Uganda presidential hopeful Bobi Wine wears a helmet and bulletproof vest due to constant clashes with security officers

Ugandan troops have been deployed ahead of Thursday’s vote. Opposition candidate Bobi Wine has urged supporters to cast a ‘protest vote.’

Music, campaign messages, and pledges blast through public speakers mounted on pick-up trucks in Uganda’s capital Kampala. But these trucks plastered with posters of presidential and parliamentary candidates are not the only new additions to the streets.

The Ugandan government — anticipating post-election violence — has deployed a massive military presence across the East African nation ahead of the election.

“Everybody is thinking of vacating the city and of vacating their homes because people are in fear,” Susan Okedi, a Kampala resident, told DW. She said she would stay in her home village until peace and tranquility returns to the capital.

Ugandan soldiers look on as residents walk by.

Museveni’s government has defended its decision to deploy the army saying it wants to defend against riots and insurrection

“It is possible to prevent violence, but I don’t see a willingness from the different parties to prevent it. The discussions that would have defused the situation are not taking place,” Fred Muhumuza, development policy analyst and lecturer at the School of Economics at Uganda’s Makerere University, told DW.

Calling on voters

Popstar-turned-politician Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, blames President Yoweri Museveni’s government for harassing and intimidating his supporters and top members of his National Unity Platform (NUP).

In an exclusive interview with DW, the self-styled ‘ghetto president’ called on voters to come out in large numbers and vote for change. “That is how we are going to get our freedom. That is the master key to a new Uganda. We can do this. Let this be a protest vote.”

At least 54 people were killed when protests broke out in mid-November following the arrest and detention of Bobi Wine and other opposition activists. Bobi Wine has attracted thousands of supporters — mostly young, as he campaigned to end Museveni’s 34-year grip on power.

Security officers have responded by dispersing the large crowds by firing tear gas and live bullets. Authorities blame Bobi Wine and his supporters for violating COVID-19 prevention restrictions that include a ban on mass gatherings.

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Political rallies by the ruling NRM party are, however, left unbothered by security agents.

“The COVID pandemic is being used as an excuse to curtail fundamental rights and freedoms,” Nicholas Opiyo, an award-winning lawyer and human rights defender, told DW before his arrest.

His supporters believe Opiyo’s money laundering charges have been trumped-up by the government. Critics say Opiyo’s detention and that of many other opposition members are part of a repression campaign against government opponents and the media ahead of the elections.

“We are seeing the army everywhere as if they are preparing for war,” Allan Mawanda, a prominent supporter and voter mobilizer for Bobi Wine, said. “There is violence even before the elections, and the number of people killed by security forces is more than those killed by COVID-19.”

A man checks the temperature of another in the streets of Kampala.

Critics blame the government for using COVID-19 as a pretext to stop the opposition from campaigning

Facebook blocks accounts linked to government

The Ugandan government has accused Facebook of meddling in its election after the social media giant suspended several pro-government accounts. Facebook alleges that one of the accounts used by the information ministry used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, and re-share posts to make them appear more popular than they were.

But presidential spokesman, Dan Wanyama, argued that Facebook’s decision to suppress pro-Museveni voices on social media was proof enough that Bobi Wine is receiving outside support in his bid to defeat Museveni.

On several occasions, Museveni has described Bobi Wine as an “agent of foreign interests” bent on disrupting Uganda’s’ stability and independence.

Museveni, 76, still enjoys broad support, particularly among the older generation and in rural areas. He has also been widely praised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, opposition figures such as Bobi Wine have labeled him a dictator and tyrant for his abusive and repressive political approach.

In April 2019, he had the Constitutional Court abolish an age limit for the presidency so that he could run again. “I think he would probably like to continue to be president of Uganda until he is deceased of natural causes,” Alex Vines of the London-based think tank Chatham House told DW.

EU not sending observers

The European Union said it would not send electoral observers. It cited the coronavirus pandemic, Kampala’s failure to issue an invitation, and an absence of necessary reforms over the past 15 years as reasons for not doing so.

An EU election observer talks to DW

The European Union will not be sending observers to Uganda’s January 14 General Election

Apart from being distracted by other pressing matters, especially the pandemic, the West is wary about what a change of power might mean for the region.

Uganda has not seen a peaceful transfer of power since gaining independence from Britain in 1962. Alex Vines said Museveni is likely to be reelected but with a smaller margin than previous elections.

“Museveni isn’t used to tight competition. And I think he’s worried that his majority is significantly declining,” Vines said. “I guess next time he will have to become even more repressive, at least if he wants to claim a victory through official ballot numbers.”

Opposition agenda not clear

Eleven candidates are vying for the presidency, and more than 400 parliamentary seats will be up for grabs. The opposition has failed to explain its agenda beyond domestic issues, according to political analyst Fred Muhumuza. “They have not put out what could be their foreign policy, what is going to be their security policy,” Muhumuza told DW.

Yoweri Museveni und Bobi Wine

President Yoweri Museveni (L) is expected to defeat Bobi Wine (R) albeit with a smaller margin than previous elections

“They seem to be riding the sentiments of the youth about jobs, about economic opportunities, human rights. But the global public is looking at many other dimensions. And I think Museveni still has the edge over his competitors there as far as foreign powers are concerned,” Muhumuza added.

Despite polls pitted against him, presidential contender Bobi Wine remains optimistic that he has what it takes to remove Museveni from power through the ballot and send the man who came to power when he was just four years old to retirement. “President Museveni has destroyed all the institutions,” Wine said, adding that Museveni is ruling with an iron fist where he controls the parliament and the judiciary. “President Museveni hates to lose, and yet he is doing everything that makes him lose.”