Ugandans began voting in a tense election Thursday under tight security and an internet blackout as veteran leader Yoweri Museveni pursues a sixth term against a former pop star half his age.
The internet went down on the eve of the vote, with parts of the country reporting complete disruptions or significant slowdowns, after one of the most violent election campaigns in years.
Voting has been delayed at several locations in the capital Kampala, starting about half an hour after the official 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) departure time, and will continue until 4.00 p.m. (12.00 GMT).
Museveni is seeking a sixth term, after ruling for nearly four decades, against singer-turned-MP Bobi Wine, 38, whose popularity among a young population has rocked the former rebel leader.
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In the Kamwokya slum, where Wine grew up, voters marched to a polling station in a landfill, as police tried to maintain social distancing as coronavirus cases continued to rise.
A group of about two dozen riot officers marched, with a heavy military and police presence in other parts of the capital.
“I am here to change the leadership of this nation because for years they have been telling me that they will secure my future. They have not,” said driver Joseph Nsuduga, 30, one of the first to vote.
“I need to see change for my children. People yearn for change but we don’t see anything.”
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Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary vote, which will take place in nearly 35,000 polling stations.
Museveni has ruled Uganda without a break since its takeover in 1986, when he helped end years of tyranny under Idi Amin.
When praised for his commitment to good governance, the former rebel leader crushed all opposition and changed the constitution to allow himself to run again and again.
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The run-up to election day was marred by a sustained crackdown on Museveni’s rivals and critics of the government, and unprecedented attacks on the country’s media and human rights defenders.
In November, at least 54 people were shot dead by security forces loyal to Museveni during protests against one of Wine’s many arrests.
Armored personnel carriers equipped with mounted machine guns patrolled parts of Kampala on Wednesday and army helicopters and surveillance drones flew over the teeming capital where political opposition has always enjoyed support.
Hopes and threats
The United States, the EU, the UN, and democracy and rights groups around the world have raised concerns about the integrity and transparency of elections.
Only one foreign organization, the African Union (AU), sent observers, along with an AU women’s group.
On Wednesday, the United States, a major aid donor to Uganda, announced it was canceling a diplomatic observation mission after too many of its staff were denied permission to monitor the elections.
In a statement, US Ambassador Natalie Brown warned that the denial meant the elections “will lack accountability, transparency and trust” brought about by independent oversight.
On Tuesday, Museveni announced the suspension of social media networks and messaging services like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp in response to the closure of Facebook accounts linked to government officials who the tech giant said were spreading disinformation.
Wine is the strongest of the 10 opponents who try to overthrow Museveni.
But most observers expect the aging president and his ruling National Resistance Movement to emerge victorious.
He never lost an election and counted the days to victory in confident campaign advertisements, promising to invest more in infrastructure, health and education and to build the Ugandan economy.
But Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, accused the president of presiding over corruption and not creating jobs.
The population has a median age of just under 16, and many Ugandans have never known any other leader other than Museveni.
“This is the time that I aspire to. I have finished voting and I hope my candidate wins,” said businessman Abbey Musaka, 37, who voted at the polling station. of Njovu in another part of Kampala, without saying who he was. proof.
Wine promised non-violent street protests if Ugandans felt the election had been stolen.
The opposition leader urged them to turn out in large numbers and vote, saying they should not be afraid of being intimidated by the authorities.
Museveni, who has suggested that Wine is backed by foreign and criminal elements, warned his opponents against taking to the streets.
“If you use violence to protest the outcome of an election, it is treason,” Museveni said in a national speech on Tuesday.