Uganda’s Dictator Museveni Unleashes a Reign of Terror.

Research by World Politics Review | Uganda and the military dictatorship | Uganda’s Dictator Museveni Unleashes a Reign of Terror.

The unmarked white vans, known locally as “drones,” stop at marketplaces and on busy street corners across Uganda. A mix of uniformed and plainclothes security officers shove terrified captives into the vehicles and drive them to undisclosed locations. Many are never seen again. The pages of the Daily Monitor, an independent Ugandan newspaper, are awash with stories of families searching desperately for their missing loved ones.

Their crime: supporting opposition candidate Bobi Wine in the country’s January presidential election.

From his origins in a ghetto in the capital, Kampala, the popstar-turned-politician—whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi—rose to challenge long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni in one of the bloodiest elections in Uganda’s history. Over the course of two days in November, at least 54 opposition supporters and bystanders were killed when riots broke out across Kampala after Wine was briefly jailed for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions.

By December, some 100 members of Wine’s campaign team had been arrested, including his best friend Nubian Li, music producer Dan Magic and bodyguard Eddie Mutwe. All three remain behind bars. Another of Wine’s young bodyguards, Francis Senteza, died when a military truck ran him over, in what Wine insists was a deliberate killing, despite army denials.

Ugandans went to the polls Jan. 14 with the internet shut off across the country. The 76-year-old Museveni easily clinched a sixth term in office, as official results showed he took nearly 59 percent of the vote to Wine’s 34 percent. The opposition challenger, who spent 11 days after the election under house arrest, cried foul and accused the government of vote-rigging.

Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, or NUP, now estimates more than 600 of their supporters have disappeared and believe the true number of missing people could be much higher. While the abductions are seemingly concentrated around Wine’s political stronghold in central Uganda, senior NUP members told me that a hotline they set up rings multiple times a day, as callers from across the country report missing relatives.

“The objective of the regime is to create fear, to make sure that people are so scared of saying anything,” Wine told World Politics Review in an interview, his voice hoarse at times with sorrow and fatigue.

Those who do reemerge are often found on the side of the road, bearing signs of torture. In images compiled by Wine’s legal team, the victims’ bodies are marked by scars, apparently from being whipped with electric wires. Some of their wounds appear black with necrosis.

The government has made few attempts to disguise this recent clampdown, according to Leonce Byimana, executive director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, a Washington-based NGO that recently published its own report on torture in Uganda. “Everybody can see,” Byimana said.

The wave of abductions seemingly began in December, picking up in frequency in the wake of the election. The victims, whose only known crime was supporting the opposition, include men and women, young and old. Some of them monitored the polls and collected evidence of alleged vote-tampering. Others simply endorsed Wine publicly.

Ronald Segawa says he was abducted in late January, shortly after the election. He had posted a video on Facebook telling people to vote for Wine. His assailants beat him with what he suspects were rifle butts, pulled out his fingernails and electrocuted his back and arms, all while questioning him about Wine and the video. They then dumped him at the gate of the mortuary of the government-run Mulago Hospital.

“I wailed so loud and told them I didn’t know anything,” Segawa said in a video about his ordeal, posted on social media. “I felt a lot of pain and told them you are killing me for nothing.”

Police have denied Segawa’s allegations of torture, even as similarly horrifying stories continue to mount.

Fabian Luuka was allegedly kidnapped on the outskirts of Kampala in late February along with two other young men, reportedly for being in possession of NUP membership cards. He was discovered on the side of a highway in late February, with the flesh of his buttocks and leg gouged out. Luuka was rushed to a Kampala hospital where he died of his injuries in March, leaving behind two young children.

“The objective of the regime is to create fear, to make sure that people are so scared of saying anything.”

“He is the only one who had the honor of having a grave,” Wine said when asked about Luuka, noting that the men captured alongside him are still missing.

“During his burial, they were saying, ‘At least this one has been buried,’” recalled Lina Zedriga, a lawyer and vice chairperson of the NUP. The mourners, she added, had haunting questions.

“Ours, in the next village, we now don’t know where he is. Are these people dead? Are they living? How long are we going to live without closure?”

Zedriga knows their pain all too well. In 2001, her husband, a supporter of veteran opposition leader and then-presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, vanished without a trace.

“I have a missing husband myself. It is my reality,” Zedriga told me. “The experience of mothers whose sons are missing, women whose husbands are missing, young men whose wives are missing is very devastating. It is so devastating that I don’t know what to say.”

The government has acknowledged detaining only a small fraction of the disappeared. In mid-April, Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odongo said that security forces had arrested roughly 1,300 people in relation to the election, including the November violence, but claimed most of the people the NUP says are missing are instead hiding in rural villages.

Odongo’s comments echoed a revelation Museveni made in March: that 51 people reported missing by their relatives were being held by the Special Forces Command, an elite unit of the military headed by Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. The president bragged that these detainees had become supporters of his party, the National Resistance Movement, or NRM. “Too bad for the traitors, these poor youth gave up the whole scheme and are now our friends,” he boasted of the captives in a statement to Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

In a televised address in February, he also said 242 people he decried as terrorists had been arrested and that Ugandan commandos, previously deployed to counterterrorism missions in Somalia, had “killed a few.”

However, in the same speech, he denied that the government is abducting civilians. “The talk of disappearances should be ignored because it cannot happen under the NRM,” Museveni said. “We never cover up. There’s nothing which we do and hide.”

The post-election atmosphere of heightened brutality has not gone unnoticed overseas. Human rights experts from the United Nations released a statement last month expressing alarm over the crackdown. And the U.S. State Department recently issued visa restrictions “for those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda”—although it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will reassess the nearly $1 billion in security assistance that Washington provides Museveni’s regime annually. The European Parliament has drafted a new resolution calling for targeted sanctions in Uganda in response to alleged electoral fraud.

Ugandan bureaucrats have scoffed at such rebukes. “We are partners, equals, and none of us should act as if you are superior to the other,” Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa said at a tense meeting with European diplomats in the city of Entebbe earlier this year.

With his supporters disappearing from the streets, Wine is running out of options. He has withdrawn a Supreme Court petition challenging Museveni’s victory, accusing the judges of bias. His subsequent calls for large-scale demonstrations seem to have fallen on deaf ears, but he continues to urge the International Criminal Court to investigate government abuses in Uganda.

On Monday, Wine said on Twitter that his home was surrounded by soldiers, checking each vehicle that came in and out of the compound. Besigye’s party reported a similar security presence around his house. The moves are likely meant to intimidate the opposition ahead of Museveni’s inauguration this week. The army said it had arrested more than 40 people for allegedly planning to disrupt the proceedings.

Despite the brutal crackdown on his supporters, Wine has not given up hope. “The absence of an alternative keeps me going, because I know that there is no other life other than a free life. We are in chains everywhere,” Wine said. “We want to have a right to life. That’s why we dedicate anything and everything to that freedom.”

Researched by Sophie Neiman, a freelance reporter and photojournalist, covering politics, conflict and human rights in East and Central Africa. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including African Arguments, The Christian Science Monitor and The New Humanitarian.

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