Updated at 17:45 Uganda time (GMT+3)
Out of nine candidates in the running, all eyes are on the main challenger to Museveni’s presidency: the musician-cum-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known by his stage name Bobi Wine.
Wine has managed to ruffle feathers in a campaign where he was jailed, tortured, and attacked. But that has not stopped him from spreading his message of anti-corruption and ultimately his online hashtag #WeAreRemovingADictator.
Conspiracy by the dictator & his biased Electoral Commission is in a new phase. A plot to rig is set, internet is completely shut down & media is censored. However, the pple of uganda are firm and nothing will stop them from ending this oppresive regime. #WeAreRemovingADictator
— BOBI WINE (@HEBobiwine) January 13, 2021
Speaking to The Africa Report last week, he explained why no amount of intimidation would stop him from pushing forward with his youth-led campaign.
“No amount of arrest, torture or pepper-spraying will stop us. Why can’t President [Yoweri] Museveni realise that we are not going to give up.”
READ MORE A history of democracy-free Ugandan elections
Bobi Wine’s US legal representative Bruce Afran says he has now ‘lost contact’ with his client, saying that Bobi Wine had been isolated from his entire campaign and security staff.
There are reports this morning that voting has been delayed because of a lack of voting materials at the major opposition stronghold of Masaka, 130km south west of the capital Kampala.
Ugandans ready for change?
While Wine has run a successful campaign against the 76-year old Museveni, who is twice his age, the real question is are Ugandans willing to take that risk at the polls?
Many see today’s elections as the true struggle that is consistently repeating itself across the continent as one pitting the youth against the ageing leaders who refuse to relinquish power.
READ MORE The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’
With 34 years in power, Museveni is one of the longest-serving African leaders, alongside:
- Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, 41 years
- Cameroon’s Paul Biya, 38 years
- Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, 36 years
- Chad’s Idriss Deby, 30 years
- Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, 27 years
- Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, 21 years
- Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, 20 years
Free and fair elections?
On Wednesday, the Ugandan government ordered service providers across the country to halt internet access just hours before voting began.
⚠️ Confirmed: #Uganda is now in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout on the eve of elections; real-time network data show national connectivity falling to 33% of ordinary levels as per government order in effect from 7 pm 📉 #UgandaDecides2021
📰 https://t.co/0qQtBcr4Fc pic.twitter.com/7kXbCyq2Fx
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) January 13, 2021
On Tuesday evening, Museveni confirmed plans for a blackout and apologised for any inconveniences to avid social media users. He said his decision was based on the social media platforms that continued to block accounts of supporters from his National Resistance Movement (NRM).
Facebook had announced that it had blocked many accounts belonging to Ugandan government officials. It said these accounts were created to manipulate public debate ahead of elections.
READ MORE Uganda elections: Bobi Wine says military has broken into his home
“This month, we removed a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the election,” Facebook’s head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, said in an email.
Tibor Nagy, the Assistant Secretary for US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, tweeted his concerns over such actions taken by the Ugandan government.
We are concerned by reports that the Government of Uganda has ordered Internet service providers to block social media platforms, messaging apps, and select content in the run up to general elections on Jan 14. Such restrictions undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.
— Tibor Nagy (@AsstSecStateAF) January 12, 2021
The highest-ranking Democrat on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez has warned President Museveni against repressive measures. He will chair the Senate committee after the 21 January, making him the most powerful voice on foreign affairs in the US after the Secretary of State.
“Mr President, if the outcome of the elections in Uganda does not reflect the will of the people, I will be calling for the Biden Administration to re-evaluate our relationship with the Museveni administration”, said Menendez last week. “Uganda’s stature and importance as a security partner should not prevent the United States from speaking out in support of democracy, and taking action in support of those Ugandans fighting for democratic freedoms”.
Menendez has made his name in recent years opposing US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Museveni has pushed back against ‘foreign lectures’, saying: “There is no way anybody can come and play around with our country, to decide who is good, who is bad, this one we will stop. We cannot accept that”.
Museveni has also warned the opposition against intimidating voters: “There have been practices of intimidation where especially the opposition people have been threatening people not to come out and vote. In some areas they have even attacked peaceful citizens.” Most observers say Uganda’s own state security services are the ones carrying out electoral violence.
Ahead of voting, Ugandan police were deployed on rooftops across the capital Kampala, to deter what the government says could any planned violence.
'We want peace' voters tell @cathkemi as they wait to cast their ballots in the Ugandan elections. pic.twitter.com/Pa6KB4U7J8
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) January 14, 2021
For Bobi Wine’s US lawyer Bruce Afan, the concerns around violence against opposition supporters who might protest what they see as a stolen election is the reason why the campaign petitioned the International Criminal Court to observe the election.
READ MORE Uganda elections: Bobi Wine puts Yoweri Museveni on ICC notice
The campaign hopes the Museveni “understands there is a need to avoid violence because the court is watching. We believe there will be spontaneous protest”, says Afan.
Polls have officially closed at 16h (GMT+3), but they will remain open until everyone queuing has cast his/her vote. Results are expected to start coming in by Saturday 16 January.
Because of the internet blackout, details of any incidents were less accessible, but according to Wine, several of his party’s polling agents were arrested in the morning while he was casting his ballot.
“In 22 districts our teams are on the run because they are being surrounded and pursued by police and soldiers as if they are criminals,” he said.
One reporter from the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) said there were noted irregularities across the country, from polling stations opening late, to missing voter material at stations considered to be opposition strongholds.
*We will continue to update this story throughout the day
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