FILE - Riot police patrol the streets in Kampala, Uganda.

Police in Uganda used tear gas Friday to break up a crowd of supporters outside the offices of the opposition People Power movement.  Critics say police often target opposition rallies but never break up gatherings of the ruling party. 

The People Power movement office was humming with activity Friday as aspiring candidates picked up and returned nomination forms for 2021 general elections.

As aspirants walked in, so did their supporters, chanting People Power movement songs.  That attracted the attention of police, who at first monitored the situation, then fired tear gas. 

One of the aspirants who returned their forms Friday is opposition legislator Francis Zaake whose arrival sparked excitement among the dozens who had gathered outside the office, many donning red berets and red overalls.

Zaake, who currently moves around on crutches, is still nursing a spinal injury and has leg paralysis after his arrest in April. He was allegedly assaulted while detained by security agencies for defying presidential directives. 

He says this is not the time to be scared of the government.

“Even when you’re injured, even when you’re lame. Even when I feel that am not yet well, but I can do this," said Zaake. "Meaning this is what we have to do to get our freedom. The moment we don’t do this, there’s no way people are going to be inspired, so that you break those chains.”

Joel Ssenyonyi, the People Power spokesperson, says the group has so far received nomination forms from 5,500 people.  He says the continuous battle with police is only invigorating the party.

“It shows that the state is fearful. That’s why they will deploy heavily at the People Power offices," said Ssenyonyi. "But ours is to say that where we are holding seems to be the right place, we’ll hold even harder.”

Opposition supporters have criticized police in recent weeks for cracking down on opposition functions and arresting its members.  In contrast, the police let members of the ruling National Resistance Movement, under President Yoweri Museveni, carry on without any hindrances.

But Patrick Onyango, the Kampala Metropolitan Deputy Police Spokesperson, says the opposition members have defied presidential directives meant to control the spread of COVID-19.

“They were moving in a procession, which is a campaign by the way and it is not allowed," said Onyango. "And, they were blocking roads, in and around Kamwokya, which is also not allowed in the current situation where we are supposed to keep distance. So, we had to use a bit of tear gas to disperse them.” 

In its recently released electoral roadmap, the Uganda Electoral Commission has urged all aspirants to observe procedures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Candidates have also been advised to use electronic media to campaign to avoid crowds.