Ugandans vote in charged poll under Internet blackout

Friday, January 15th, 2021 00:00 |
Voters queue to vote at a polling station in Kampala, Uganda, yesterday. Photo/AFP

Vote counting is under way at some polling stations in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. 

An increased presence of security force members was seen in about the last hour before polls closed at 13:00 GMT. 

Lorries carrying soldiers drove through the city, while police and local defence units were also seen patrolling. 

Election regulations state that people in queues can vote after the official closing time.

Biometric voter verification kits were reported to have failed to work in a number of polling stations visited by the BBC in Uganda.

Electoral Commission’s spokesperson, Paul Bukenya, said they had received reports that some of the kits had malfunctioned.

The electronic devices are used to capture and verify details of voters before they can be issued with ballot papers.

Long queues were spotted in most polling stations visited by the BBC, although there were delays in delivery of voting materials at some stations.

In Nansana municipality, voting materials did not arrive until 10:00 local time (07:00GMT). Some voters had started getting impatient and hurled insults at electoral officials. 

In Masaka city, south of the capital, Kampala, reports indicated that polling materials were delivered at around 07:30am.

In polling stations visited by the BBC, there were only ordinary police presence and no heavy military deployment.

President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, is seeking re-election.

The 76-year-old faces 10 challengers, most notably Bobi Wine, the 38-year-old pop star-turned politician.

Yesterday, Ugandans lined up to vote in a tense election under heavy security and Internet blackout.

The Internet went down on the eve of the vote, with some parts of the country reporting complete disruptions or significant slowdowns, after one of the most violent campaigns in years.

Museveni, veteran leader, is seeking a sixth term in office, having ruled for almost four decades, against singer-turned-MP Bobi Wine, 38, whose popularity among a youthful population has rattled the former rebel leader.

Wine said several of his party’s polling agents had been arrested during the morning, as he cast his vote at the Magere Freedom Square polling on the outskirts of Kampala alongside his wife.

“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.

Soldiers marched in Kamwokya, the crowded Kampala slum where Wine grew up and is hugely popular, while convoys of riot police patrolled the capital.

Early reports from some districts outside the capital indicated voting was proceeding smoothly amid a heavy security presence.

Museveni’s office said the president would vote later in the afternoon but were already confident of the outcome.

“We are sure of the win,” Don Wanyama, the presidential spokesman, told AFP.

Museveni has never lost an election, and most observers expect he and his ruling National Resistance Movement to emerge victorious.

Nevertheless, optimism was high in the opposition heartland of Kamwokya, where voters jostled into tight queues despite efforts to impose social distancing after weeks of rising coronavirus cases.

“I am here to change the leadership of this nation because for years, they have  been telling me they will secure my future. They have not done that,” said driver Joseph Nsuduga, 30.

Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary vote, and results are expected by Saturday.

“I continue to encourage all Ugandans to turn out and vote,” Wine said.

Voting was delayed in several locations in Kampala and queues snaked for hours, with Wine complaining of problems with the biometric machines used to confirm voter identities. “People have been waiting for so long,” said Kyazike Eva, 50.

The opposition frontrunner has vowed non-violent street protests should Ugandans feel the election was stolen.

Museveni has warned that using violence to protest the result would amount to “treason”. He has ruled Uganda without pause since seizing control in 1986, when he helped to end years of tyranny under Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Once hailed for his commitment to good governance, the former rebel leader has crushed any opposition and tweaked the constitution to allow himself to run again and again.But he is still held in high regard by older Ugandans who remember the relative stability and security that Museveni returned to the country.

“These young people, they want change, but they don’t know what Museveni did for us,” said Faith Florence Nakalembe, 58.

But her children, also standing in line in Kamwokya to vote, desperately want change.

Sophie Mukoone, 34, said she spent months trying to change her mother’s mind, but at least her brother Saad was out voting for the first time.

“For 23 years I have never seen a different president, and I want someone else,” said Saad Mukoone, a 23-year-old student throwing his vote behind Wine.

“Most of the people in government are old, and they don’t want to leave.”

The runup to polling day was marred by a sustained crackdown on Museveni’s rivals and government critics, and unprecedented attacks on the nation’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 numerous arrests.

The United States (US), European Union, United Nations and global rights and democracy groups have raised concerns about the integrity and transparency of the election.

Only one foreign organisation, the African Union (AU), has sent monitors, along with an AU women’s group.

On Wednesday, the United States, a major aid donor to Uganda, announced it was cancelling a diplomatic observer mission after too many of its staff were denied permission to monitor the election.

On Tuesday, Museveni announced the suspension of social media networks and messaging services like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp in response to Facebook closing accounts linked to government officials the tech giant said were spreading misinformation. - Agencies

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