KAMPALA, UGANDA - Civil society leaders are calling for calm in Uganda, where political tensions are rising ahead of national elections set for February. Witnesses say police are using heavy-handed tactics to break up opposition gatherings, and both the government and opposition are allegedly recruiting youth militias to fight in the streets.
Confrontations between police officers and opposition activists are on the increase in Uganda. There have been two major clashes in the eastern towns of Soroti and Jinja, as well as smaller incidents around the country.
Witnesses say the clashes largely stem from police trying to break up opposition gatherings. Human Rights Watch and the U.N. human rights office recently both condemned what they called the inhumane treatment of detainees by police and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
There are also reports that militias and youth brigades are being formed throughout the country, for use during the election campaign.
Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo said it appears both the ruling NRM party and the opposition are escalating the tensions. "First the NRM has reactivated those informal groups, the militias. And they are being trained with state resources...but we also see the increased recruitment of what we call 'crime preventers'. These 'crime preventers' are passed out singing songs of praise of President Museveni, wearing NRM t-shirts. These in my view are agencies of violence...The opposition have also responded training their own militias and youth groups...these are all youth groups that have been very violently confronting authorities during demonstrations,” he said.
The government said the 'crime preventers' are there to supplement police during the electoral period, while the main opposition FDC party denies recruiting militia.
The FDC said police are using the militia allegation as an excuse to undermine their campaigning, including arresting party leaders on October 10th.
Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga said militia activity prompted police to crack down on a recent meeting in Jinja hosted by a presidential aspirant, Amama Mbabazi.
"The intelligence that we had in that operation is that they are a group of militias including Iraqi returnees, Afghanistan returnees that had been recruited among the security ranks of the honorable John Patrick Amama Mbabazi. And these of course, militias had advanced techniques in military tactics and of course they confronted our officers," Enanga stated.
Mbabazi's spokesperson said there were no militia at the Jinja event.
Meanwhile, rights group Privacy International released a report this month saying the government has installed surveillance software in hotels and government buildings to spy on journalists and political opponents.
The government said documents in the report are not authentic, pointing out what they say are falsified letterheads and misspelled names. Privacy International is standing by its report, and has called for a parliamentary investigation into the use of spyware in Uganda.