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Kampala is unrecognizable. The Ugandan capital, usually swarming, looks like a ghost town. As if suddenly, politics had sealed all economic activity in the city, now in the hands of the security forces. The units of police officers in riot gear are omnipresent there to ensure that the presidential election which must decide Thursday, January 14 the some eleven candidates in the running does not slip.
“If you’re a yard taller, he’ll open your head.” They are soldiers. They can accuse you of carrying weapons to destabilize the election ”, murmurs a bus driver, stopped in front of one of the barriers that crisscross the city. A warning that especially targets the supporters of Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, popular singer who became a deputy in 2017 and main opponent of outgoing president Yoweri Museveni. The indestructible autocrat is running for a sixth term at the head of the country he has led for thirty-five years. He did not skimp on the means to win.
Since Wednesday, January 13 in the evening, Internet access has been largely disrupted in the country. The day before, the authorities officially suspended social networks and messaging services. A cut that came after weeks of electoral campaign punctuated by violence, arrests and riots that left dozens of people dead. “We cannot tolerate the arrogance of anyone who comes to decide for us what is good and what is bad”, Yoweri Museveni explained in his televised address.
“Free a dictator”
Thursday, Kampala and its 3.6 million voters – out of a total of 18.1 million in the country – woke up under close surveillance. In addition to the massive deployment of police and military, the video system of the Chinese multinational Huawei, which equips the Ugandan police with its controversial “Safe City” system prized by authoritarian regimes. A lockout that did not prevent the lines of voters from stretching out throughout the day, all over the city.
Andrew, 23, only knew Museveni, like the majority of the people of Uganda. The young man was voting for the first time. A historic gesture, to hear it. “We are in the process of freeing a dictator”, he slips with a smile after placing his ballot in the ballot box. He is ordered by the police to leave. It is forbidden to linger near polling stations.
“We are in the process of freeing a dictator”. The phrase, bravado, has become one of Bobi Wine’s campaign slogans and a viral social media keyword in Uganda. But it will take more to topple Yoweri Museveni and his hegemonic party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM). ” President (…) is sure to win. But he will accept the result of the elections as long as they are free and fair ”, assured Agence France-Presse the spokesperson for the Head of State, who voted at the end of the afternoon in the west of the country, in Kiruhura.
Doubts about the transparency of the ballot
At 76, the former Marxist guerrilla who became an autocrat relies above all on the electorate of rural areas to win, while his main opponent crystallizes the hope of alternation of part of the youth, in a country where close three quarters of the population is under 30 years old. An age pyramid which should not, however, allow Bobi Wine to wrest power.
Highlighting preventive measures against Covid-19, the regime banned many opposition meetings during the campaign. The weeks leading up to the poll were marked by arrests of opponents, tear gas and sometimes live ammunition.
While Thursday’s voting day went smoothly, there are serious doubts about the fairness and transparency of the ballot. The United States ended up canceling the arrival of an observer mission. Journalists and members of civil society have been prevented from working by security forces. Bobi Wine, who ensures that several election observers from his party were arrested in the morning, denounced the malfunctions of certain biometric machines used to verify the identity of voters.
Anxious to prevent the situation from igniting, the UN General Secretariat called on both sides “Not to resort to hate speech, intimidation and violence”. Ugandan electoral commission says results should be known “Within forty-eight hours”.