Uganda votes in tense presidential election

Longtime President Yoweri Museveni faces strong challenge from pop star-turned-opposition leader Bobi Wine as he seeks a sixth term.

Raphael Oni with Agency News

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.

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.

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.

President Yoweri Museveni, 76, is facing a strong challenge from Bobi Wine in his bid to extend his 35-year reign.

Bobi Wine 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.

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.  In a Statement by U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown on Cancellation of U.S. Diplomatic Observer Mission of Uganda’s Elections which read in part, “It is with profound disappointment that I announce U.S. Mission in Uganda’s decision to cancel our diplomatic observation of Uganda’s January 14 elections due to the decision by the Electoral Commission of Uganda to deny more than 75 percent of the U.S. election observer accreditations requested.  With only 15 accreditations approved, it is not possible for the United States to meaningfully observe the conduct of Uganda’s elections at polling sites across the country.”

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.

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