Concern is rising in Uganda over the alleged forced disappearances of dissidents across the country in the lead-up to and following last month’s general election.
Members of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party say they have been especially targeted. NUP candidate Bobi Wine was defeated in the January 14 election, with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni taking 58.64% of the vote to win a sixth term in office after 35 years of rule.
Wine has challenged the outcome of the elections in court, accusing Museveni of voter fraud.
Plain-clothed members of Uganda’s defense forces have been blamed for the abductions, most of which took place at night.
In an address to his supporters from his home over the weekend, Wine estimated that over 3,000 NUP party members had been taken by authorities.
Ugandan authorities say only 31 NUP members have been arrested on suspicion of planning a rebellion.
“All those arrested will be investigated and those found with cases will be charged in courts of law,” police spokesman Fred Enanga said on Tuesday.
An unknown fate
The families of those kidnapped say the abductees were beaten before being forced into vehicles and driven away.
One 55-year-old mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, says her son was abducted and his whereabouts are still unknown.
In an interview with DW, she implores President Museveni to release those who have been imprisoned.
“Who will this government lead if our children are imprisoned,” she said. “We haven’t been able to trace them in prisons. Dear president, when you take your oath and ask the clergy to pray for you, how will they bless you when our children are missing? Have pity on us because you are a parent, too.”
Charles Kirumira, who ran in the elections as a NUP parliamentary candidate for Kyotera County in Central Uganda, says he has been living in fear ever since NUP colleagues of his were allegedly forcibly abducted in the days before the January 14 poll.
Kirumira says several NUP members were picked up from their homes by unidentified security operatives traveling in vans without number plates.
“Team leaders, our campaign agents and people whom we expected to be the polling agents are the people who have been arrested,” he told DW.
Questions raised over reason for arrests
Ugandan lawyer Asuman Basalirwa says the lack of information about those who have disappeared, as well as the manner of their abduction, means that the disappearances can’t be categorized as arrests.
“The reason why people are saying security is kidnapping Ugandans is because the mode of arrest is completely against the constitution,” he told DW. “I think that’s where the focus should be.”
When questioned on the recent spate of kidnappings, the Minister of Internal Affairs Jeje Odongo said investigations were underway to determine who was behind the arrests.
“It is true many of the incidents were perpetrated by numberless tinted vehicles,” he told DW. “We have taken interest in and arrested some of them, together with their arms, and they are in our custody.”
In an statement to parliament last week, Odongo said 44 people had been reported kidnapped and 31 were still missing.
The Executive Director of the Uganda-based Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Livingstone Sewanyana, says Museveni’s government should swiftly bring those arrested before the courts of law in accordance with the country’s constitution, pointing to a troubling resurgence of violent intimidation in the past.
“The act of abductions, kidnappings and enforced disappearance is a relic of dictatorship,” Sewanyana told DW. “It speaks of our past history and also developments and trends [seen] during the 1970s,” he said, referring to the brutal rule of former Ugandan President Idi Amin.
“This must be rooted out. Those held responsible must be punished.”
Stella Nyanzi seeks refuge in Kenya
Political activist and former university lecturer Stella Nyanzi, a prominent Museveni critic, has meanwhile fled Uganda with her children and sought asylum in Kenya.
Nyanzi, who ran for a seat in the January election alongside the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, alleges her partner —a NUP member — was abducted from his car and tortured a week the vote took place.
Previously, Nyanzi spent nearly 16 months after being found guilty of insulting the president with a graphic poem describing the birth of Museveni, criticizing his “oppression, suppression and repression” of Uganda. She was released in February 2020.