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Armed men in T-shirts enforcing the law raise fears of election violence in Uganda
by France 24
20 Nov. 2020
Uganda this week witnessed its worst violence in a decade when demonstrators took to the streets to protest opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine’s arrest. The ferocity of the violence and the state’s use of armed plainclothes militias raised alarm bells as President Yoweri Museveni, Africa’s longest-serving leader, faces a popular challenger in the January election.
The video clip, recorded from a family car packed with audibly panicking members on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, documents 45 seconds of raw human terror.
“These guys are shooting,” says a female voice inside the car while through the windshield, young men in T-shirts and jeans can be seen wielding automatic rifles on the street.
The panic mounts as the armed men start shooting wantonly into the air thick with teargas. “What?! Jesus!” cries the woman. “Mummy, mummy, I’m very scared,” whimpers the woman as the heavyset gunman shoots into the distance at chest level.
The video clip, posted on Twitter by leading Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, was just one of many disturbing images circulating on social media sites on Thursday as plainclothes and uniformed security officers shot demonstrators protesting the arrest of Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine, killing at least 37 people.
“In the last couple of days we have begun to see very unusual things in this country: individuals driving private cars, wielding guns and shooting indiscriminately at anybody they see on the streets. These signs are extremely worrying,” said Opiyo in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Friday. “We believe the government has been hiring paramilitary militia in the guise of maintaining law and order.”
The video, Opiyo noted, was shot on Thursday by a colleague who wished to remain anonymous. “We have seen many like this online yesterday, but I can vouch for this video because I know the person who shot it,” he said.
Election season can be a particularly fraught time in Uganda. But this time, the violence started early and with a ferocity that raised alarm bells, exposing the high political stakes for President Museveni.
Mr. Museveni is running for re-election in the January 2021 polls after the country’s election commission on November 2 cleared the incumbent’s bid to extend his 34-year rule.
Since Mr. Museveni took power in 1986 after ousting a military government, the 76-year-old rebel soldier-turned-president has never lost a single election in his political career.
But he faces a serious threat next year from Wine, a 38-year-old musician-turned-politician.
Uganda’s “ghetto president”, as he’s popularly known, has captured the imagination of many voters and electrified his primarily young fan base with his fearless calls for Museveni to step down.
Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – was arrested earlier this week and charged with flouting Covid-19 restrictions. Following Thursday’s violence – the country’s worst unrest in a decade – he was freed on bail on Friday and is due to appear in court again on December 18.
Speaking to journalists after his release, a weary-looking Wine sounded defiant. “Let Museveni know that we are not slaves and we shall not accept to be slaves,” he said. “We shall be free.”
Wine’s characteristic displays of defiance following his frequent arrests have turned into a familiar feature on the Ugandan political scene since he was elected to parliament in 2017.
Following a 2018 spell in jail, Wine was allowed to travel to the US for medical treatment for injuries sustained during his incarceration.
But if Uganda’s ruling party members harboured secret hopes that this young, green parliamentarian could be intimidated into staying on in the US, those dreams were soon dashed. Following his treatment, the crowd-gathering thorn in Museveni’s side returned to his homeland, vowing not to be intimidated. “I am a free Ugandan with the right to move freely in my country," he declared upon arrival.
Wine’s latest arrest was the second in barely a month. On November 3, he was detained shortly after filing his presidential candidacy. After being blocked from going to his offices, Wine was taken to his residence, where he addressed his supporters, displaying his torn suit jacket and pointing to injuries sustained by some of his associates during the arrest.
But while Wine’s detentions are not new, the public reaction to his arrest this week caught experts and human rights defenders by surprise.
“Museveni’s hold on power has been achieved by visiting violence, intimidation, corruption and bribery – this is not new,” said Opiyo. “What’s new is the level of reaction from the public.”
Wine’s arrest on Wednesday triggered immediate protests in Kampala and quickly spread to other towns across the East African nation. By late Wednesday, the Red Cross said it had treated dozens of injured, including 11 people for gunshot wounds. By Thursday night, the situation had deteriorated, with shop windows broken and looted, and youths burning tyres on the streets, demanding Wine’s release.
Ugandan police maintain their forces were containing rioters who were targeting people who did not support Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
"What we have seen in the last few days, that is violence, vandalism, looting, intimidation and threats, are crimes that were being committed [against] people who are not pro-NUP," said police spokesman Fred Enanga. "This is not something that we can tolerate."
While admitting the situation had turned “very intense”, Opiyo noted that the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by security officers had exacerbated the violence.
“There’s no doubt the brutality of the security agencies was met with unruly conduct by people who were outraged and using every means to express their outrage,” said Opiyo.
In a country mired in poverty and youth unemployment, public anger has been mounting against an ageing, governing clique that has arbitrarily deployed security officials to uphold the law as they see fit.
While Wine was arrested for flouting coronavirus restrictions, members of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party have held packed campaign events in recent weeks that have been peacefully secured by law enforcement officials.
"Coronavirus restrictions are being used as an excuse for violent repression of the opposition and to give added advantage to the ruling party,” said Opiyo. “This is about using Covid to obtain political advantage.”
The use of armed plainclothes men on Thursday has also terrified the citizenry, adding to insecurity fears in the run-up to the January 15 elections.
“This is not the first time we have seen them on the streets, often times they work alongside uniformed security personnel,” explained Opiyo. “But since they are government employed individuals, it’s often difficult to hold them to account.”
While the mysterious gunmen in T-shirts are allowed to “control the street” with impunity, human rights defenders in Uganda are bracing for a particularly intimidating campaign season.
A day after posting the posting the video clip and other images of armed men in civilian clothes, Opiyo admitted he was concerned for his safety as well as the safety of other human rights defenders and civil society activists in Uganda.
“I slept in my office last night because I got word that I was being trailed. They are very unhappy that I’m posting these updates. Two days ago, civil society activists were stopped in their car, and taken out and beaten, journalists are being beaten, any group that questions the authorities are being brutalised,” said Opiyo. “I don’t feel safe, but this is my home and I’m not going anywhere.”

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Governments should back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights
by Gabriela Bucher, Olivier De Schutter
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Nov. 2020
And so our world, scarred by human tragedy, came together. Leaders across the world agreed “to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person”. Calling for equality of “men and women and of nations large and small”. Later declaring “health as a fundamental right”. Pursuing “freedom from fear and want” for all.
The year of such lofty declarations is, sadly, not 2020. Not even amid a pandemic that has taken over a million lives. It was seventy-five years ago as governments in the wake of war founded the United Nations and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That same spirit is needed today. Human rights such as access to healthcare when falling sick, protection when faced with unemployment, or the right to simply participate in decisions which affect our lives are a calling for our time.
That rights such as these have been trampled upon, year by year, has allowed the coronavirus to wreak such devastation and threaten more darkness ahead.
Be it garment workers in Bangladesh, stitching clothes for hyper-profitable fashion chains, abused if they fail to meet targets.
Or the privatization of public health and education that then denies people their rights the world over – especially of women and girls.
The pharma monopolies which make medicines unaffordable for billions of people and threaten the same for a COVID-19 vaccine today. This is joined-up injustice.
There are systemic connections between these human rights abuses and today’s extreme form of capitalism. The past four decades saw governments slash taxes and regulation, weaken labor markets, loosen capital controls and privatize public goods, with the planet plundered. Such is our extremely unequal world in which the 1% came to own more than the 99% combined.
Then today’s pandemic hit us, profoundly exacerbating intersecting inequalities. You are hit hardest if you are living in poverty, Black, Indigenous or a person of color, or if you are a woman.
COVID-19 risks pushing more than two hundred million people into poverty. Social protection measures have been adopted by governments caught off-guard, but they are often temporary, full of gaps, and often insufficient to protect most people from falling in poverty.
Some have reaped great prosperity from this pain: billionaire wealth is now at a record high, increasing 27% in recent months.
What policies brought us here? The new Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index by Oxfam and Development Finance International, at the intersection of human rights and inequality, offers answers. It tells a story of a world unprepared for today’s pandemic.
The data shows how only one in six countries were spending the recommended minimum of 15% of budgets on health prior to the pandemic. In 103 countries at least one in three workers lacked basic protections like sick pay. Half of countries lack adequate laws against sexual assault.
The Index also contrasts a vast majority of countries failing to tackle inequality from the few that are. The USA trails 17 low-income countries on labor laws because of its anti-union policies and very low minimum wage. Half of India’s population, 700 million people, do not have access to basic healthcare.
While every country could do better, some are adopting more human rights-aligned policies. South Korea has boosted the minimum wage, taxed the rich more and invested more in health. Costa Rica has instituted universal healthcare over the past decade. It is little surprise that these countries, New Zealand, Norway and others that have shown commitment to equality have been better positioned to weather today’s pandemic.
Tackling the unsustainable inequality at the core of today’s capitalism is possible. Policies matter. Our time calls for universal social protection – and a Global Fund for Social Protection – and publicly-funded, publicly-delivered healthcare and education.
Universal measures are great equalizers, that reduce economic, racial and gender inequalities.
We can fund key services well by an increase in wealth and solidarity taxes on the richest. We can foster equitable business models, recognize care work as real work and pay all workers a living wage.
We can curb the emissions of the richest and set new economic ideals that go beyond GDP, and help solve the complex equation of eradicating poverty while remaining within planetary boundaries. We can ensure a People's Vaccine for COVID-19.
Our world, scarred by human tragedy, can yet come together. We urge the same level of imagination as the drafters of the Universal Declaration over seventy years ago. It is time for governments to back a new economic model that fosters equality and realizes human rights.
* Gabriela Bucher is the incoming Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

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