Ugandan Opposition Leader Kizza Besigye Arrested on Public Order Charge

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Opposition leader and a dozen other party officials arrested in dawn raids.

Police in Uganda arrested the country’s main opposition leader and a dozen other party officials in dawn raids Thursday, as President Yoweri Museveni scaled up efforts to thwart a mounting challenge to his three-decade rule.Kizza Besigye, leader of opposition party Forum for Democratic Change, speaks to the media announcing his candidature for the 2016 presidential election in Kampala on Sept. 25.

Scores of security personnel arrested Kizza Besigye, a three-time presidential candidate and leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, as he attempted to leave his home to attend a series of campaign rallies in eastern Uganda, police and opposition officials said. The arrest was the highest profile of 15 detentions, including those of three lawmakers and 12 party officials across the capital in the early hours.

“He was given the option of staying home under preventive arrest which he declined,”Mr. Besigye’s lawyer said. “He will not allow police to turn his home into a detention facility.”

A police spokesman said Mr. Besigye, currently held in a facility 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, would be charged with endangering public order after security forces gathered intelligence that his activities would jeopardize public safety. Mr. Besigye was once Mr. Museveni’s personal doctor in the 1980s but is now his most powerful opponent and frequently calls the longtime leader “dictator.”

“We will not allow Besigye and his supporters to bring anarchy, his rallies are unlawful,” the spokesman said.

Uganda’s 72-year-old leader is the latest African strongman to face mounting challenges at the ballot box this year. From Burkina Faso to Burundi and Congo, many of the continent’s entrenched leaders are confronting escalating popular pressure as they attempt to keep young voters in check. Some have resorted to security forces to clamp down on dissent, sparking civil unrest.

Recent events in Burundi and Congo—where longtime leaders have deployed troops to quell dissent—suggest that Mr. Museveni’s ride to stay in power may not be that smooth, observers say.

Uganda’s government hasn’t used the same level of violence against its opponents, but the arrest comes amid intensifying efforts to muzzle the opposition: On Saturday, police stripped naked a female opposition activist during a crackdown on an opposition rally, sparking public outrage. Police on Wednesday fired tear gas to disperse a group of demonstrators as they attempted to hold a protest march against the crackdown, drawing condemnation from rights groups.

“Uganda’s police brutality consistently favors the incumbent” said Maria Burnet, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Uganda. “Until Ugandans can freely assemble, hear divergent views, and weigh how to use their vote without fear of tear gas, bullets and batons, the freedom and fairness of Uganda’s elections will be in question.”

Under Mr. Museveni’s reign, Uganda has enjoyed robust growth, and discovered what experts say could be sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest crude reserves after Nigeria and Angola.

But with youth unemployment as high as 78%, many Ugandan voters are reconsidering their support for Mr. Museveni. Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and a hitherto strong ally of Mr. Museveni, recently defected to the opposition, further weakening the ruling party.

A July poll conducted by Research World International indicates Mr. Museveni’s support has fallen to 55%, still more than his rivals but much less than the nearly 70% he garnered in 2011.

To bolster his re-election bid, Mr. Museveni announced a 58% spending rise during the 2015-16 budget, with a number of social programs to help the poor. But corruption continues to hinder delivery of social services. More than 30 people have starved in the famine-hit Karamoja region over the past three months.

The government has also reduced campaign time to two from three months in what the opposition say is a ploy to limit their interaction with the voters.

“This campaign promises to be a dirty one as Mr. Museveni scrambles for resources to keep his party together and on his side,” said François Conradie of NKC Africa Economics.

Yet, thanks to big spending and loyal security forces, Mr. Museveni remains a slim favorite to win another five-year term. But many observers say the former rebel leader who rode to power in a 1986 coup faces the most serious re-election challenge throughout his reign.NKC, Politics, Africa

Activists accuse Mr. Museveni of pursuing a life presidency, a charge he has consistently dismissed.

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