Jailed, Exiled and Silenced: Smothering East Africa’s Political Opposition

NAIROBI, Kenya – Since the presidential campaign began in Uganda in early November, the most prominent opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, has been tearfully gassed, arrested and beaten by police, held in solitary confinement, and tried in court for campaigning events that violate coronavirus restrictions.

“I know they wanted me dead yesterday,” said Mr. Wine, a lawmaker musician whose real name is Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi, in a telephone interview. “We campaign every day as if it were the last.”

Mr Wine is one of several high profile opposition leaders in East Africa who have recently been jailed, exiled or silenced in challenging entrenched leaders and political parties. Heads of state have used the coronavirus as a pretext to bolster their power and passed laws to quell dissent, analysts say.

There has been less international attention and outcry than usual, and many countries that have traditionally served as watch dogs are preoccupied with the pandemic and domestic issues. While some have made worrying statements, they have not threatened sanctions for the violence or offered to mediate, as they may have once done.

And the United States, under the isolated leadership of President Trump, has been far less engaged in the global defense of human rights. The country also lost credibility to intervene internationally when American police saw them on video violating human rights at home.

The effects were felt in elections in several East African countries.

In Uganda, which is voting in January, Mr Wine was severely intimidated while attempting to oust President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country with an iron grip since 1986.

In Tanzania, Tundu Lissu, a lawyer and former lawmaker, received death threats while campaigning for president and was evicted from the country following an October election that some international observers said had been undermined by fraud.

In Ethiopia, media mogul and opposition representative Jawar Mohammed has been in prison for almost five months for terrorism.

“Opposition movements have faced some of the greatest challenges to their existence since this era of democratization began in the region in the early 1990s,” said Zachariah Mampilly, co-author of African Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change and Professor of International Affairs at the City University of New York.

As opposition leaders face powerful institutions, these “regimes are exposing the violent sides that have always underpinned their power,” Mampilly said.

The challenge has been acute in Uganda in recent weeks when the arrest of Mr Wine on November 19 sparked violent protests, which police said resulted in the deaths of at least 45 people and the arrest of nearly 600 others.

Authorities have accused Mr Wine of holding political gatherings in violation of coronavirus guidelines and requiring campaign rallies to be limited to 200 people. But the security forces, he said, have not curtailed rallies in support of Mr Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement, even though the number of electoral crowds has exceeded the 200-person mark.

“There is an absolute double standard in operating procedures when it comes to enforcing the rules,” said Wine. “It’s as if the coronavirus only affects the opposition.”

Although Uganda’s electoral commission encouraged candidates to advertise on radio and television rather than holding rallies, authorities raided the studios to stop his performances or ordered the hosts to cancel them.

A Ugandan police spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about Mr. Wine’s treatment.

During his nationwide campaign, Mr Museveni has accused the opposition of working with outsiders and “homosexuals” to destabilize the country. At a recent rally, he posted a threatening note and said, “You will find what you are looking for.”

In Tanzania, observers said the October 28 elections were fraught with violence, the arrest of opposition leaders and widespread allegations of fraud and irregularities. In the hours after President John Magufuli won a second term, the opposition’s main candidate, Mr Lissu, said he had started receiving death threats. Mr Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in 2017, went into exile and returned this year to apply for president.

Hassan Abbas, a spokesman for the Tanzanian government, denied the threat allegations.

After the election, Mr Lissu went into hiding but was soon arrested outside the German embassy in the port city of Dar es Salaam, where he had sought refuge. He said the police asked him if he was trying to “overthrow the government”. After German diplomats got involved, Mr Lissu was released and decided to leave the country immediately.

“It’s sad how things have turned out,” said Mr Lissu in a telephone interview from Tienen, Belgium, where he now lives.

Mr Lissu, 52, said “it would be a climb” to overthrow Mr Magufuli’s government, which has restricted political and civil freedoms and placed restrictions on media and human rights organizations. Mr Magufuli declared the country coronavirus-free but has not released any data on the pandemic since April.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s worst political challenger, Mohammed, was arrested in July and later charged with terrorism after being linked to a wave of unrest that followed the murder of popular singer Hachalu Hundessa in June.

Mr. Jawar, 34, comes from the same Oromo ethnic group as Mr. Abiy and brought him to power in 2018. Mr. Jawar heads the Oromia Media Network and has a large following on social media. But the two have since argued over their vision for Ethiopia’s future.

The country has now fallen into crisis since Mr Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, launched a military operation to overcome the northernmost Tigray region in early November. The sweeping attack caused more than 40,000 people to flee the Tigray region into Sudan, raising concerns from the United Nations and regional and global leaders.

Ken O. Opalo, an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, said that even with Mr. Mohammed and many other government critics in prison, it will be difficult to silence opposition movements in Ethiopia or “go back to the old closed ones” . System of rulers, considering how much the country has opened up in recent years.

Two other countries in the region – Burundi and Djibouti – are also pursuing political opposition. In Burundi, officials from rival parties were targeted ahead of the May elections. There has been an increase in the incarceration and disappearance of the opposition under new President Évariste Ndayishimiye, who replaced longtime ruler Pierre Nkurunziza, said Thierry Uwamahoro, a Burundian democracy activist now overseas.

In Djibouti, where Ismail Omar Guelleh has been president since 1999, the authorities eradicated public protests and arrested journalists and members of the opposition. As the country prepares for the April presidential election, opponents of Mr Guelleh doubt they can stand a successful challenge.

“When it comes to politics, Djibouti is a black hole,” denn Ahmed Farah, leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, said in a telephone interview from his exile in Belgium.

The struggles in all of these countries testify to the longing of many in East Africa for real political transformation, said Mampilly of the City University of New York.

“As with all these transition periods, there will continue to be setbacks and hopefully progress,” he said.

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