Kampala echoes to the sound of silence on election day

The Times of London
Kampala, Uganda

Uganda vote
A lone voter registers at a polling station set up in Luzira, a slum in Kampala

Pick-up trucks carrying soldiers and armed police raced along the deserted streets of Kampala yesterday; a beefed-up security presence overseeing an election expected to extend President Museveni’s 25-year rule.

The long lines of voters queueing from before dawn that so often mark elections in Africa were absent in the centre of the capital. When polling centres opened at 7am some did so without a single voter present.

At a polling centre in the car park of an ageing shopping mall in central Kampala, Moses Jabo, 45, a logistics consultant, arrived early; not to beat the queues, but because later in the day he would make a long journey north to attend his father’s funeral.

The capital is an opposition stronghold and Mr Jabo said he had voted for Mr Museveni’s main opponent, Kizza Besigye, of the Inter-Party Cooperation coalition. “You have seen people living here like dogs,” he said, waving his hand towards the rubbish gathered in drifts by the roadside and the distant, rusting roofs of a city slum. “We need change.”

Change is unlikely to come, however. “Election after election, the opposition puts up a stiff fight in the urban areas — and that’s about it,” said Mahmood Mamdani, a leading thinker on Uganda and director of the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University. He said the ruling National Resistance Movement remained overwhelmingly dominant in the countryside, where most of Uganda’s 33 million people live. “The fact is that you don’t have a multi-party system throughout the country: you have a single-party system in the rural areas and a multi-party system in the urban areas,” he said.

A recent poll forecast a 65 per cent majority for Mr Museveni but Dr Besigye is convinced that, in his third attempt to unseat his former friend, he will succeed. He has threatened street protests if he is cheated of victory. The heavy police presence suggests that any protest will be shortlived, however.

Dr Besigye has accused the Electoral Commission running the vote of bias and has promised to run a parallel vote count.

Despite an open and peaceful campaign, initial reports after voting got under way yesterday suggested that there may be a repeat of the electoral fraud and intimidation that marred the past two elections, in 2001 and 2006.

At least one person was reportedly shot on an island in Lake Victoria, while a parliamentary candidate for the opposition Forum for Democratic Change was beaten and a journalist travelling with him shot when his convoy was attacked in the east of the country.

Similar reports were logged by the Democracy Monitoring Group, a local organisation that deployed 6,000 observers and is running a website on which citizens can post cases of alleged malpractice.

Local and international observers reported cases of rigging, including marked ballot papers, unsealed ballot boxes and voters being turned away despite having registered.

Among Ugandans, fears that violence will erupt after the results are published, probably on Sunday, are widespread. “People have sent their families out of the country or have escaped to the village. The city is empty, supermarkets and petrol stations are empty,” said Andrew Mwenda, a local journalist and commentator.

Yoweri Museveni
The former rebel leader seized power in 1986, ending years of brutal rule under Idi Amin and Milton Obote. He said leaders who “overstayed” in power were the root of Africa’s problems; 25 years later he is still in charge and hoping to win a fourth term

Aged 67, he was born in Rwakitura, western Uganda, to a cattle-herding family. He studied at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the 1960s

Uganda has enjoyed a rare era of peace during his rule. His firm hand and shepherding of the economy has won him friends in the West and he continues to earn approval by sending troops to fight al-Shabaab in Somalia

He is accused of allowing nepotism and corruption to flourish and of running the country as a private fiefdom

Kizza Besigye
Once a close friend and doctor to Mr Museveni during the years of guerrilla war, he fell out with the President in 1999 and two years later made his first challenge at the ballot box

Dr Besigye, 54, is from Rukungiri, also in western Uganda.

He won 37 per cent of the vote five years ago He fled into exile after the 2001 poll, saying that he feared for his life. When he returned to contest the 2006 vote he was charged with rape and treason, effectively preventing him from campaigning freely. The charges were later thrown out

Critics say Dr Besigye is so similar to Mr Museveni that he offers little but a change of face. His campaign speeches often carry a tone of grievance that lead some to whisper that the real root of the animosity is personal: his wife, Winnie Byanyima, is a former girlfriend of Mr Museveni.