutality against the media in November 2018, it is clear that somebody has to intervene to prevent human rights from being further violated. Led by Kampala Mayor Erias Lukwago and Besigye, the Ugandan opposition has been seeking to petition the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a case against Museveni on account of extra judicial killings, torture, and kidnappings, carried out under his rule. Progress, however, has been slow as the ICC typically only opens a case that has been referred by the UN Security Council or the government of a country, in accordance with the Rome Statute. As previous attempts by other groups failed to initiate the investigation of Museveni and other government officials by the ICC, the question of whether, in light of recent events, earlier opinions on Museveni’s reign can be changed, is thus, in part, left for the UNSC and wider international community to respond to.