KAMPALA, Uganda — Motorists jostle for parking space at the Kampala mall where oil marketer Penelope Katanagi is at work on her laptop computer, sipping lemonade in a cafe.
The mall was largely empty after Uganda’s disputed presidential election as people were afraid of violence, but now customers like Katanagi say they are reassured by the presence of heavily armed police patrolling the streets of the capital.
“I feel safe,” she said. “We are all not satisfied with the result of the election, but we think that protesting is not the way to go.”
Katanagi is not alone. Many Ugandans, including those who supported Kizza Besigye, are wary of the opposition leader’s call for a campaign of civil disobedience over allegations of massive vote fraud and his continued detention at home. Besigye lost to long-time Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, who has vowed to “use both soft and hard means” to stop street protests against his victory.
Some worry a protest movement similar to the one that followed the last election, in 2011, could end in a massacre if the security forces use lethal force. At least nine people were killed in April 2011 during street clashes between Museveni’s forces and supporters of Besigye, according to Human Rights Watch, which says the perpetrators of that violence have never been charged.
This time, it appears Besigye will not be allowed much time on the streets. Even before the results of the presidential election were announced, the police put him under house arrest and detained him many times as he tried to leave his home on the outskirts of Kampala. Besigye has responded by urging his supporters “to use the popular numbers that we have to make sure that the gunmen do not do what they are doing.”
That call makes retired civil servant Michael Otauti very nervous even though he sympathizes with the four-time presidential candidate. Otauti, 60, said he had witnessed several rounds of post-election violence since the 1970s, when the dictator Idi Amin ruled Uganda, and that he believes government forces would violently quell a Besigye-led protest movement if it threatened the seat of power.
“I think going to court is the best option for Besigye,” he said. “When you go to the streets, there is a lot to be lost. You will not be able to continue working and if you can’t work you also can’t look after your family.”
Throughout his campaign for re-election, Museveni, 71, presented himself as a guarantor of national security, and later described opponents like Besigye as “criminal politicians” who seek to disrupt public order. Museveni is widely credited with restoring peace in this East African country after years of chaos under dictatorships, although his critics now charge that Museveni manipulates the military to keep a firm grip on power. The country’s special forces are commanded by his son, a brigadier named Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who many believe is being groomed to succeed his father. Some suspect Museveni wants to rule for life.
Besigye, a retired army colonel who used to be Museveni’s personal physician during the bush war that ended when Museveni took power in 1986, said ahead of the election that he did not believe voting would be free or fair. The election was marred by delays in the delivery of polling materials to areas seen as opposition strongholds, some incidents of violence, as well as a government shutdown of social media. Police have stopped Besigye’s party from completing its own tally of the results.
Election observers, including from the European Union, cited several voting irregularities, and Washington said the Ugandan people “deserved better.”
But few Ugandans expressed a desire to protest the results.
“Life is slowly returning to normal, as if nothing happened,” said Isma Mukisa, a Besigye supporter who operates a passenger motorcycle in Kampala, talking about the disputed election. “I think we are cowards. We need to go and free our man but security is too tight.”
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