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Ugandans go to polls in election pitting Museveni against pop star MP

Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos and Samuel Okiror in Kampala
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Ugandans have cast their votes after one of the most keenly watched and violent election campaigns in a generation, as the pop star turned politician Bobi Wine tries to unseat Yoweri Museveni from his 34-year rule.

Delays were seen in the delivery of polling materials in some places, including where Wine voted in the capital and opposition stronghold of Kampala. After he arrived to the cheers of a crowd and cast his ballot, Wine made the sign of the cross and then raised his fist and smiled. He said he was confident of victory.

On Wednesday night internet access was cut off for most users, heightening fears of state-backed moves to compromise the election’s integrity, though some in the land-locked east African country are using VPNs to communicate online.

At a polling station in Kampala’s Wakiso district, there were long queues as officials struggled to get biometric machines to work. “It’s so disappointing and frustrating,” said Daphine Ayereza, two hours after joining the queue to vote at 7am. “This is just a mess.”

After polls closed at 4pm, hundreds of Wine supporters in Kampala returned to their polling stations to heed his call to “protect the vote” by watching the count. At the station where Wine had voted, security forces chased his supporters away.

Results are expected within 48 hours. A candidate must win more than 50% to avoid a runoff vote.

One of 10 opposition challengers, Wine has the backing of many young people in Uganda – where the median age is 15.7 – who are drawn to his charismatic, anti-corruption message.

Many observers see the challenge to Museveni, who at 76 is twice as old as his challenger, as emblematic of a continent-wide generational struggle between ageing leaders who refuse to relinquish power and younger voters mobilising against them.

Voters queue outside a voting centre in Kampala.
Voters queue outside a voting centre in Kampala. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Wine’s supporters were violently suppressed during the campaign by security forces loyal to Museveni, whose bid for a sixth term in power was only made possible when MPs changed the constitution to remove age limits. He has repeatedly accused Wine of being a foreign-backed “traitor”.

Helicopters and military tanks have patrolled the skies and empty streets of Kampala and other cities in recent days.

More than 55 people died in November after Wine was officially confirmed as a candidate, and he has been detained and prevented from campaigning on multiple occasions. Members of his party and other opposition figures have been attacked and arrested, purportedly because of rallies held in breach of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ugandan police officers sit on a truck at a polling station in Magere on Thursday.
Ugandan police officers sit on a truck at a polling station in Magere on Thursday. Photograph: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, said members of his security detail around his home had been ordered to leave. In recent weeks, security forces have aggressively shut down his campaign activities, including dragging him from his car during a press conference last week. In December Wine said his bodyguard had been killed by soldiers. In an interview with the Guardian at the turn of the year he described the campaign as “a war and a battlefield”.

Lydia Namubiru, a journalist and the Africa editor at Open Democracy, said: “The brazenness of the violence is new. It’s both because he [Wine] is seen as a threat in the election but also because of what he symbolises.”

On Tuesday Uganda’s communications regulator ordered internet providers to block all social media platforms and messaging applications until further notice, one day after Facebook announced it had taken down a network of fake and duplicate accounts linked to the information ministry.

On Wednesday the US and EU said they would not observe the elections, after several officials were denied accreditation. Isabella Akiteng, a civil society activist, said late on Thursday that she and 29 others who were observing the polls had been arrested at a hotel in Kampala and were being interrogated by police.

Museveni, who took power in 1986, enjoys widespread support, particularly among more conservative, rural and older voters who credit him with economic and healthcare gains and rural development.

“I expect my candidate to win massively,” said Prima Mbazi, wearing the yellow cap of the ruling National Resistance Movement party in Kampala, on the eve of the vote. “He has offered free primary and secondary education for all children from families to study; we access health services in hospitals and at least every village has access to electricity. He needs to continue to secure our future.”

On the campaign trail, the memory of mass suffering in the past underlined Museveni’s message of stability and continuity. “When Museveni speaks, it’s all about how he rescued the country when basic services were nonexistent,” said Namubiru. “But people under the age of 35 have only a vague recollection of how things were then, and don’t feel they were liberated.”

Moreover, Museveni’s message of economic progress jars with a harsh reality, particularly for younger people, more than 80% of whom work in the informal labour market.

Criticism of political patronage under Museveni’s government has likewise grown in recent years. Elective positions have more than doubled since 2006 to almost 3 million officials – one for every 16 people – according to civil society groups.

The difficulty of unseating powerful long-term rulers was on sharp display in Uganda’s 2016 election, and expectations of a fair and transparent vote this time around are low.

At a polling station in the Kampala suburb of Mbuya, Joseph Okello said he had cast his ballot for Wine. “I am sure he will win with a landslide if they don’t manipulate the results and rig it,” Okello said.