Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac has called on Uganda's security agencies to ensure freedom of expression and association as the country gears up for a tense election period.
In order for Uganda to maintain its place as a stable democracy in Africa, Uganda needs a free and fair 2021 election, she said. However, she added, police are using the country's Public Order Management Act selectively to clamp down and arrest members of the opposition.
Opposition members are trying to hold public consultation meetings and delegate conferences ahead of the campaign period which begins in August.
"We hope that there will be some effort exerted to work with the security forces to help the police understand the proper interpretation and implementation of the Public Order Management Act," Malac said. "We know that that is work in progress. And it will continue to be used as a very blunt weapon against real, imagined or perceived opponents of the status quo."
Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo, speaking to VOA, dismissed Malac's statement as useless, saying it is only the courts that can interpret the law.
"I think in the application of the law and the enforcement of the rule of law and order, the police in Uganda [are] right to act firmly within their jurisdiction," Opondo said. "But assuming there was misinterpretation or misapplication, what does POMA itself say? You seek redress in the courts of law or administratively go and challenge the arbitrariness of the police officer or police officers in courts of law."
The Public Order Management Act states that organizers of a meeting shall notify the police at least three days before the meeting takes place.
Charity Ahimbisibwe, the national coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, says security forces ought to respect a 2016 supreme court ruling that states there was no level playing ground, especially for presidential candidates, in the run-up to the 2016 elections.
"The Supreme Court judges did rule at the time that to make the field leveled, the police should be seen to protect all citizens equally," Ahimbisibwe said. "We have not seen that happening. We are seeing what we saw in 2016. So how do we then believe that anything can change."
President Yoweri Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986, is expected to run again in the February 2021 election. His potential opponents include Robert Kyagulanyi, the legislator and musician better known as Bobi Wine. Wine has been arrested several times, most recently on Jan. 6, when he tried to hold a public meeting at a church in Kampala.