Ugandan Police Deploy Crowd Control Unit to Vet Presidential Debates

The Ugandan police has set up a new 'Violence Suppression Unit' to guard TV and radio stations that host politicians during the 2021 presidential campaign. It is part of efforts to stop crowds gathering outside media houses in violation of the country's curfew. Critics say Covid-19 is being used as an excuse to further stifle dissent.

At a recent talk show, excited crowds gathered outside local radio station Baba FM to catch a glimpse of popular Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, who went on air to call for change.

They chanted 'people power' slogans when the Kyadondo East MP appeared outside, attracting curious onlookers.

A heavy police presence was deployed at the station in Jinja city in the east of the country and officers used teargas to disperse the throngs of people in footage seen on NTV.

For some observers, it was this event and the commotion stirred up by Bobi Wine that spurred the authorities to set up a new 'Violence Suppression Unit'.

Dangerous crowds

"Huge crowds were waiting for him [Bobi Wine] at the entrance. They were there throughout the two-hour show and crowds kept gathering and gathering," explains Ugandan columnist and scholar Yusuf Serunkum.

"If you live in this country, any opportunity for crowds to gather is dangerous for this government," he told RFI.

"A guy like Bobi Wine has the momentum to galvanize crowds, push them onto the streets and push this man (Yoweri Museveni) out," he added, although admits the popular singer has since lost his rebellious streak by creating his own party.

Police spokesperson Fred Enanga said the unit's purpose was to disperse crowds that form near media houses when they host certain politicians.

"We created units called violence suppression units and these will control demonstration and all acts of violence during the elections," Enanga told reporters at the Uganda Media Centre on Monday.

Digital campaign

Ugandans go to the polls next year between January and February, with most of the traditional campaign rallies banned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials have urged candidates instead to use the media to get their message across to voters.

Opposition parties however have previously complained about not getting enough airtime on broadcast media, especially in rural areas where they say security agencies bar them from appearing on political shows.

There are concerns the new violence suppression unit may make it even more difficult for opposition MPs to get on air.

Double standards

Indeed, media houses will now have to submit the names and times of the politicians they want to invite to the police unit beforehand to avoid officers arresting their guests for flouting curfew guidelines.

Opposition lawmakers Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda and Betty Nambooze got a taste of that last month when they were forced to spend a night at a TV station following their live segment after police were deployed outside to arrest them.

"The interesting thing is that the NRM politicians drove back home at midnight," comments Yusuf Serunkum, who denounces double standards in the treatment of ruling party candidates and those from the opposition.

"The opposition has to comply with the strict Covid rules but NRM politicians can do what they want," notes the columnist and scholar.

Politicizing food

The distribution of food to families affected by the nationwide lockdown has notably become a flashpoint between the government and opposition, with critics accusing authorities of allowing ruling party leaders to distribute food freely, while opponents who do the same are whisked away.

President Yoweri Museveni has accused opposition politicians of trying to milk political capital out of the Covid-19 crisis, and says food distribution must be centralized to avoid spreading the virus.

"To go back to the violence suppression unit, what it does if you are a radio station is that it puts you off inviting members of the opposition," continues Serunkum.

Fiction meets reality

"Having men surrounded by guns outside your station brings you unwanted attention, so you won't want to invite these guys," he reckons.

For him, the Covid crisis has provided the government a pretext to suppress opposition activities.

"It's like a spooky fortune," for the president says Serunkum, who is also a playwright and author of the book The Snake Farmers.

"In my book, I write about an epidemic. In my head it was the war in northern Uganda."

"The people in government were benefitting from this war. I analogized that they're like people who grow snakes. Snakes are really dangerous but they're happy to farm them," he says.

Museveni candidate again

In power since 1986, former rebel fighter Museveni accepted his appointment as flag bearer of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party last week and is now on course to seek a sixth term in office.

"The only way he can be ousted is through the streets," reckons Serunkum.

"It is easier for him to win an election but extremely difficult for him to be put in a situation where he has to shoot people."

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