Uganda’s Bobi Wine looks to unseat long-serving autocrat Museveni in fiery election

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Ugandans vote on Thursday in a presidential election pitting long-time leader Yoweri Museveni against 10 candidates, including opposition front-runner Bobi Wine, a singer-turned-lawmaker whose star power has rattled the ruling party.

Scores of opposition protesters have been killed during a campaign scarred by crackdowns on Wine’s rallies, which the authorities say contravene curbs on gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Military personnel have been deployed across the capital, Kampala, to reinforce the police with columns of soldiers patrolling suburbs amid fears the presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 14 could descend into violence.

The United States has cancelled its observation of Uganda’s presidential election because most of its accreditation requests were denied, and said Thursday’s vote would lack accountability and transparency.

The announcement adds to a growing chorus of concern over the credibility of the election. While previous elections have been marred by crackdowns on the opposition, campaigning this time has been particularly violent. Scores of people have been killed and opposition candidates, supporters and campaign staff have been repeatedly arrested and intimidated.

The European Union said on Tuesday that 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.

WATCH l CBC crew not allowed entry by Uganda:

A CBC News crew was deported from Uganda despite having media credentials, as a contentious election approaches. It has already been marred by violent crackdowns on protesters. 2:31

A coalition representing hundreds of Ugandan civil society organizations said on Wednesday that it had filed 1,900 accreditation requests but only 10 had been granted.

That follows similar treatment for CBC journalists late last year.

In a television address on Tuesday evening, the 76-year-old Museveni, who took power in 1986, said he had met with the security forces and they were ready to defend any Ugandans worried about coming out to vote because of intimidation by the opposition.

“There is no threat we cannot defeat,” said Museveni, wearing a military camouflage jacket. “We have got all sorts of means, simple and complex.”

Challenger Wine has been beaten, arrested several times

Museveni also apologized for the inconvenience caused by a ban on social media and messaging apps, but he said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts that backed his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

“If you want to take sides against the NRM, then that group should not operate in Uganda,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”

This week Elijah Mukiibi, a driver for Bobi Wine, was killed in unclear circumstances.

At 38, Wine is half Museveni’s age and the singer known for catchy protest songs has attracted a large following among younger people in the East African country, where 80 per cent of the population are under 30 and two-thirds unemployed.

LISTEN l Bobi Wine vows to press on despite obstacles, arrests:

As It Happens6:32Ugandan presidential candidate Bobi Wine pauses campaign, but vows to keep fighting

Ugandan musician Bobi Wine has briefly suspended his presidential campaign amid a violent crackdown against him and his supporters. But the young upstart politician says he has no intention of backing down. 6:32

In his songs, Wine, who grew up in a Kampala slum and whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, decries freedom fighters who have become dictators and the lack of a peaceful transition.

Wine has pledged to create five million jobs and rein in graft he says has drained resources that could be invested in public services and revive growth in this country of 46 million people.

Wine, left, takes an injured supporter into a medical centre on Dec. 1 in Jinja, Uganda. The election season has been marred with violence, with dozens killed by security forces and Wine and his team members subject to detention and arrest. (Getty Images)

Since campaigning began in November, security forces have repeatedly broken up Wine’s rallies with tear gas, rubber bullets, beatings and detentions. Wine has been arrested multiple times and now campaigns in a helmet and flak jacket. In one incident in November, 54 people were killed as soldiers and police quelled protests after Wine was detained.

“The terror, frankly, is unprecedented,” said Kizza Besigye, a veteran opposition leader who challenged Museveni in four elections. “Violence, terror seem to be scaled up with every coming election. This election has witnessed untold violence. It gets worse and worse by the day.”

When Museveni seized power in 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war, he was welcomed by Ugandans worn down by the murderous regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

But accusations of corruption, official extravagance, rights abuses and nepotism have gradually eroded support for Museveni, especially among younger voters who are looking to Wine for change.

“Hospitals in Uganda died. Schools are dead. Electricity is so expensive,” said David Kafero, a 35-year-old father of four who dropped out of school because he couldn’t pay the fees and calls himself a “ghetto boy” who gets by doing odd jobs.

Machinations to keep Museveni in power

Museveni has won every election since the first under his presidency in 1996, though they have been tarnished by the intimidation of opposition candidates as well as accusations of vote rigging. He calls Wine “an agent of foreign interests.”

Uganda is a Western ally, a prospective oil producer and is considered a stabilizing force in a region where war has plagued neighbours such as Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. It also contributes the biggest contingent of an African Union force fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is shown at a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 17, 2019. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

Older voters such as Benon Kamoga, a 50-year-old father of nine, credit Museveni, the fourth-longest ruler in Africa, with maintaining stability and plan to reward him on Thursday.

“We have security and peace. I can wake up in the middle of the night and go and do whatever business I want without any worry,” Kamoga said.

In campaigns, Museveni trumpets his achievements in energy and transport, such as building hydro-power dams and roads and driving industrial expansion. At one rally, he also did press-ups to demonstrate he was still energetic despite his age.

Uganda’s parliament, which is dominated by the NRM, has twice changed the constitution to allow Museveni to run, first removing a two-term limit in 2005 and then abolishing the age limit of 75 in 2017.

While opinion polls are few and far between, analysts say rampant unemployment, slowing economic growth and surging public debt have fuelled youth disaffection with Museveni’s government.

“A whole generation has come to grow under this regime and has come of age,” said David Ngendo Tshimba, an academic at the Uganda Martyrs University. “‘Something new is better’ looms large for this generation.”

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