TheNational hamburger logo

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 January 2021

Ugandan election: musician Bobi Wine challenges Museveni's 35-year rule

The nation's history of political transition has rarely been peaceful

Ugandans were voting on Thursday in a presidential election tainted by widespread violence that some fear could escalate as the security forces try to stop supporters of leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations.

This is a watershed election to shape, determine and install a Museveni successor

Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo

Long lines of voters snaked into the distance in the capital, Kampala. “This is a miracle,” mechanic Steven Kaderere said. “This shows me that Ugandans this time are determined to vote for the leader they want. I have never seen this before.”

But there were delays in the delivery of polling materials to some places, including where Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – was to planning vote.

Results are expected within 48 hours of polls closing. More than 17 million people are registered voters in this East African country of 45 million people. A candidate must win more than 50 per cent to avoid a run-off vote.

President Yoweri Museveni, an authoritarian who has wielded power since 1986, seeks a sixth term against a strong challenge from Wine, a popular singer-turned-opposition politician. Nine other challengers are trying to unseat Mr Museveni.

Wine has seen many associates jailed or go into hiding as the 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.

His National Unity Platform said Wine does not believe the election is free and fair. He has urged his supporters to stay near polling stations to protect their votes. But Uganda's electoral commission, which the opposition regards as weak, said voters must return home after casting their ballots.

Voters queue at a polling station in Kampala, Uganda, on January 14, 2021. AFP
Voters queue at a polling station in Kampala, Uganda, on January 14, 2021. AFP

Internet access was cut on Wednesday night. “No matter what they do, the world is watching,” Wine tweeted.

“This election has already been rigged,” another opposition candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, told local broadcaster NTV as polls opened. "We will not accept the outcome of this election," he said.

The government’s decision this week to shut access to social media in retaliation for Facebook’s removal of Museveni-linked accounts accused of inauthentic behaviour was meant “to limit the eyes on the election and, therefore, hide something”, said Crispin Kaheru, an independent election observer.

Mr 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 previous dictators, including Idi Amin.

The security forces have a heavy presence in the area that encompasses Kampala, where the opposition has strong support partly because of high unemployment, even among college graduates.

“Museveni is putting all the deployments in urban areas where the opposition has an advantage,” said Gerald Bareebe, of the University of Toronto. “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.”

President Yoweri Museveni, centre, has ruled Uganda for decades. EPA
President Yoweri Museveni, centre, has ruled Uganda for decades. EPA

Asked if the heavy military presence 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 when the security forces put down riots provoked by the arrest of Wine for allegedly breaking campaign regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Mr Museveni, 76, who decades ago criticised African leaders for not relinquishing power, now seeks more time in office after MPs jettisoned the last constitutional obstacle – age limits – on a possible life presidency.

“I grew up when he was president. Even my children have been born when he is president,” taxi driver Mark Wasswa said as voting began. “We also want to see another person now.”

The rise of Wine as a national leader without ties to the regime has raised the stakes within the ruling National Resistance Movement party.

Ugandan troops patrol the streets on January 14, 2021 in Kampala. Observers fear violence as the security forces try to stop supporters of opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations. Getty
Ugandan troops patrol the streets on January 14, 2021 in Kampala. Observers fear violence as the security forces try to stop supporters of opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations. Getty

“(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 sent election observer missions but the EU said “an offer to deploy a small team of electoral experts was not taken up".

The EU, UN 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 yet to witness a peaceful handover of power since independence from Britain in 1962.

Updated: January 14, 2021 09:18 PM

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:
Most Read