Ugandans vote on Thursday in a presidential election pitting long-time leader Yoweri Museveni against ten candidates including opposition frontrunner 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.
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% of the population are under 30 and two-thirds unemployed.
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, who is 76, especially among younger voters who are looking to Wine for change.
Uganda is a Western ally, a prospective oil producer and is considered a stabilising 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 parliament, which is dominated by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, 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.”
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.
He has pledged to create 5 million jobs and rein in graft he says has drained resources that could be invested in public services and revive growth in a country of 46 million people.
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.
Museveni has appointed an army general as deputy police chief last month and another general who headed a contingent in Somalia is overseeing security operations for the Kampala area.
“There is a lot of fatigue with Museveni. If the population was not afraid of the military, they would rise up,” said Godber Tumushabe, associate director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Kampala.
“The Museveni regime is in control of the institutions of the state and will use them to ensure the regime stays in power.”