More than 18 million people registered to take part in high-stakes vote after campaigning marred by deadly violence.
Polls have closed and vote counting is under way in Uganda’s tense presidential election that pits longtime President Yoweri Museveni against opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, a pop star-turned-opposition leader.
The run-up to Thursday’s vote was plagued by the worst political violence in years, with more than 50 people killed by security forces amid crackdowns on opposition rallies, as well as the repeated intimidation and arrest of opposition figures. Police say their actions are necessary to ensure compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.
Internet access has been cut off, and there are fears of unrest as security forces try to stop supporters of leading opposition challenger Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations.
At polling stations in Kampala visited by Al Jazeera, voting began more than 60 minutes late after election materials did not arrive on time.
Museveni, who has wielded power since 1986, is seeking a sixth term against a stiff challenge from Bobi Wine, whose popularity among a youthful population has rattled the 76-year-old former rebel leader. Nine other challengers are also trying to unseat Museveni.
More than 18 million people have registered to take part in the polls. A candidate must win more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff vote. Parliamentary polls are also being held.
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Click here for a wrap of how election day went in Uganda.
Presidential hopeful Wine posted on Twitter that his phone and that of his spouse were “blocked” and he was unable to receive or make calls.
“I know this is to stop me from communicating to our agents and coordinators,” he added, asking his supporters to be vigilant.
Like my wife's, my phone has been blocked and I am unable to recieve or make regular calls. I know this is to stop me from communicating to our agents and coordinators. I encourage you comrades to be vigilant as I try to devise ways of reaching out to you.#WeAreRemovingADictator
— BOBI WINE (@HEBobiwine) January 14, 2021
In Kampala, vote counting was under way after Ugandans voted earlier in the highly contested presidential election.
Eric Mutenga, a coordinating agent at the Nakasero 1 voting station in Kampala, said vote counting was ongoing without problems.
“It’s been quite not chaotic like expected at this particular centre,” he said, adding that the process had gone “smoothly”.
“The elections in Uganda under COVID-19 cannot of course be considered normal. They cannot be called free and fair,” political analyst Mwambutsya Ndebesa told Al Jazeera from Kampala.
“This is marred by certain limitations that have been placed on political players since independence.”
However, Ndebesa said that the pandemic “compounded” the problem as it was hard to gather support from all voters, and he noted there were restrictions on the internet and social media.
Polls closed at 4pm (13:00 GMT), but voters in line then were allowed to cast their ballots, Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi reported from Kampala.
“The votes will be counted in polling centres, and this count will go to district tally centres where they will be verified and collated,” she added.
President Museveni has cast his vote in the election in his local home district in western Uganda, local media reported.
After voting, the president was asked if he would accept the election’s outcome and said “of course” but quickly added, “if there are no mistakes”.
— Mujuni Raymond (@qataharraymond) January 14, 2021
Rogers Mulindwa, a spokesman for the governing National Resistance Movement party, says Ugandans are turning out to vote in large numbers.
Al Jazeera journalists visited several polling stations in Kampala and saw long queues of people waiting to cast their ballot.
Problems with voting machines, meanwhile, have been reported in several polling centres.
Patrick Oboi Amuriat, a candidate for the Forum For Democratic Change, says the vote was rigged and they will not accept the results.
“This election has already been rigged,” Amuriat told local broadcaster NTV, adding that “we will not accept the outcome of this election”.
Meanwhile, Bobi Wine, President Museveni’s closest challenger, said several of his party’s polling agents had been arrested during the morning.
“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.
Ugandans have lined up to cast ballots in presidential and parliamentary elections under tight security and an internet blackout after one of the most violent campaigns in years.
The internet went down on the eve of Thursday’s vote, with some parts of the country reporting complete disruptions or significant slowdowns.
Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary vote, and results are expected by Saturday.
More photos here.
Nicholas Sengoba, a political commentator at Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper, has told Al Jazeera the announcement of the results will lead to protests in opposition strongholds but large-scale violence was unlikely.
“In the aftermath of the results, you are likely to have a bit of crime in hotspots,” he said from Kampala.
“There will be a bit of unease by the people, protests here and there. But the state has put in a very considerable effort to clamp down, very heavy-handedly, on any violence.”
Mugisha Muntu, a presidential candidate for the National Transformation, says his party’s agents have been “rejected, arrested or intimidated” in Jinja and Ntungamo.
This morning, I cast my vote at Kitunga C.o.U. Rwashamaire. Already our candidates in Ntungamo and Jinja are experiencing challenges with s9me of our polling agents there being rejected, arrested or intimidated. #ChangeYouCanTrust
— Mugisha Muntu (@mugishamuntu) January 14, 2021
Bobi Wine has held a news conference shortly after casting his vote in Kampala. He called on his supporters to come out and cast their ballots amid heavy security presence on the streets of the capital and across the country.
“We urge voters to cast their vote. All of you, make sure you come from home and cast your vote,” Bobi Wine said. “We encourage them to stay and guard their vote. Keep your face mask on, maintain social distancing but keep there and watch all the proceedings.”
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from Kampala, said there has been a “huge deployment” of security forces in the capital, including military personnel “who have taken rooftop positions in buildings”.
“We are told there is deployment of security forces in other towns across the country,” she added.
“People here say they want to vote peacefully but they worry there could be violence if the election results are contested.”
#UgandaDecides Voting underway across the country in a tense election preceded by a campaign period marred by violence, arrest and deaths. Pres. #Museveni is seeking a 6th and main challenger is Bobi #Wine @kikyjosh @C_SOI #Uganda pic.twitter.com/L43sLEXNf5
— Mugo Mugo (@PMugoMugo) January 14, 2021
Separately, there have been reports of biometric voter verification kits failing at some polling stations.
“We’ve heard that biometric machines have been failing. It is not clear how widespread this is but the electoral commission is saying it’s trying to resolve this situation,” Wambua-Soi said.
Bobi Wine has cast his ballot at Freedom Square polling station in Wakiso district, Kampala, shortly after 11am local time (08:00 GMT). He was greeted by jubilant supporters as he arrived at the voting centre.
— Catherine Wambua- Soi (@C_SOI) January 14, 2021
“When he arrived, things stopped,” said Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from the polling station. “There was so much commotion, people were cheering him.”
Bobi Wine left the voting centre without addressing the assembled media.
In a first-hand account published by Foreign Affairs on the eve of the elections, Bobi Wine has described the vote as a “pivotal” moment for Uganda and expressed hope the international community would follow the polls closely.
“International attention matters now more than ever. Indeed, it is what has kept me and my colleagues alive up to this point. If Museveni steals another election on Thursday, we hope that good people of conscience around the world will hold him and this regime accountable,” he wrote.
The United States on Wednesday cancelled its observation of the presidential election because most of its accreditation requests were denied and said the vote would lack accountability and transparency.
Sadly, I announce 🇺🇸 decision not to observe #Uganda’s elections due to @UgandaEC’s decision to deny more than 75% of our accreditation requests (see https://t.co/QmNqFHQFmg). A robust contingent of observers, including local entities, promotes transparency & accountability. pic.twitter.com/66nV9M52mU
— U.S. Ambassador to Uganda (@USAmbUganda) January 13, 2021
Commenting on the news, Museveni’s spokesman Don Wanyama said he could not remember when Uganda last sent monitors to the US.
Still, the announcement adds to a growing chorus of concern over the credibility of the election.
The European Union said on Tuesday the electoral process had been seriously tarnished by the excessive use of force and its offer to deploy a small team of electoral experts was not taken up.
A coalition representing hundreds of Ugandan civil society organisations said it had filed 1,900 accreditation requests but only 10 had been granted.
Meanwhile, regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community have sent observer missions.
No incidents of violence had been reported by 9:30am local time (06:30 GMT), while the typically bustling roads in Kampala were quiet.
“The numbers aren’t yet big because people were not sure what will happen at the station given the tension and message that there would be violence,” said Kamwebaze Elvin, an election worker at New Planet Primary School polling station.
He said he expected more voters to show up now that ballot papers had been delivered.
Muhamad Barugahare, a 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver waiting to vote, said Museveni was the only one who could guarantee peace.
“We don’t want to gamble with this young man,” he told the Reuters news agency, referring to Bobi Wine.
Museveni is facing a strong challenge from Bobi Wine in his bid to extend his 35-year reign.
Bobi Wine, 38, was just four years old when Museveni, a former rebel leader, came to power in 1986.
In 2005, Uganda’s governing-party-dominated Parliament removed presidential term limits. And in 2017, legislators scrapped the age limit of 75 for presidential candidates in a move slammed by critics as designed to pave the way for Museveni to be president for life.
Opposition candidates have contested Museveni’s previous re-elections, alleging voter intimidation and ballot stuffing.
Since entering politics in 2017, Bobi Wine has been arrested multiple times on various charges but has never been convicted.
In recent weeks, security forces have violently dispersed his rallies with tear gas and rubber bullets, while a number of opposition figures have been arrested and journalists attacked.
Will Bobi Wine be able to unseat Museveni? Read more here.
As voting continues, here are four things to know about the landlocked East African country.
Long lines of voters snaked into the distance in the capital, Kampala amid tight security.
In Kamwokya slum, where Bobi Wine grew up, voters streamed into a polling station as police tried to keep physical distancing.
“I am here to change the leadership of this nation because for years they’ve been telling me they will secure my future. They have not done that,” said driver Joseph Nsuduga, 30, one of the first in line to vote.
“I need to see change for my children. People are yearning for change but we are seeing nothing,” he told AFP news agency.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Wambua-Soi, reporting from a polling station at Wakiso district in Kampala, has said the late arrival of voting materials had caused delays.
#UgandaDecides2021 voting just about to start at freedom Square polling station. Heard on radio that several other polling centres are yet to recieve voting materials @PMugoMugo pic.twitter.com/C5rsByLd7r
— Catherine Wambua- Soi (@C_SOI) January 14, 2021
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, grew up in Kamwokya, a slum in the centre of Kampala, with dozens of siblings and half-siblings. Before his entry into politics, Bobi Wine was a self-styled “ghetto president”.
It was in Kamwokya where he began making music, producing a number of reggae, pop and hip hop hits. But his music became increasingly political over time.
In songs such as Rise Up and Freedom, he complained about corruption and called for change. And in 2017, Bobi Wine was elected as an independent member of Parliament for Kyadondo East, winning by a landslide.
Read more about Wine Bobi here.
Ugandans have begun voting under heavy security and an internet blackout that has left many complaining.
Voting was delayed in several locations in the capital, Kampala, beginning about half an hour after the official starting time of 7am (04:00 GMT), and will continue until 4pm (12:00 GMT).