A voter casts a ballot at a polling station in Kampala, Uganda, on January 14, 2021.
KAMPALA - Ugandans voted on Thursday under heavy security and an internet blackout in an election pitting veteran leader Yoweri Museveni against a former popstar which sparked one of the bloodiest campaigns in years.
Voting in Kampala took place under heavy military and police presence, with no violent incidents reported by the time polling stations closed.
Museveni is seeking a sixth term in office, having ruled for almost four decades, against singer-turned-MP Bobi Wine, 38, whose popularity among a youthful population has rattled the former rebel leader.
After a campaign marred by arrests, bloodshed and harassment of the opposition and journalists, the internet was shut down on the eve of the election, further fuelling fears the vote would not be free and fair.
In the Kololo neighbourhood of Kampala, polling agents opened ballot boxes onto a black tarp and counted each vote aloud as tallying began.
Results are expected Saturday.
Wine said several of his party's polling agents had been arrested during the morning, as he cast his vote on the outskirts of Kampala alongside his wife before a crowd of dancing and singing supporters.
"In 22 districts our teams are on the run because they are being surrounded and pursued by police and soldiers as if they are criminals," he said.
Soldiers marched in Kamwokya, the crowded Kampala slum where Wine grew up and is hugely popular, while convoys of riot police patrolled the capital.
Museveni voted in his home district of Kiruhura in rural western Uganda, about 250 kilometres from the capital.
"The president has voted, he is sure of winning, but he will accept the result of the election so long as they are free and fair," Don Wanyama, the presidential spokesman, told AFP.
Wine is the strongest of 10 opposition contenders. But Museveni has never lost an election, and most observers expect he and his ruling National Resistance Movement will emerge victorious.
Nevertheless, optimism was high in the opposition heartland of Kamwokya, where voters jostled into tight queues despite efforts to impose social distancing after weeks of rising coronavirus cases.
"I am here to change the leadership of this nation because for years, they've been telling me they will secure my future. They have not done that," said driver Joseph Nsuduga, 30.
Some 18 million voters are registered for the presidential and parliamentary vote, and results are expected by Saturday.
"I continue to encourage all Ugandans to turn out and vote," Wine said.
Voting was delayed in several locations in Kampala and queues snaked for hours, with Wine complaining of problems with the biometric machines used to confirm voter identities.
"People have been waiting for so long," said Kyazike Eva, 50.
The opposition frontrunner has vowed non-violent street protests should Ugandans feel the election was stolen.
Museveni has warned that using violence to protest the result would amount to "treason".
He has ruled Uganda without pause since seizing control in 1986, when he helped to end years of tyranny under Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
Once hailed for his commitment to good governance, the former rebel leader has crushed any opposition and tweaked the constitution to allow himself to run again and again.
But he is still held in high regard by older Ugandans who remember the relative stability and security that Museveni returned to the country.
"These young people, they want change, but they don't know what Museveni did for us," said Faith Florence Nakalembe, 58.
But her children, also standing in line in Kamwokya to vote, desperately want change.
Sophie Mukoone, 34, said she spent months trying to change her mother's mind, but at least her brother Saad was out voting for the first time.
"For 23 years I have never seen a different president, and I want someone else," said 23-year-old student Saad Mukoone, who was throwing his vote behind Wine.
"Most of the people in government are old, and they don't want to leave."
The runup to polling day was marred by a sustained crackdown on Museveni's rivals and government critics, and unprecedented attacks on the nation's media and human rights defenders.
In November, at least 54 people were shot dead by security forces loyal to Museveni during protests against one of Wine's numerous arrests.
The US, EU, UN and global rights and democracy groups have raised concerns about the integrity and transparency of the election.
Only one foreign organisation, the African Union (AU), has sent monitors, along with an AU women's group.
On Wednesday, the United States, a major aid donor to Uganda, announced it was cancelling a diplomatic observer mission after too many of its staff were denied permission to monitor the election.
On Tuesday, Museveni announced the suspension of social media networks and messaging services like Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp in response to Facebook closing accounts linked to government officials the tech giant said were spreading misinformation.