Ugandan security forces have shot and killed several people after Bobi Wine, a popular singer who is campaigning to become president, was arrested for holding a rally in breach of Covid-19 regulations.
Mr Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, is challenging President Yoweri Museveni, 76, who has been in power since 1986 when he overthrew the government of Milton Obote. Though Mr Wine, 38, has been arrested and beaten several times, the shootings mark an escalation in violence two months before elections are due to take place.
Mr Wine, who was elected to parliament with a big majority in 2017, is popular in urban centres where he is known as the “ghetto president” because of his humble background. In an interview with the FT last month, he said Mr Museveni would do anything to stop him campaigning, through restricting the internet and banning his political rallies.
Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer in Kampala, said the Red Cross had reported that 16 people had been killed and more than 60 injured. “There appears to be an escalation of violence both on the side of security forces and the protesters in many parts of the city and in some parts of the country,” he said.
Mr Opiyo said Mr Museveni appeared to have been rattled by the fact that Mr Wine, who he had dismissed as a “pop singer and drug user”, had attracted thousands to his rallies in rural regions, well beyond his urban base. “This has sent shivers down the spine of the regime who dismissed him as a non-starter,” he said.
Witnesses said members of the army and police, including some men in plain clothes, had opened fire with live rounds in several parts of the city on Wednesday, after Mr Wine’s arrest in Luuka, east of Kampala, and on Thursday. The FT has seen photographs, the location and timing of which could not be verified, showing multiple people lying in the street, apparently killed by gunshot wounds.
“Dead bodies are beside the road and Mulago hospital [in north-west Kampala] is full of people with serious injuries,” said one documentary photographer called Eric, who withheld his surname for fear of reprisals. “Some of the soldiers are laughing and shooting in the sky, telling people to go because no one is allowed to be in town right now,” he said.
Fred Enanga, spokesperson for the Uganda police, said in a statement, that three people had been killed and 34 injured, though Ugandan media reported police as later saying that the death toll had risen to seven. He did not answer FT requests for comment.
“The violent demonstrators set up illegal roadblocks and burnt tyres, violently attacked law enforcement personnel in the city centre,” he said. “We have also registered other crimes of looting, vandalism and robbery by hooligans.”
Police said a second presidential candidate Patrick Amuriat, had also been arrested in the northern town of Gulu. Both he and Mr Wine were “actively involved in the massive mobilisation of unauthorised assemblies and processions amid the threat of Covid-19”, the statement said.
The opposition has said that rallies in support of Mr Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party have been allowed without police intervention, raising the suspicion of bias.
Nic Cheeseman, an Africa expert at the University of Birmingham and author of How to Rig an Election, said: “Museveni is trying to contain him and prevent him from holding rallies, especially in rural areas.”
Mr Cheeseman said he was surprised that Mr Museveni’s security forces had resorted to violence so early in the campaign given Mr Wine’s relatively weak party structure and the president’s long experience of using incumbency to win elections. “People are asking: is the state beginning to fray?” he said. “Things start to fall apart when it’s not people in uniform, but just guys with guns.”
At least two other presidential candidates have suspended their campaigns because of Mr Wine’s arrest. Mr Wine’s representative said he was still in detention on Thursday night without access to lawyers.
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