Millions of Ugandans will head to the polls on 18 February, to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. Over the coming days and weeks, it is critical that the Uganda Police Force acts with impartiality and protects the rights of everyone, not just the interests of those who currently hold the reins of power.
The police have overstepped their constitutional mandate in previous elections, and during parts of the period leading up to these polls. They have unnecessarily and excessively used force against peaceful assemblies at times relying on tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the aftermath of the last election in 2011, at least nine people were killed as police broke up peaceful street protests in the capital Kampala. Many hundreds of others were arbitrarily arrested. Last year, police arrested opposition candidates and used excessive force to disperse peaceful opposition gatherings.
Policing elections is undeniably a logistical challenge in any country, but this is no reason for Uganda’s police to depart from their binding human-rights obligations. In many parts of the world, police have contributed positively during elections, acting as a guarantor of the people’s full enjoyment of rights, including the right to vote. They have ensured that people can safely assemble in public and peacefully demonstrate for their rights.
There is particular cause for concern about the role of the police in Uganda this time. Last year, the police recruited and trained a nationwide network of “crime preventers” in vast numbers. This controversial volunteer force is managed by the police without a legal framework, ostensibly to report on and prevent crime.
In reality, the network is strongly affiliated with the ruling National Resistance Movement, and many crime preventers have carried out brutal attacks and acts of extortion against Ugandans, with no accountability.
In these final days of campaigning, and in the course of any public assemblies that arise following the vote or the announcement of results, the police must ensure full and effective control over all of the crime preventers they have trained. The police themselves must remain neutral, and avoid excessive, unnecessary and disproportionate use of force.
Experience from other countries in the region shows that the period following the announcement of election results can be the most sensitive stage of an election cycle.
These elections are highly contested — more so the presidential race — and with this comes the likelihood of protests from some who may perceive unfairness, rigging or other electoral irregularities.
This is something the police should prepare for and deal with peacefully and in accordance with their human-rights obligations. Respecting the right to peaceful protest, including the right to assemble spontaneously, is essential. The Uganda Police Force must respect, protect, and not violate, this human right.
The Uganda Police Force recently imported more state-of-the-art anti-riot equipment, including a water cannon and a new fleet of armoured trucks.
Next week’s election should not be a demonstration of might. Rather, it is an opportunity for the Ugandan police to act with professionalism, neutrality, and respect for the individuals they are constitutionally tasked to protect.
Sarah Jackson is Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes