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Ugandan Opposition Rally Ends in Tear Gas and the Candidate Being Towed Away

Dr. Kizza Besigye reportedly took the wrong road to his campaign rally and was held by police, sparking a day of unrest throughout Kampala as his supporters and security forces clashed in the streets.
February 15, 2016, 7:45pm
Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

It's a cat and mouse game they have played for a long time, and Dr. Kizza Besigye — the main opposition candidate in Uganda's presidential election on Thursday — knows the rules by heart. On Monday morning, Besigye reportedly took the wrong road to his campaign rally and was detained by police, sparking a day of unrest throughout Kampala as his supporters and security forces clashed in the streets.

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Escorted by hundreds of supporters, Besigye's convoy was stopped by police on a square near Makerere University where he was meant to hold a rally in the Ugandan capital. Police spokesman Fred Enanga said the opposition leader, who is standing against President Yoweri Museveni, refused to follow a less crowded route to the university campus, according to the Associated Press. Police then used tear gas, stun grenades, and shot guns to disperse his supporters.

— Sudhir Byaruhanga (@Sudhirntv)February 15, 2016

"He is defiant. We are not going to arrest him. We are not going to detain him. We know this is what he wants. We will just tow his vehicle and drive him home," Enanga told AP.

Besigye, Museveni's former personal physician, has been the president's main opponent since 1999 when he broke rank from the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). His popularity has grown exponentially over the years, as people have become discontent with Museveni's government. The 71-year-old president is vying for a fifth term in office, and opinion polls show both men in a tight race in the vote on Thursday.

On the Makerere campus, where Besigye held a rally, students waiting to see him quickly gathered in a massive crowd at the gates, defying police forces deployed around the university, and chanting "We want Besigye," "Besigye for president." Trucks blasting his campaign song drove up and down the main alley, with people cheering on the side.

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"About 30 years ago, Museveni and his people were our age when they seized power. Now it is our time!," shouted Tom Baiira, a medicine student dressed in a sky blue t-shirt, the color of Besigye's party, the Forum for Democratic Change. "It is our youthfulness that can drive the revolution forward!" he told VICE News.

— Sudhir Byaruhanga (@Sudhirntv)February 15, 2016

Police fired tear gas into the crowd repeatedly, sending the students running back into the campus grounds before they came back taunting them. The stand-off ensued for several hours, leaving several people wounded. When an ambulance showed up, witnesses say they looked nearly dead. The exact circumstances, and whether police fired bullets into the crowd, is unclear.

Besigye's car was eventually towed away by a police armored vehicle, with the politician still inside. The police told the BBC that Besigye was not under arrest but had been held because he had disobeyed orders not to disrupt the city traffic.

(Photo by James Akena/Reuters)

Museveni's NRM took power in 1986 following five years of civil war now known to Ugandans as the Bush Wars. A charismatic leader beloved by his troops, Museveni initially enjoyed a lot of support from the population and was viewed as a national hero. But after 30 years at the helm of the country, people have grown increasingly impatient with his government. Concerns over corruption, unemployment, and lack of health care and other basic services have sparked public criticism in recent years.

Although Besigye is believed to be the most popular candidate, his supporters fear that the vote will be rigged on Thursday and that Museveni will claim victory.

"It's probable the elections will be fraudulent, but we must still hope and fight for our candidate," said Tony Otoi, a 23-year-old social sciences student. "It's time for change. There is a lot of unemployment, a lack of freedom. How come the president who was serving when I was born is still our president today? We want democracy."

Related: In One Uganda Slum, Gambling Is a Prudent Financial Investment

Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter: @Melaniegouby