Ugandan election marred by first opposition deaths

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The Independent Online

Three opposition supporters have become the first victims of an increasingly violent election campaign in Uganda. They were shot dead by the security forces in Buganda on Wednesday, just over a week before voters go to the polls.

Violence, intimidation and vote rigging characterised Uganda's last presidential poll in 2001 when, as now, President Yoweri Museveni faced off against his former friend Dr Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).

Tensions are running high. Earlier this month in the small eastern town of Iganga, pro-government supporters wearing the colours of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) fired AK-47s during a quarrel with FDC supporters.

Justin, 20, says: "I am fearing the politics in this country. That man, Museveni, he won't leave State House." Justin makes a living driving passengers around the capital, Kampala, on the back of his small motorbike, known as a boda-boda. Like everyone else here Justin is talking about the elections due on 23 February, Uganda's first multi-party poll since President Museveni took power 20 years ago.

After the deaths on Wednesday of his supporters Mr Besigye addressed a campaign rally at Makarere University, where he compared President Museveni's rule to the bloodstained years Uganda suffered under Idi Amin and Milton Obote. "This is the kind of regime that is once again unfolding in this country," he warned.

Mr Besigye returned from self-imposed exile in October last year. Three weeks later he was arrested and charged with treason and rape. His supporters rioted in the streets of Kampala. The arrest did not go down well with Western governments who provide half Uganda's budget and who have long fêted Mr Museveni as one of the new breed of democratic African leaders. In response to the arrest Britain and others cut aid. In the face of this international opprobrium President Museveni is defiant and criticises the "neo-colonialists" for meddling in Uganda's affairs.

Since then Mr Museveni has campaigned tirelessly across the country while his main opponent has been in and out of court and jail. After one such court appearance Mr Besigye told The Independent: "The basic intention is to undermine me, because I cannot have a campaign programme when I don't know when I'll be free." The military has also been involved in Mr Besigye's arrest and trial, as he has faced simultaneous terrorism charges in a court martial. The army is ever-present, and not just in the north where for 20 years it has failed to defeat the rebel Lords Resistance Army in a war that has the dubious distinction of being Africa's longest-running conflict.

Mr Museveni likes to remind voters that only he can control the army. "All the past governments collapsed because they failed to control the army," he told a rally in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria, last month. "We have managed to tame it." A fortnight ago a senior general criticised the judiciary on a live radio broadcast. "Why don't they want to give the state a chance to prove its cases? Why are they always looking as if they are always siding with the offenders?" he asked of Mr Besigye's case.

The general's verbal assault follows a physical assault on the judiciary in November. A 30-strong branch of the security forces, popularly known as the Black Mamba Urban Hit Squad, wearing tight black T-shirts and bandanas, raced into the grounds of the High Court carrying an assortment of automatic weapons. The military claims it was acting on credible evidence of a terrorist threat, but most observers read the incident as a none-too-subtle attempt to intimidate judges.

Although Mr Besigye is Museveni's most credible opponent to date, it is highly unlikely that he will win. Many expect Mr Museveni's people to ensure a victory at any cost and fear the weeks and months that will follow the poll.

"Museveni will cheat the election," said Justin as he leaned on his motorbike next to one of Kampala's potholed roads. "He cheated last time. Besigye is my man, but he cannot win."