Ugandans went to the polls on Thursday to vote in the East African country’s next president. Polling units are now closed and vote counting is ongoing. But the elections, conducted amid suspended access to the internet and repeated clampdown on the opposition, have already become incredibly controversial.
The contest is between longtime incumbent Yoweri Museveni, 78, and the 38-year-old opposition leader, Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), a musician turned politician.
Museveni has held power since 1986 and changed the constitution to allow him to run a sixth time against the strong opposition leader who has gained popularity with the youth. There are nine other aspirants challenging Museveni for the presidential seat.
The buildup to the election on Thursday was filled with political violence, that led to the killing of at least 50 by security forces, who both intimidated and arrested civilians. The police have said the reason was to enforce COVID-19 regulations.
Michael Aboneka, a human rights activist and lawyer in Uganda, told HumAngle in a phone conversation that the atmosphere in Uganda was tense and there was a heavy presence of military personnel.
Hours before the election, Ugandan authorities shut down the internet. At about 5 pm local time, a letter from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered a shutdown of the internet.
The shutdown has affected the electoral process and further called its integrity into question. A lot of polling units resorted to manual voting as the biometric machines failed due to the internet shutdown.
An opposition party, the Forum For Democratic Change, took to Twitter to say: “We are getting reports of a massive failure of biometric voter identification kits due to internet blockade (over 3,400 polling stations).”
The shutdown, which has crept into day three, has likewise interrupted the flow of communication within the country and between residents and those in other regions.
“I can’t communicate with people. I can’t write emails and I can’t receive emails I have been expecting. My colleagues have missed their flights which I scheduled. I can’t do internet banking, so I can’t get money,” Aboneka told HumAngle.
Uganda’s last election was in 2016, and then a similar shutdown was imposed. But it was restricted only to social media.
Foreign Observers Limited
The United States and the European Union had backed out from observing the presidential polls due to non-accreditation by the Ugandan government.
Natalie Brown, U.S Ambassador to Uganda, said hours to the election: “Sadly, I announce the decision not to observe #Uganda’s election due to @Uganda’sEC’s decision to deny more than 75% of our accreditation request.”
Replying to the post, Bobi Wine wrote that it was ironic that the same government that invited the US observers was denying them access. “The world knows why Gen Museveni is doing this. So unpopular and yet very desperate to declare himself a winner at all costs,” he observed.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the EU said its observers would not be part of the process this year, contrary to past trends, explaining that its offer to deploy a small team of experts was not taken up.
“As the EU and other partners have noted, the pre-electoral cycle has been marred by violence and numerous difficulties faced by several opposition presidential candidates, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, electoral experts as well as journalists,” it noted.
“The excessive use of force by law enforcement and security agencies has seriously tarnished this electoral process.”
Local observers have been able to share updates about the electoral process but at the risk of getting arrested and intimidated by the security forces.
Aboneka said he was currently at a detention facility to get 28 unit observers, who had been arrested on the day of the election, out of jail.
“They have been in prison since yesterday. It is likely the case would not hold till Monday because of the weekend and Uganda has been observing public holiday since the election,” he said.
‘Despite All Odds, We Vote’
Amid heavy military presence, polling centres were open as early as 7 am (EAT). A large number of people came out to vote though the turnout was slow at first likely due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, Aboneka said to HumAngle.
Bobi Wine, today on Twitter, appreciated Ugandans for coming out to vote in large numbers despite the violence experienced across the country.
On the issue of election fraud, Aboneka questioned why the government would intimidate and arrest observers using military operatives and shut down the internet. All these are not signs of free and fair elections, he said.
He pointed out that, lately, a lot of people have been kidnapped from their homes and found in detention centres run by the military.
“So we think it is the military that is kidnapping them,” he said. “Last night, there was a drone hovering over my house.”
The Electoral Commission of Uganda has said it would declare the winner within 48 hours after polls closed at 4 pm.
Meanwhile, Museveni, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, said he would accept the results even if he lost. “Uganda is not my house… if the people of Uganda don’t want me to help them with their issues, I go and deal with my personal issues very happily,” he told Amanpour.
Bobi Wine, on the other hand, announced on Friday that he had “certainly won the election…by far” and defeated the “dictator” despite massive rigging.
“The people of Uganda voted massively for change of leadership from a dictatorship to a democratic government. But Mr Museveni is trying to paint a picture that he is in the lead. What a joke!” the presidential candidate said.
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