Voting is under way in Uganda, in a tense presidential election pitting longtime President Yoweri Museveni against opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, a pop star-turned-opposition leader.
The run-up to Thursday’s vote was plagued by the worst political violence in years, with more than 50 people killed by security forces amid crackdowns on opposition rallies, as well as the repeated intimidation and arrest of opposition figures. Police say their actions are necessary to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.
Internet access has been cut off, and there are fears of unrest as security forces try to stop supporters of leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations.
At polling stations in Kampala visited by Al Jazeera, voting began more than 60 minutes late after election materials did not arrive on time.
Museveni, who has wielded power since 1986, is seeking a sixth term against a stiff challenge from Bobi Wine, whose popularity among a youthful population has rattled the 76-year-old former rebel leader. Nine other challengers are also trying to unseat Museveni.
More than 18 million people have registered to take part in the polls. A candidate must win more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff vote. The vote count will begin when polls close at 4pm (13:00 GMT) and results are expected within 48 hours. Parliamentary polls are also being held.
Welcome to Al Jazeera’s coverage of the election in Uganda. This is Hamza Mohamed.
Opposition candidate alleges intimidation
Mugisha Muntu, presidential candidate for the National Transformation, said his party’s agents were been “rejected, arrested or intimidated” in Jinja and Ntungamo.
Bobi Wine: ‘Stay and guard your vote’
Bobi Wine has held a news conference shortly after casting his vote in Kampala. He called on his supporters to come out and cast their ballots amid heavy security presence on the streets of the capital and across the country.
“We urge voters to cast their vote. All of you make sure you come from home and cast your vote. We encourage them to stay and guard their vote. Keep your face mask on, mention social distancing but keep there and watch all the proceedings.” Bobi Wine said.
Tight security, biometric machine issues
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from Kampala, said there has been a “huge deployment” of security forces in the capital, including military personnel “who have taken rooftop positions in buildings”.
“We are told there is deployment of security forces in other towns across the country,” she added.
“People here say they want to vote peacefully but they worry there could be violence if the election results are contested.”
Separately, there have been reports of biometric voter verification kits failing at some polling stations.
“We’ve heard that biometric machines have been failing. It is not clear how widespread this is but the electoral commission is saying it’s trying to resolve this situation,” Wambua-Soi said.
Bobi Wine casts vote
Bobi Wine cast his ballot at Freedom Square polling station in Wakiso district, Kampala, shortly after 11am (08:00 GMT). He was greeted by jubilant supporters as he arrived at the voting centre.
“When he arrived, things stopped,” said Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from the polling station. “There was so much commotion, people were cheering him.”
Bobi Wine left the voting centre without addressing the assembled media.
Bobi Wine’s appeal to international community
In a first-hand account published by Foreign Affairs on the eve of the elections, Bobi Wine described the vote as a “pivotal” moment for Uganda and expressed hope that the international community would follow the polls closely.
“International attention matters now more than ever. Indeed, it is what has kept me and my colleagues alive up to this point. If Museveni steals another election on Thursday, we hope that good people of conscience around the world will hold him and this regime accountable,” he wrote.
Who is observing?
The United States on Wednesday cancelled its observation of the presidential election because most of its accreditation requests were denied and said the vote would lack accountability and transparency.
Commenting on the news, Museveni’s spokesman Don Wanyama said he could not remember when Uganda last sent monitors to the US.
Still, the announcement adds to a growing chorus of concern over the credibility of the election.
The European Union said on Tuesday that the electoral process had been seriously tarnished by the excessive use of force and its offer to deploy a small team of electoral experts was not taken up.
A coalition representing hundreds of Ugandan civil society organisations said it had filed 1,900 accreditation requests but only 10 had been granted.
Meanwhile, regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community have sent observer missions.
Kampala roads quiet
No incidents of violence were reported by 9:30am (06:30 GMT), while the typically bustling roads in Kampala were quiet.
“The numbers aren’t yet big because people were not sure what will happen at the station given the tension and message that there would be violence,” said Kamwebaze Elvin, an election worker at New Planet Primary School polling station.
He said expected more voters to show up now that ballot papers had been delivered.
A 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver waiting to vote, Muhamad Barugahare, said Museveni was the only one who could guarantee peace.
“We don’t want to gamble with this young man,” he told Reuters news agency, referring to Bobi Wine.
Will Bobi Wine derail Museveni’s sixth term bid?
Museveni is facing a strong challenge from Bobi Wine in his bid to extend his 35-year reign.
Bobi Wine, 38, 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 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.
Four things to know about Uganda
As voting continues, here are four things to know about the landlocked East African country.
- Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with a median age of 15.9 years. Nearly half its 45 million people are 14 or under, while just two percent are aged over 65.
- The population has nearly doubled since the turn of the century and the fertility rate remains among the world’s highest, with about five children born to every woman, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
- But the economy struggles to keep up. About 700,000 young people reach working age every year – a figure set to rise to one million by 2030 – but only 75,000 new jobs are created for them.
- Blessed with fertile soils, most of the country is engaged in agriculture, with coffee, vegetables, tea and fish among the top exports.
‘People yearning for change’
Long lines of voters snaked into the distance in the capital, Kampala amid tight security.
In Kamwokya slum, where Bobi Wine grew up, voters streamed in to a polling station as police tried to keep physical distancing.
“I am here to change the leadership of this nation because for years they’ve been telling me they will secure my future. They have not done that,” said driver Joseph Nsuduga, 30, one of the first in line to vote.
“I need to see change for my children. People are yearning for change but we are seeing nothing,” he told AFP news agency.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from a polling station at Wakiso district in Kampala, said the late arrival of voting materials had caused delays.
Who is Bobi Wine?
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, grew up in Kamwokya, a slum in the centre of Kampala, with dozens of siblings and half-siblings. Before his entry into politics, Bobi Wine was a self-styled “ghetto president”.
It was in Kamwokya where he began making music, producing a number of reggae, pop and hip hop hits. But his music became increasingly political over time.
In songs such as Rise Up and Freedom, he complained about corruption and called for change. And in 2017, Bobi Wine was elected as an independent MP for Kyadondo East, winning by a landslide.
Read more about Wine Bobi here.
04:00 GMT – Polls open under heavy security
Ugandans began voting under heavy security and an internet blackout that has left many complaining.
Voting was delayed in several locations in the capital, Kampala, beginning about half an hour after the official starting time of 7am (04:00 GMT), and will continue until 4pm (12:00 GMT).