(Nairobi) – Ugandan security forces raided the offices of an opposition political party on the eve of the May 26, 2022, by-election in Omoro County in Northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today. The security forces beat party supporters and arbitrarily detained at least 13 opposition supporters that night, and on election day.
The Omoro parliamentary by-election was to fill the seat previously held by Jacob Oulanyah, the parliament speaker, following his death on March 22. The Electoral Commission declared Oulanyah’s son, Andrew Ojok, of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), the winner with 83.3 percent of the vote.
“The abuses in Omoro reflect the same pattern of abuse against the opposition, as during all of Uganda’s recent elections, for which no one has been prosecuted,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to take urgent measures to end these persistent and repressive abuses and ensure accountability.”
The authorities should ensure prompt, effective investigations into the myriad violations that characterized the by-election, and hold those found culpable for violations to account.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at around 8:30 p.m. on May 25, about 17 armed soldiers stormed the offices of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party in Opit, a town center 10 kilometers from the Omoro district headquarters in Lalogi sub-county, where about 50 party officials had gathered ahead of voting the next day. The soldiers assaulted party officials, beat them, stole money, and confiscated documents.
Rose Nyapolo, an FDC official, said the soldiers hit her in her left eye, temporarily blinding her, and took 150,000 Uganda shillings ($US40) from her bag. “The soldiers didn’t want anybody to be in the office,” Nyapolo said. “They threatened to kill the one person who had remained in the office. We all scattered.”
At least two FDC officials were arrested during the raid. The officers detained Austin Lubangakene, the FDC general secretary, transferred him briefly to Opit police post, and then drove him 40km to Gulu in a minibus, infamously known in Uganda as a “Drone.” Inside the “Drone,” the officers punched and kicked Lubangakene in the ribs, forced him to lie on his stomach, and placed tires on his head, back, and legs to keep him pinned to the vehicle floor.
Lubangakene told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers would drive at a high speed for several kilometers then stop abruptly and question him. They repeated this several times and said to him, “Do you people think you are still going to win [the by-election]? What if right now we tell you to vote for [NRM candidate Andrew] Ojok?”
At around 11p.m., about 30 meters from the FDC office in Opit, armed men detained a Chua West opposition legislator, Okin Ojara, and his driver, Dan Okot, at a roadblock at Opit centre and held them briefly at the Opit police post, then took them in a “Drone” to Gulu central police station. Ojara told Human Rights Watch that he was detained after he and his driver arrived at the FDC offices in response to distress calls about the raid.
At around the same time, about 20 police and military officers detained another FDC opposition leader, Stephen Okumu, at a roadblock in Lakwana sub-county, as he was riding a motorcycle to his home. The officers held Okumu overnight, at the Opit police post, and released him at around 5 p.m. the next day without charge. Okumu told Human Rights Watch that some of the officers told him they had been instructed to detain him but did not say why.
On May 26, the police spokesperson told the media the detentions aimed to forestall attempts at sabotaging the voting in Omoro that day.
Police detained more people on election day morning. At around 9 a.m., police and armed masked security forces in civilian clothes detained David Kalwanga Lukyamuzi, a parliament member with the main opposition party, the National Unity Platform (NUP); Peter Maiso, a party official; Badru Simbwa, Lukyamuzi’s personal assistant; Fahad Wezinda, Lukyamuzi’s driver; and a local guide only identified as Odongkara, as they drove away from a polling place in Orapwoyo village where they had gone to observe the voting.
The officers held them at Lalogi police station, where they beat Maiso, who had pleaded with the officers not to torture them, and assaulted Lukyamuzi. “They were squeezing me, like they wanted to break my hands and legs. Even now – I am not feeling well,” Lukyamuzi said.
The officers drove Lukyamuzi in a “Drone” to the Gulu central police station, while the others remained detained in Lalogi. The five were charged with “inciting violence” and then released on bond around 7 p.m. David Lewis Rubongoya, the NUP secretary general, told Human Rights Watch that at least 60 of their election observers were detained during the voting.
In what is now a common pattern around elections, the Ugandan authorities deploy security forces to restrict the political opposition. In the weeks leading up to the 2021 general elections, the police and military targeted opposition party leaders and their supporters, journalists, protesters, and activists, beating and arbitrarily detaining them, in many instances without trial. Although Ugandan security forces have for years been implicated in serious human rights violations, the authorities have rarely investigated the abuses.
“The Ugandan authorities should immediately end all forms of harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters, members, and leaders, including releasing those detained, and dropping all bogus charges,” Nyeko said. “Instead, the authorities should respect and protect basic rights, at all times, and ensure respect for the rule of law.”