Uganda's presidential campaign season opened Monday ahead of a vote due February 2016. The crucial vote will pit the country's veteran leader Yoweri Museveni against a longtime challenger and a sacked prime minister.
Museveni, in power since 1986, faces the stiffest opposition from Kizza Besigye, a three-time loser for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister running as an independent candidate.
In a statement released before the official campaigns started, Human Rights Watch urged Ugandan authorities to stop obstructing peaceful political gatherings, especially with the use of teargas and to ensure equal access to the media.
DW spoke to Maria Burnett, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
DW: The official campaigns in Uganda have kicked off. Is there a level playing field between the government and opposition?
Maria Burnett: I think it's very difficult given President Museveni's long stay in power, given his sound control of the levers of state power and given what we have seen in the last few months. Partisan policing at public rallies, what we already have documented many years about the way the ruling party can control access to media; it's very difficult to say there's a level playing field for Uganda's election.
Human Rights Watch is calling on Ugandan authorities to avoid media repression and police brutality, are you anticipating any violence against the opposition candidates?
We have done work on Uganda's election for many years; each time we have seen sporadic violence. Clearly, the 2001 elections were quite violent, the 2006 election, the opposition had a lot of problems. Kizza Besigye faced numerous partisan prosecutions; he was really hamstrung in his ability to campaign. The 2011 election was more peaceful but there were a lot of allegations of the use of the state money to buy votes and voter bribery. Whether we will see actual violence this time around, we certainly hope not. At the end of the day, the important thing is that the opposition is free to campaign and that all sides feel they can go on the radio and express their views without fear of reprisals and journalists feel free to host opposition politicians without fear of facing potential reprisals.
We certainly have real concerns that we will see violence particularly around opposition rallies and meetings where already in the last few months before the campaigns started, we saw police come in and use a lot of tear gas and violence to disperse rallies.
You seem to be speaking out in favor of the opposition - the Ugandan government could almost argue that you're supporting them?
We don't support any side; the government has a legal obligation of upholding human rights. They are the duty bearers of the human rights convention that Uganda signed over many years. When we talk of free access to the media, obviously all [government and the opposition] views should be presented so voters can be informed. What we have documented time and time again in Uganda, not only recently but over many years is that when it comes to hosting opposition members, journalists can have a very difficult time. If a talk show moderator is ultimately going to lose their job if they host the opposition, that usually means the opposition is not going to get airtime and that means the voters are not educated about the issues, about the views of the candidates, and that affects the free and fairness of the election.
You are also concerned about the police recruitment of hundreds of thousands of young people known as ‘crime preventers' - why are you concerned about this initiative?
Uganda, like many countries in the region, has a long history of recruiting 'ad hoc' groups to help with security but often we see them playing a partisan role.
This new program to recruit crime preventers is troubling because it doesn't indicate clearly what their exact mandate is, there is no actual law or regulation that will control their activities.
They are not going to be paid but they are receiving some form of police and military training. It is a very large number, the government is looking at over one million crime preventers throughout the country. We have had access to their training materials that coordinators of crime preventers have put together and those documents read as partisan documents; they read "forces should be loyal to President Museveni." Ultimately, that is troubling: we certainly hope that crime preventers don't play a role that is partisan; that they don't end up affecting the freedom and fairness of the campaign. Greater clarity as to what their role is would be very much appreciated and welcome. We are not the only ones to speak out about the role of the crime preventers, this is a very real issue for Ugandan civil society and Ugandans who are paying attention to this issue.
Isn't it a bit premature to be wary about the crime preventers before they even get started?
All Ugandans, all of us around the world should play a role in preventing crimes. But what are these trainings and what roles are these individuals going to play? If you go through the tweets of the Ugandan police force and the president's office, you see these men armed with large sticks - their training looks like paramilitary training. If Uganda's police needs more training they should be talking about that issue and they should be getting that training. The campaigns have started and the playing field needs to be as level as possible as quickly as possible and we hope that crime preventers don't play a negative role.
Maria Burnett is Senior Researcher, Africa Division of Human Rights Watch