One Killed as Tensions Rise Before Uganda's Election

A supporter of Uganda's leading opposition party Forum for Democratic Change runs past burning objects as police and military forces disperse their procession with their presidential candidate to a campaign ground, in Kampala, Uganda, February 15. James Akena/Reuters

Danniel Nsugba, a 36-year-old electrician and father of five, was rushing home from work Monday with his friend and brother, trying, they say, to avoid violence in the lead-up to Uganda's February 18 presidential election. But instead of dodging a riot, he stumbled into the firing line when scrambling away from tear gas. He was shot by a policeman with a pistol, according to four eyewitnesses interviewed by Newsweek.

Ugandan police in the capital city of Kampala fired weapons and tear gas Monday at supporters of opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, who is running in the upcoming election against President Yoweri Museveni, a former rebel leader and ally of the U.S. who has been president for the past 30 years. Besigye supporters threw rocks, burned furniture and set up roadblocks before the red berets, a senior military police force, stormed through the streets with AK-47s and armored police vehicles.

Ronny Balla, a security guard at a youth hostel near where the shooting took place, said he tried to close the doors, but people escaping the tear gas and shooting pushed their way in. "He was running to enter to save his life," Balla told Newsweek in an interview the following day, speaking of Nsugba. He says he watched as Nsugba held his neck and stumbled into the corridor, collapsed on the floor and bled to death. Grisly photographs of his blood-covered face and body appeared on the front pages of Ugandan newspapers Tuesday and quickly spread across social media.

Ugandan police confirmed that one person was dead and that a postmortem had been completed, but said the results had not yet been received. "We were using rubber bullets and tear gas," said Patrick Onyango, a Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesman. " When you are at a short range, rubber bullets can also kill."

Riot police detain a supporter of Uganda's leading opposition party Forum for Democratic Change as police and military forces disperse their procession with their presidential candidate to a campaign ground in Kampala, Uganda, February 15. James Akena/Reuters

A few hours after the shooting, Nsugba's wife, Doreen Nakimera, wept outside a hospital morgue, unable to speak as she waited to learn when the family could collect his corpse. His brother's eyes were dry and bloodshot, and his friends were shaken as they recounted how he was shot in the neck and they had to leave him. "They were still opening fire, tear gas and all of that; we were trying but we couldn't lift him," said Daniel Samba, who was walking with Nsugba and his brother, Nathaniel Nseveko, before the shooting started. They ducked for cover and were unable to help Nsugba as he began bleeding, Samba said. Newsweek was repeatedly denied access to the city's morgue, even with the family's consent. The body was released to the family on Tuesday, according to Nseveko.

The shooting occurred after Besigye was stopped from campaigning on Monday, a few hours after he was briefly detained at another campaign stop earlier in the morning. Thousands of motorcyclists and supporters honking their horns incessantly and flashing two-fingered victory signs were following Besigye through Kampala, choking the city's streets. Besigye was stopped on his way to a rally at Makerere University, and his car was surrounded by riot police. The police said he wasn't following an agreed upon route, which Besigye denies.

"I have absolutely no idea why I was arrested, no reason was explained to me," Besigye told Newsweek in an interview in his white four-wheel drive parked outside of his home. "I have said right from the word go that this couldn't be anything near a free and fair election."

Monday's drama is a worrying indication of what may come in the days before and after Thursday's tense election, which pits Museveni against two challengers, both former allies of the president. Besigye, Museveni's former personal physician, leads the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, and has run against Museveni three times since 2001. Amama Mbabazi, who has spent 20 years in government, including a stint as prime minister from 2011 to 2014, is running as an independent.

"We have deployed rapid-response reaction teams because we are expecting a lot of violence," said Irene Nakasiita, a spokeswoman for the Uganda Red Cross Society, which transported patients to Mulago Hospital after Monday's clashes. She said 11 people were wounded and one killed. The opposition said at least 19 people were wounded, including many with gunshot wounds. However, Mulago Hospital's public relations officer denied that any casualties from the rallies were being treated there.

Many of Uganda's 37 million people believe that regardless of how they vote, Museveni will win. He has been credited with maintaining stability and economic growth that is running at about 5 percent, but also stands accused by human rights groups of quashing dissent, dealing with his political opponents brutally and rigging elections.

"Museveni will win, he knows all of the tricks," says Moses Muhumza, 30, a supporter of Mbabazi who, like most Ugandans, has never known another president. (More than 48 percent of Ugandans are under 15.)

In recent weeks, government spokesman Ofwono Opondo has warned of firm action against the opposition if it acts "unlawfully." At a rally, Justine Lumumba, secretary-general of Museveni's party, the National Resistance Movement, said, " Don't send your children to bring chaos in Kampala and cause confusion during elections, disrupt peace in the country. Government will handle you…. You will be shot."

Opondo also warned foreign observer missions against interfering in Uganda's political affairs. "We think they are trying to meddle and cause regime change, whether the Ugandans want it or not," he said in an interview with foreign journalists.

In spite of questions about human rights and democracy (presidential term limits were scrapped in 2005), Uganda has enjoyed diplomatic support from Western powers, particularly the United States, because of its involvement in the fight against terrorism in Somalia and other parts of the region. "Museveni is very clever, he knows what the United States wants," says Ugandan human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi . " He does their dirty work for them, so they know if Museveni is not there, another government might not go into Somalia." The U.S. sent military advisers to Uganda to help find warlord Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, which launched a brutal rebellion soon after Museveni came to power in 1986. Since the LRA was largely defeated in 2006, Uganda has become a relatively stable outpost in a troubled region, and its emerging middle class has made it one of Africa's so-called frontier markets, attracting foreign investment, especially from China. Traditionally an agricultural economy, Uganda is expected to start producing oil within a few years and is working on multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, including two hydropower dams.

Supporters of opposition leader Kizza Besigye ride motorbikes in front of riot police in Kampala, Uganda February 16. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

But its record on democracy remains poor. During the last election, in 2011, the European Union observer mission found that the process was marred by logistical failures that left many Ugandans disenfranchised, and that Museveni used his power in such a way that "compromised severely the level playing field between different candidates."

In one bright spot for voters this time, the candidates held a presidential debate that was broadcast on TV. It was only the second presidential debate in Uganda's political history. The first was held last month. Henry Muguzi, the head of watchdog group the Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, described the moment as "monumental for Ugandan politics," because the president was subjected to questioning like the other candidates and was made to share the stage with his political rivals.

But both of the leading opposition candidates have complained of harassment. Mbabazi said in recent months that some of his supporters have been jailed and that his head of security has gone missing. "Intimidation has been used by the police, using all sorts of methods to frighten people from coming," Mbabazi told Newsweek after a rally in the town of Hoima about two weeks before the election.

Three opinion polls have been released, all naming Museveni as the winner by a significant margin: One predicted he would win 71 percent, another 51 percent and the most recent 53 percent. The independence of these polls is questionable, however.

On Tuesday, the final day of campaigning, Museveni flew to Kampala's airfield in a yellow helicopter emblazoned with his face. Around 10,000 people gathered for a carefully stage-managed rally, waving yellow flags and dressed in a uniform of yellow shirts, the color of Museveni's National Resistance Movement party, as a drone shooting video footage flew overhead.

A Ugandan evangelical pastor cursed those who sought to destabilize the country and prayed for Museveni's victory. "You will take angels and put them at every polling station so that there will be no chaos and no trouble, in Jesus's name," shouted Joseph Sserwadda. "We refuse the spirit that worked in Tunisia and Libya, we refuse the spirit in Egypt and Syria. We declare that the peace that we enjoy today will be continued without any hindrance."

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Clair MacDougall's reporting from Uganda.

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