Candidate Arrest, Social Media Blackout, and Clashes Mar Election Day in Uganda
Longtime President Yoweri Museveni is widely expected to win re-election, through means fair or foul.
KAMPALA, Uganda — Government security forces arrested opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye at the end of a chaotic Election Day in Uganda, where voters queued for hours before ballot papers arrived at polling stations, mobile access to social media was blocked, and brief clashes erupted between protesters and security services.
The arrest came after Besigye, a former personal physician to President Yoweri Museveni who is challenging the Ugandan leader for the fourth time, claimed to have uncovered a ballot-stuffing operation in the capital, Kampala. He reportedly entered the premises unannounced and observed police officers ticking ballots, but was swiftly taken into custody.
The police said in a statement that Besigye was apprehended for criminal trespass and assault, and later released on bond.
The incident marked the candidate’s second detention this week, underscoring the lengths to which Ugandan security services are willing to go to stymie the opposition. On Monday, Besigye was picked up by security forces on his way to a campaign rally in Kampala. His supporters clashed with police and at least one person was killed.
Museveni is widely expected to win re-election, through means fair or foul, but the former guerilla leader who took power in 1986 is facing his toughest group of challengers yet. In addition to Besigye, who draws thousands of devoted supporters to his rallies when the spectacles are not broken up by police, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi has made a strong showing. Recent opinion polls show him with the support of up to 12 percent of the country’s voters, with Besigye hovering around 30 percent.
The president has not dipped below the 50 percent threshold that would trigger a run-off between the top two finishers.
Election Day got off to a slow start in Kampala as residents waited in line for up to seven hours in some precincts before balloting commenced. Polling stations were scheduled to open at 7:00 a.m., but voting materials didn’t arrive until 2:00 p.m. local time in some locations. Unable to access Twitter or Facebook from their mobile phones, voters were limited in their ability to share information about delays or report other irregularities.
“It has been total chaos,” said Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, a spokesman for Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change. “And I think it’s deliberate because this has happened only in Kampala and [the neighboring district of] Wakiso, where we have massive support.”
In the Kibuli Hill neighborhood of the capital, lines of voters carrying brightly-colored parasols to ward of the heat stretched for hundreds of yards, winding around shacks with tin roofs and up a gravel road riven by deep tire ruts. At 2:30 p.m., seven-and-a-half hours after the station was supposed to have opened, voters in line estimated that between 10 and 15 people had cast their ballots. Most people had been there since dawn.
“Now people are becoming impatient, you can imagine, because they have been waiting for hours,” said Habib Ismail, 25, a student in Kampala who arrived at 6:00 a.m. hoping to vote early and get on with his day. “The government is trying to waste time, so not everyone here will vote.”
Elsewhere in Kampala, impatience boiled over into violence. In Ggaba, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in the south of the capital, a group of angry voters gathered outside of one polling station and yelled to the police that they were on strike — refusing to participate in elections they now considered a sham.
Eventually, some of the protesters began marching down the street toward another polling station, carrying a Besigye banner. Security forces pelted them with tear gas and they quickly dispersed.
Brian Kalema, 28, who makes a living by collecting and selling sand and other building materials, stood glumly on the side of the road watching the police chase down the demonstrators. He was too disgusted to even participate in the protest. Kalema said he showed up at his Ggaba polling station at 7:30 a.m., but when materials still hadn’t arrived by 2:00 p.m. he decided to give up.
“It was intentional,” he said of the Electoral Commission’s failure to distribute ballots in the opposition stronghold. “I don’t think there’s going to be any voting today.”
At least two Ggaba polling stations were closed by officials before voting was scheduled to end at 4:00 p.m. Several reportedly never opened, and voting there has been rescheduled until tomorrow.
“There are challenges you foresee and plan for and those we never foresaw,” said Jotham Talemwa, a spokesman for the Electoral Commission. “We will go back after that and see what went wrong.”
Mike Sebalu, a spokesman for Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement, said on the whole he thought the process was a success.
“The polling went on well in a larger part of the country, and was almost 80 or 90 percent on-time. In some districts, Kampala and Wakiso, there was some delays in delivering the electoral materials. But the effect of the delay was not selective or discriminatory,” he said.
Asked for comment on Besigye’s arrest, Sebalu said the opposition candidate has been acting “irrationally.”
“I think he needs to act with restraint. He is engaging in a lot of provocative engagements, which are neither necessary nor desirable at this point in time,” he said.
Andrew Green contributed reporting.
Image credit: WILL BOASE/AFP/Getty Images