As millions of Ugandans prepare to choose the country’s president this week, the stakes could not be higher.
The run-up to Thursday’s vote was marred by restrictions on the campaign, arrests of opposition figures and deadly violence. At least 54 people were killed in November as security forces cracked down on protests by opposition supporters.
Longtime President Yoweri Museveni, 76, faces a daunting challenge from popular musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine in his bid for a sixth five-year term.
Bobi Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, was just four years old when Museveni, a former rebel leader, came to power in 1986.
In 2005, the Ugandan parliament dominated by the ruling party removed presidential term limits. And in 2017, lawmakers abolished the 75-year age limit for presidential candidates in a move criticized by critics as designed to pave the way for Museveni to be president for life.
Free and fair elections?
Opposition candidates in Uganda have challenged Museveni’s previous re-elections, alleging voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.
Since entering politics in 2017, Bobi Wine has been arrested several times on various charges but has never been convicted. In recent weeks, security forces have violently dispersed its rallies with tear gas and rubber bullets, while a number of opposition figures have been arrested and journalists attacked.
Police say their actions are necessary to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. But opposition leaders say they have been selectively targeted.
“If the police are to beat people to prevent them from showing their support for me in President Museveni’s hometown, then you know the game is over for the old man,” Bobi Wine, who wears a helmet and a protective vest. bullets on the election campaign and sent his four children to the United States saying he feared for their safety, told his supporters at a rally last month.
Rights groups have also accused the government of using the pandemic as a pretext to quell criticism.
“The authorities have systematically used the COVID-19 guidelines as an excuse for the violent repression of the opposition rather than to safeguard the democratic rules of the game for free and fair elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Ugandan government should instead focus on ensuring that the security forces respect the rule of law, are held accountable for abuses and act impartially,” Nyeko added.
Warning to journalists
More than 18 million people have registered to elect a president from a total of 11 challengers, as well as parliamentarians. To avoid a second round, a presidential candidate must win more than 50% of the votes cast.
The electoral commission set up 34,684 polling stations in 146 districts, with security forces deployed across the country.
“All Ugandans participating in the electoral process must be assured that we will protect and serve them, in a very impartial, fair and transparent manner,” Inspector General of Police Martins Okoth Ochola said at a press briefing on Friday. .
“We will hold peaceful elections for all Ugandans and visitors to our country,” he added, warning journalists that they would be prevented from traveling to areas where their lives could be in danger.
“You insist that you have to go where there is danger. Yes, we will fight for yourself to help you understand that you are not going. Yes, we will use reasonable force to make sure you don’t go where there is a risk, ”he told reporters.
Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with over 75 percent of its population under the age of 30. But unemployment, especially among young people, has become endemic as the economy has been hit hard by the pandemic.
During the election campaign, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the opposition promised better economic opportunities to woo young voters.
Museveni has traveled the landlocked country, commissioning new infrastructure projects and touting his government’s track record in building roads, bridges, hospitals, hydroelectric dams and industrial parks.
He also presented himself as the candidate for stability, warning of insecurity if voters opt for the other candidates.
“The NRM Party has worked for a united Uganda. We have fought and rejected tribal and religious chauvinism, ”Museveni told his supporters on Friday.
“What matters to us are the interests of Ugandans and Africans, never their identity. We are sure that these references will bring victory on January 14, ”he said.
For his part, Bobi Wine promises an end to corruption, five million jobs for young people and investments in public services.
‘The result will be contested’
Political analysts say the candidates make lofty promises they cannot keep if they win the vote.
“They bow to the emotions of voters. They say whatever will get them the votes they need. They are not revealing how they will keep their promises, ”said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, senior lecturer in history and development studies at Makerere University in the capital, Kampala.
“There is no political direction or ideology in what they say,” he added, warning of the coming political instability.
“The result will be contested; the opposition thinks the government will rig the vote; the ruling party thinks the opposition is ready to do silly things, ”Ndebesa said. “Each party suspects that the other party will not play fair. There is a lot of acrimony.
Regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community have sent observation missions, but the European Union, which in the past had sent election observers, does not. deployed none this time, sharing its recommendations to make the polls fair and transparent. had been ignored.
For his part, outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month in a statement that his country “pays close attention to the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider serious consequences for election officials. violence and repression ”.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa