Dozens killed in protests following the latest arrest of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine.
As millions of Ugandans prepare to pick the country’s president this week, the stakes could not be higher.
The run-up to Thursday’s vote has been marred by restrictions on campaigning, arrests of opposition figures and deadly violence. At least 54 people were killed in November as security forces put down protests by opposition supporters.
Longtime President Yoweri Museveni, 76, is facing a strong challenge from popular musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine in his bid to secure a sixth, five-year term in office.
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, was just four years old when Museveni, a former rebel leader, came to power in 1986.
In 2005, Uganda’s ruling-party-dominated parliament removed presidential term limits. And in 2017, lawmakers scrapped the age limit of 75 for presidential candidates in a move slammed by critics as designed to pave the way for Museveni to be president for life.
Opposition candidates in Uganda have contested Museveni’s previous re-elections, alleging voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.
Since entering politics in 2017, Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times on various charges but has never been convicted. In recent weeks, security forces have violently dispersed his 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 coronavirus. But opposition leaders say they have been selectively targeted.
“If the police has to beat people to stop them from showing me support in the hometown of President Museveni, then you know it’s game over for the old man,” Bobi Wine, who wears a helmet and bulletproof vest on the campaign trail and has sent his four children to the United States saying he fears for their safety, told supporters during a rally last month.
Rights groups have also accused the government of using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on critics.
“The authorities have consistently used COVID-19 guidelines as an excuse for violent repression of the opposition rather than to safeguard the democratic playing field 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 in an impartial manner,” Nyeko added.
More than 18 million people have registered to elect a president among a total of 11 challengers, as well as members of parliament. To avoid a runoff, a presidential candidate must garner more than 50 percent of the cast votes.
The electoral commission has set up 34,684 polling stations in 146 districts, with security forces deployed across the country.
“All Ugandans that are participating in the electoral process must rest assured that we will protect and serve them, in a very impartial, fair and transparent manner,” Inspector General of Police Martins Okoth Ochola said in a media briefing on Friday.
“We shall deliver a peaceful election to all Ugandans and visitors to our country,” he added, even as he warned journalists that they would be prevented from heading to areas where their lives could be endangered.
“You are insisting you must go where there is danger. Yes, we shall beat you for your own sake to help you understand that you do not go there. Yes, we shall use reasonable force to ensure that you don’t go where there is a risk,” he told reporters.
Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with more than 75 percent of its people under the age of 30. But unemployment, especially among the youth, has been running rampant while the economy has been hit hard by the pandemic.
On the campaign trail, both the governing National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the opposition have promised better economic opportunities to woo young voters.
Museveni has been travelling across the landlocked country, commissioning new infrastructure projects and touting his government’s track record of building roads, bridges, hospitals, hydropower dams and industrial parks.
He has also portrayed himself as the stability candidate, 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 supporters on Friday.
“What matters to us are the interests of Ugandans and Africans, never their identity. We are sure these credentials will deliver victory come January 14th,” he said.
For his part, Bobi Wine is promising an end to corruption, five million jobs for youth and investment in public services.
Political analysts say candidates are making lofty promises that they will not be able to keep if they win the vote.
“They are pandering to the emotions of the voters. They are saying anything that will get them the votes that they need. They are not disclosing how they are going to deliver their promises,” said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, senior lecturer of history and development studies at Makerere University in the capital, Kampala.
“There is no policy direction or ideology in what they are saying,” he added, warning of political instability ahead.
“The result will be disputed; the opposition thinks the government will rig the vote; the ruling party thinks the opposition is up to mischief,” Ndebesa said. “Every side suspects the other side 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 observer missions, but the European Union, which in the past had sent election monitors, did not deploy any this time, saying its recommendations to make the polls fair and transparent had been ignored.
For his part, outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement last month that his country was “paying close attention to the actions of individuals who interfere in the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider serious consequences for those responsible for election-related violence and repression”.
Following Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa