Ugandan opposition groups expressed outrage on Wednesday after the country’s police chief was quoted in a local newspaper telling a civilian anti-crime force to prepare for “war” after next month’s presidential vote.
The police denied the commanding officer had made the remarks.
President Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla fighter who has led Uganda since 1986, is facing his most formidable contest in years ahead of the Feb. 18 vote, which will see him face off against his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, and longtime opposition figure Kizza Besigye.
Rights groups have long accused Museveni’s government of using illegal arrests and beatings by security personnel to intimidate opposition supporters, while critics say he has rigged past elections.
The government has steadfastly denied such charges.
In a meeting with “crime preventers”, a volunteer force recruited and managed by police and whose members have been accused of carrying out assaults against government critics, police chief Kale Kayihura said the group should be prepared to defend against election rigging by the opposition.
“We shall not hand over power to the opposition to destabilize the peace which we fought for,” Kayihura told a group of crime preventers, according to The Observer newspaper.
“The constitution gives police powers to protect the nation in case there is war and I want you to get prepared for this,” he said, according to the newspaper.
EU SEEKS CLARITY
Police spokesman Fred Enanga told Reuters the newspaper’s story “was manipulated and intended to provoke publicity and generate controversy”, and denied Kayihura had made the remarks.
On Twitter, Kristian Schmidt, head of the European Union’s delegation in Uganda, wrote: General, I respectfully ask: Were you quoted correctly in today’s Observer?”
Earlier this month, the group Human Rights Watch called on Uganda to suspend the crime preventer program.
“Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village,” said senior researcher Maria Burnett.
Mbabzazi, once a close Museveni ally, told Reuters the group was a ruling NRM party “militia… disguised as police.”
Newspaper columnist and political analyst, Nicholas Ssengoba, told Reuters Museveni was using the police chief to send out a message that opposing him would carry a heavy price.
“Museveni is promising through Kayihura that this time it won’t be the usual intimidation, rigging, coercion…but that it will also probably be fatal for anybody to oppose him,” he said.