Ugandans wearing face masks to brave the pandemic voted on Thursday as police and soldiers patrolled the streets of the capital during a presidential election pitting long-time leader Yoweri Museveni against popular singer Bobi Wine.
Lines of voters were growing by midday at polling stations visited by Reuters in Kampala, a stronghold for an opposition galvanized by popstar-turned-politician Wine despite a campaign scarred by deadly crackdowns.
Voting began 60 to 90 minutes late at six polling stations visited by Reuters as ballot papers did not arrive on time. A ruling party spokesman said polling started late in some places due to glitches with biometric voting machines.
The government in the East African country of nearly 46 million people ordered an internet blackout until further notice on Wednesday, a day after it banned all social media and messaging apps.
Reggae artist ad lawmaker Bobi Wine, 38, is channelling the anger of many young Ugandans who say former guerrilla leader Museveni, now 76, is an out-of-touch dictator failing to tackle unemployment, corruption and surging public debt.
Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, calls Wine an upstart backed by foreign governments and homosexuals and says his administration guarantees stability and progress, including much-needed hydropower dams and roads.
There are 17.7 million registered voters and polls are due to close at 4 pm (13:00 GMT). It was not clear if voting would be extended due to the delays. The first results are expected by Saturday evening.
Rogers Mulindwa, a spokesman for the ruling National Resistance Movement party, said Ugandans were turning out in big numbers.
‘Tired of Museveni’
As Wine’s car arrived at his polling station, flanked by police in black uniforms, bulletproof vests and helmets, supporters danced and cheered.
“We have made every effort to observe and watch this election, and we will know the answer,” Wine said. Some waiting to cast their ballots said they were scared of the security forces but determined to vote for Wine.
“I’m tired of Museveni because he has no new ideas,” said Joseph Kinobe, 40, a mason waiting to cast his ballot for Wine.
There has been more campaign violence than in previous elections, with scores killed when security forces cracked down on Wine’s rallies. Opposition candidates, supporters and campaign staff have been repeatedly arrested.
The government says it is stopping illegal gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis. The opposition says the bans on rallies in some parts of Uganda are a smokescreen for repression.
“If you try to disturb peace, you will have yourself to blame. The security forces, following the law, are ready to deal with any troublemaker,” Museveni, dressed in a military camouflage jacket, warned this week in a television broadcast.
A 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, Muhamad Barugahare, said Museveni was the only one who could guarantee peace. “We don’t want to gamble with this young man,” he said about Wine.
Though Wine has the momentum of energized and aggrieved supporters behind him, Museveni remains the frontrunner to win with the well-equipped army and police behind him, analysts say.
Military police said they had deployed officers to rooftops across Kampala. The normally bustling streets were quiet.
“Every bit of the security apparatus will be on the streets,” a senior EU diplomat said. “Theoretically that brings calm, but I think we know that just brings flashpoints.”
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has urged supporters to watch the count at polling stations and upload photos of results sheets to an application called U Vote.
The internet blackout may make that difficult and some Ugandans were downloading VPNs to circumvent the shutdown.