Kampala, Uganda – A convoy of armoured military vehicles menacingly passes through the capital every so often in a show of force.
Uganda People’s Defence Force soldiers, police and the local defence unit comprised of civilians trained and armed by the government to help beef up security have also been patrolling the city on foot, mainly in areas perceived to be opposition strongholds.
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These are images that have become familiar with Ugandans during any election season. But the deployment in various towns across the country is much heavier before Thursday’s polls.
About 18 million voters are expected to elect a president and members of parliament. The polls have been clouded by uncertainty and already marred by violence.
Robert Kyagulanyi, 38, a musician-turned-politician better known as Bobi Wine, is among 10 candidates challenging President Yoweri Museveni’s 35 years in power.
Bobi Wine has mobilised many young people who were previously not involved in politics to come out to vote. He and his supporters have suffered the brunt of Uganda’s notorious security forces that have been accused by human rights groups of using excessive force to break up opposition rallies and demonstrations during the campaign period.
Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times, often prevented from attending his rallies, and some of his election team members have been killed, disappeared or detained.
He told Al Jazeera he is living in constant danger.
“That is why I’ve been wearing a flak jacket and ballistic helmet all through the campaign. I have survived gunshots three times. The police and military have fired live bullets at my car, flattening the tyres, and one time a bullet was shot directly in the windscreen,” he said.
Hajara Nakito, a clothes seller in one of Kampala’s suburbs, described an atmosphere of tension and fear.
She told Al Jazeera how her 15-year-old son Amos Segawa was killed by soldiers during protests in November 2020.
He had accompanied her to the family’s shop in town when news of Bobi Wine’s arrest prompted a riot. Her son was hit by two bullets as they hurried home. As many as 53 other people died in that protest.
Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesman, admitted that sometimes security forces have acted out of turn and non-protesters such as Segawa have been caught in the crossfire, but he largely justified the crackdown saying most of the opposition rallies have been violent and demonstrators have often attacked police.
The election is also being held in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Ministry of Health, Uganda has recorded fewer than 40,000 infections and about 300 deaths from the disease.
Don Wanyama, the president’s press secretary, blamed some opposition leaders for flouting COVID-19 restrictions, such as keeping gatherings at below 200 people.
“What security has done in this election amidst a lot of provocation from the opposition is to try and stop what could be a health crisis,” he said.
“All political players agreed there would be certain minimum standards and rules to play by. Then we have two candidates who come and say we’re going to defy everything.
“Those were not rallies they were holding. They were just holding super-spreader events.”
Several political analysts have accused the government of weaponising the disease to crack down on opponents of the president, who has also accused some foreign diplomats, media, the LGBTQ community and now Facebook of colluding with Bobi Wine specifically “to divert the will of the people”.
Facebook recently suspended dozens of accounts of individuals connected to the ruling National Resistance Movement party and the ministry of information.
Uganda’s communications commission in turn directed internet service providers to block social media and other messaging platforms.
Museveni addressed the nation on Tuesday night and said what Facebook did was unacceptable.
Many in the capital such as Hajara Nakito say it is safer to be in rural areas during these difficult times. Reported cases of violence in much of the countryside have been few.
So for now Nakito is taking her daughter to their home village in central Uganda. She also does not intend to vote in an election she blames for the death of her son.