The police in Uganda are preparing for the upcoming national elections by stocking up on anti-riot gear, boosting security in the country as President Yoweri Museveni vies for a fifth term in office.
The 71-year-old ruler has been in power for 30 years and will face off against Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye on February 18. Police in the East African country have carried out controversial crackdowns against opposition party activities during this election cycle, particularly as the two other candidates managed to draw larger than expected crowds.
Police spokeswoman Polly Namaye told Reuters the latest gear purchase was made with the aim of maintaining security on election day.
"In the process of ensuring that we secure the election... we have had to purchase equipment that we believe will help us in transportation, in crowd control, and public order management," Namaye said.
The move comes after police chief Kale Kayihura was quoted in the Ugandan press saying that following the election the country's notorious civilian anti-crime units should ready for "war."
Critics have accused the government of ramping up tactics against opposition parties as the election approaches, while groups like Human Rights Watch have accused officials of a growing cracking down on free speech in an effort to limit criticism against the government ahead of the polls.
Back in September, police deployed tear gas at campaign rallies for Mbabazi — a longtime Museveni ally and former prime minister who defected from the ruling National Resistance Movement party. Two BBC journalists were arrested earlier this month while attempting to film at a hospital highlighted by Besigye during a campaign stop. Meanwhile local journalists in rural areas appear to be under mounting pressure from the government, according to Human Rights Watch.
The country has experienced post-election unrest in the past. In the months after the February 2011 elections, the so-called walk to work protests began in April to demonstrate against inequality and corruption. Organizers encouraged participants to walk to work to push back against increasing fuel and transportation costs. Besigye, who ran and lost in the election, made several attempts to walk from his home but was detained each time by police. According to Human Rights Watch at least nine people died in clashes with police, while dozens more were injured and arrested.
The leader of Uganda's anti-corruption coalition (ACCU) Cissy Kagaba, questioned the timing of the riot gear purchase.
"They (anti-riot gear) will have an intimidating effect... it's going to be difficult to convince us that these things have been bought for legitimate security concerns," she told Reuters.
Beyond the timing of the latest equipment purchase, the new riot-gear also speaks to the growing securitization of Uganda's police force and the funding Kayihura has received from the government to aid his efforts.
"The securitization of Uganda is very evident, this is being done more through the police than it used to be," said Magnus Taylor, a Horn of Africa analyst for International Crisis Group, noting that the national army has long been, and continues to be, the most important institution in the country.
While many analysts have noted that Museveni's opponents have managed to garner impressive attendance at their rallies, the incumbent is likely to secure another victory at the polls. Accusations of election rigging from the opposition and some street demonstrations are to be expected after the results are announced, but Taylor said he does not anticipate any major violence.
With Museveni expected to win at the polls this month, the question over who will succeed the longtime ruler will be put on hold for another five years and Uganda will likely look very much like it does now in 2021, according to Taylor. The leader will continue to hold heavy regional influence, particularly with his involvement in the conflict in South Sudan, the Burundi dialogue, and work with US forces against notorious Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.
Reuters contributed to this report.