Ugandans are voting Thursday in a presidential election tainted by widespread violence that some fear could escalate as security forces try to stop supporters of leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations Internet access has been cut off.
The vote count will begin when polls close at 4 p.m. and results are expected within 48 hours. More than 17 million people are registered voters in this East African country of 45 million people. A candidate must win more than 50% to avoid a runoff vote.
Longtime President Yoweri Museveni an authoritarian who has wielded power since 1986, seeks a sixth term against a strong challenge from Wine, a popular young singer-turned-opposition lawmaker. Nine other challengers are trying to unseat Museveni.
Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has seen many associates jailed or go into hiding as security forces crack down on opposition supporters they fear could mount a street uprising leading to regime change. Wine insists he is running a nonviolent campaign.
Wine, of the National Unity Platform party, has said he does not believe the election is free and fair. He has urged supporters to linger near polling stations to protect their votes. But the electoral commission, which the opposition sees as weak, has said all voters must return home after casting ballots.
“This election has already been rigged,” another opposition candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, told local broadcaster NTV as polls opened, adding that “we will not accept the outcome of this election.”
The government’s decision this week to shut down access to social media in retaliation over Facebook’s removal of Museveni-linked Ugandan accounts accused of inauthentic behavior was meant “to limit the eyes on the election and, therefore, hide something,” said Crispin Kaheru, an independent election observer.
Internet access was cut Wednesday night. “No matter what they do, the world is watching,” Wine tweeted.
The 76-year-old Museveni's support has traditionally been concentrated in rural areas where many credit him with restoring a sense of peace and security that was lost during the regimes of dictators including Idi Amin.
Security forces have deployed heavily in the area that encompasses the capital, Kampala, where the opposition has strong support partly because of rampant unemployment even among college graduates.
“Museveni is putting all the deployments in urban areas where the opposition has an advantage,” said Gerald Bareebe, an assistant professor of political science at Canada's York University. “If you ask many Ugandans now, they say the ballot paper is not worth my life.”
Some young people said they would vote despite the apparent risks.
“This government has ruled us badly. They have really squeezed us,” said Allan Sserwadda, a car washer. “They have ruled us for years and they say they have ideas. But they are not the only ones who have ideas.”
Asked if the heavy military deployment fazed him, he smiled and said: “If we are to die, let us die. Now there is no difference between being alive and being dead. Bullets can find you anywhere. They can find you at home. They can find you on the veranda.”
At least 54 people were killed in Uganda in November as security forces put down riots provoked by the arrest of Wine for allegedly violating campaign regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Wine, who won a seat in the national assembly in 2017, has captured the imagination of many in Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa, with his bold calls for the retirement of Museveni, whom he sees as a part of a corrupt old guard.
Museveni has dismissed the 38-year-old Wine as “an agent of foreign interests" who cannot be trusted with power. Wine has been arrested many times, often for allegedly disobeying lawful orders, but has never been convicted.
Museveni, who decades ago criticized African leaders over not leaving power, now seeks more time in office after lawmakers jettisoned the last constitutional obstacle — age limits — on a possible life presidency.
The rise of Wine as a national leader without ties to the regime has raised the stakes within the ruling National Resistance Movement party.
“(Ruling) party members and supporters ought to know that this is a watershed election to shape, determine and install a Museveni successor,” government spokesman Ofwono Opondo recently wrote in the Sunday Vision newspaper.
The African Union and East African bloc have deployed election observer missions but the European Union has not, reportedly because recommendations in its previous reports were ignored. The EU delegation to Uganda said “an offer to deploy a small team of electoral experts was not taken up. The role of local observers will be even more important than before.”
The EU, U.N. and others have warned Uganda's security forces against using excessive force.
Ugandan elections are often marred by allegations of fraud and alleged abuses by the security forces. The country has never witnessed a peaceful handover of power since independence from Britain in 1962.