President Yoweri Museveni. Picture: AFP/ISAAC KASAMANI
President Yoweri Museveni. Picture: AFP/ISAAC KASAMANI

KAMPALA — The outcry over strong-arm tactics Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni used in last week’s elections has turned a spotlight on his police chief, the man critics call the chief enforcer of a widespread campaign of intimidation against the opposition.

Inspector-general of police Kale Kayihura has never held a position in the ruling party but has emerged as Mr Museveni’s de facto political weapon, suppressing opposition activists and ordering the arrest of leader Kizza Besigye nine times in 11 days, analysts and rights activists say.

His rise — reflected in pro-government media and posters bearing his image that are plastered across the country — illustrates new political realities in this East African nation after Mr Museveni won his fifth consecutive term last week: an increased reliance on police to pressure opposition and growing government fears about the loyalty of the country’s military.

Under Mr Kayihura, the police’s budget has jumped to about $120m this year, while last year’s military budget was $100m, down from as much as $750m in 2010.

The police recently established its first air wing and in January, acquired a new fleet of antiriot trucks, including water cannons and armored personnel carriers. The first assignment for two newly acquired helicopters was to drop tear gas on a crowd at the opposition party headquarters on election day.

"Kayihura does most of the behind-the-scenes mobilisation for the party," said Nicholas Sengoba, an independent Ugandan political analyst. "He is not afraid to do the dirty work."

On Thursday, Mr Besigye was arrested again, this time for ignoring "lawful orders" after police said he attempted to force his way out of his besieged home. The arrest came hours after the opposition leader was released from jail in the capital, Kampala.

Though not facing any charges, police prevented Mr Besigye from leaving his home to participate in Wednesday’s local council elections.

"Kayihura has turned my home into a prison," Mr Besigye said on Wednesday. Mr Kayihura on Thursday said Mr Besigye’s rights were not absolute.

"The close monitoring of the movements of Kizza Besigye is within the legal mandate of the Uganda police, and is a consequence of his utterances that amount to incitement to violence."

A spokeswoman for Mr Kayihura said he did not target the opposition and acted "professionally and within the confines of the law" to maintain public order.

"Opposition leaders simply don’t want to co-operate with the police," Polly Namaye said. "In instances where there is defiance, (Kayihura)] usually orders police to use necessary means to maintain law and order in accordance with the Constitution."

Mr Kayihura, a tall and slim law-school graduate who wears wire-rimmed glasses, spent more than a decade working for the government and was an assistant to Mr Museveni before he was named police chief in 2005.

Current and former security officers describe him as a direct, sometimes blunt officer, who expects those under him to take orders without question.

His political star has risen in the past year as he publicly pressured the opposition ahead of the February 18 polls, where Mr Museveni secured 60% of the vote.

For months, Mr Kayihura has routinely placed key opposition figures under preventive arrest, restricting their interaction with voters, right groups say.

He has also spearheaded the recruitment of the nearly 200,000 militia affiliated with the ruling party, current and former security officials say.

While police say the group is officially called "crime preventers," rights groups say its members have attacked opposition activists.

"We are going to change you from having sticks to rifles and get ready to defend this country in case of any attack," he told a group of crime preventers in eastern Uganda last month.

Opposition politicians say the police chief’s only agenda is to protect the regime, but government representatives maintain that there is nothing wrong with a partisan police chief.

"To keep the country safe, you need a police chief who shares your political ideology," said Tamale Mirundi, a presidential adviser in charge of the media. "Kayihura is doing great and the country is in secure hands."

But in the weeks before the election, Uganda’s police force took security to new levels. Mr Kayihura poured police into opposition strongholds — a move opposition politicians say was specifically aimed at suppressing turnout.

It appeared to work: in opposition-leaning Kampala, voter turnout was about 46%, compared with the national average of 67%.

On election day, social media sites were blocked and police fired tear gas to disperse crowds trying to access tallying centres across the country.

Since election day, leading opposition candidate Mr Besigye has gone between preventative arrests at police jails and house confinements nearly a dozen times.

Another challenger, Amama Mbabazi, has been under house arrest for four days.

None of the detentions has yielded charges, drawing condemnation by rights activists and Western governments.

Under Ugandan law, detainees can be held no more than 48 hours without charges being filed.

Explaining the repeated arrests, police say Mr Besigye and some of his party leaders remained a danger to public order, and required close monitoring.

The strategy appears to have been effective. Unlike the post-election violence that whipped through Kampala after disputed elections in 2011, the streets have been quiet. "The population seems to have given in to police intimidation.

There isn’t a likelihood of wide protests, despite the controversy over the vote," said François Conradie, a political analyst with NKC Independent Economists. "Museveni’s trust is now more with the police, not the military."

Top military general David Sejusa was arrested a few days before polling day for criticising Mr Museveni, highlighting deepening cracks within the military. Several military officers linked to Gen Sejusa are facing treason charges in a military court.

"Its now very risky for anyone to attempt even a peaceful protest, as long as Kayihura is in charge the response will be severe," Mr Sengoba said.

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