Uganda: Internet cut off as polls close in tense election - with reggae singer taking on president twice his age

·4-min read

Polls have closed in Uganda after a presidential election marred by violence - with internet access cut off amid fears that the unrest could escalate.

Long lines of voters were seen in the capital Kampala on Thursday, and results are expected to emerge by Saturday evening.

President Yoweri Museveni, who is 76, is seeking a sixth term in office - but he is facing a strong challenge from Bobi Wine, a former reggae singer who is half his age.

Mr Wine has warned that he does not expect this election to be free and fair. Before a coronavirus-related curfew came into force, he urged supporters to linger near polling stations and protect their votes.

"No matter what they do, the world is watching," the opposition politician wrote on Twitter.

While Mr Wine has made bold calls for the president to resign - accusing him of being an out-of-touch dictator who is failing to tackle rampant unemployment - Mr Museveni claims his political rival cannot be trusted with power because he is backed by foreign actors and homosexuals.

Mr Museveni, who has enacted tough anti-homosexuality laws during his time in office, said in a recent interview: "Homosexuals are very happy with Bobi Wine. I think they even send him support."

Uganda, an East African nation of 45 million people, has never witnessed a peaceful handover of power since it secured independence from Britain in 1962.

As polling station queues snaked into the distance in Kampala, mechanic Steven Kaderere said: "This is a miracle. This shows me that Ugandans this time are determined to vote for the leader they want. I have never seen this before."

Despite a heavy military deployment on the streets, young Ugandans said they were determined to vote - with some claiming that Mr Museveni's government is out of ideas.

Car washer Allan Sserwadda said: "If we are to die, let us die. Now there is no difference between being alive and being dead. Bullets can find you anywhere. They can find you at home. They can find you on the veranda."

In November, at least 54 people were killed as security forces quelled riots that were triggered by Mr Wine's arrest, amid allegations he violated campaign rules designed to stop COVID-19 spreading.

Mr Wine insists he is running a non-violent campaign, but security forces are concerned opposition supporters could mount a street uprising leading to regime change.

He told Sky News: "This is the day when we take the first major step into a new Uganda. That will happen - doesn't matter how long it takes, it doesn't matter how much stress we have to go through, we know we are going to be free. Oppressed people cannot be oppressed forever."

When asked whether he would accept the outcome of the election, President Museveni said "of course" - but quickly added: "If there are no mistakes."

On the streets of Uganda's capital, a determination to vote
By John Sparks, Africa correspondent, in Kampala

We left our hotel at first light on election day and saw the queues forming up around Kampala.

If there had been concerns about voter turnout after a bitter and violent campaign, they were quickly dispelled as the sun rose over this bustling city.

The polling stations were open-air affairs - set up in parks, school playgrounds and vacant lots - and we could see that people were getting increasingly impatient.

They were supposed to welcome voters from 7am, but most polling stations were not ready on time.

Election staff were struggling with handheld computers used to confirm each voter's personal details and dozens of polling stations had not received any ballot papers.

But the residents of Uganda's capital held their position in the ever-lengthening lines and expressed their determination to vote.

"We just have to be patient," said one young man. "We are going to select our president today and to decide you have to be patient."

"Will the election be free and fair?" I asked another voter.

"I will do what I can do and I'll leave the rest to God," they replied.

There are real concerns in Uganda that the vote will not be counted accurately. Mr Museveni's government has been accused of disrupting its opponents' campaign events and harassing opposition leaders and their campaign staff.

His administration has also switched off the internet, making it difficult for polling agents to independently verify the vote, and many do not trust the government agency that is organising the poll.

Yet the public wanted to have their say and they did so today with an admirable stoicism.

"Uganda needs to change a lot of things," said one woman, who told me still was struggling to find a job. "Healthcare is poor, education is poor and the ministers are very corrupt. If this is my only chance to change [Uganda], I'll take it."