Campaigning for the presidential election has entered final days as Ugandans are set to vote on Jan. 14.
Candidates are putting final touches on their charm offensives as they seek a mandate to lead.
Bobi Wine, 38, the main challenger to incumbent Yoweri Museveni, has been arrested numerous times since Nov. 3, the day he was nominated for the presidency. He likens the campaigns to a battlefield.
“All my personal aides and assistants have been shot at. As I speak, all my campaign team members, more than 100 people, are incarcerated by police and military,” he told reporters on Jan. 8.
The singer-turned politician has repeatedly accused Museveni, 76, who has been in power for more than 35 years and is one of the longest-serving African leaders, of being a dictator.
Wine commands support largely among youngsters and the urban population who want change, while the incumbent has base among institutions, security forces, state media, as well as individuals who have benefited from his three-decade-long rule.
Last month, Uganda asked tech giant Google to block YouTube channels affiliated with Wine, who has used social media regularly to communicate with his supporters.
Other opposition leaders have also been routinely targeted by security forces, sometimes arriving at campaign venues in clouds of tear gas, often welcomed by baton-wielding riot officers, arrested at several campaign rallies or found their paths to pre-approved campaign events suddenly blocked by security agencies.
The election commission suspended campaigning on Dec. 26 in the capital Kampala, an opposition stronghold, citing coronavirus concerns. At least 54 people have died in violence since November.
Authorities say force is necessary to ensure compliance with SOPs to stop the spread of COVID-19. But analysts say the rules have been selectively applied.
“You can tell the security forces know this isn’t an election,” said Yusuf Serunkuma, a researcher at the Makerere University. “Would you kick around a guy you suspect could be the next commander-in-chief?”
AbduSalaam Ali Kinobe, a politician, said COVID-19 regulations are being used as a pretext for political repression. “Supporters of President Museveni and the ruling party have also repeatedly gathered in large crowds, contravening COVID-19 guidelines, in the presence of police,” he said.
There is also a growing concern about the harassment of journalists and civil society.
The recent arrest and week-long detention of Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights lawyer, sent “a chilling message about the respect for human rights under President Museveni as he faces a serious electoral challenge,” said Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made statements on alleged irregularities regarding the election process in the East African country, Ugandan officials responded by saying that their efforts should be reserved for the US only, where election-related controversies continue.
Recent riots and President Donald Trump’s speeches following his defeat to Joe Biden have allowed leaders to defy calls for free and fair elections in Uganda.
On Jan. 6, Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, and vandalized, ransacked, and occupied parts of the building for several hours.
But Swaib Kaggwa, a member of the Justice Forum party, told Anadolu Agency that events in the US should not affect a transparent electoral process in Uganda.
“Trump lost an election and has subsequently lost more a number of lawsuits disputing election results,” he said. “This shows you how strong democratic pillars are in the US, unlike Uganda.”
Uganda Electoral Commission chairperson Simon Byabakama said voters will not be allowed to witness vote counting. He said it is dangerous to keep people of different political parties and supporters of rival candidates in the same area.
The electoral body also announced a ban on the use of cameras and smartphones at polling stations to ensure the sanctity of the secret ballot.
Several voters Anadolu Agency spoke to dismissed the move as illegal. The Presidential Elections Act of 2005 stipulates that voters can stay at least 20 meters (66 feet) from polling stations.
“The ban raises questions on the integrity of the process and resurfaces fears of intended vote rigging. Cameras are an important tool to capture evidence, which might be useful in an event the vote is challenged,” said Katongole Hadija, a lecturer from Kampala International University.
She said the move is self-defeating because the same electoral body is encouraging virtual campaigns, virtual activities and less human-to-human interactions, which is exactly what smartphones are designed to do.
The Forum for Democratic Party has written to the election commission, asking for the law that was followed to ban the use of cameras and smartphones.