Uganda’s 112-day presidential election campaign kicked off in the capital, Kampala, today amid concerns that violence could mar the run-up to the Feb. 18 vote, in which President Yoweri Museveni is favored to win a fourth term.
Having abolished the limit on the number of terms he can serve in 2005, Mr. Museveni – who earlier this year became East Africa’s longest-ever serving head of state after 24 years in power – will face off against seven competitors.
Despite a steadily growing economy, rampant corruption has led to widespread resentment, and a simmering conflict between Museveni's government and the Baganda – Uganda’s largest ethnic group – could make the race competitive.
That's if the vote is free and fair.
Opponents, critics, and independent analysts share concerns that abuse of power, electoral fraud, and voter intimidation will mar the vote as they claim it did last time.
“The voters are not the ones who will decide the outcome,” says Aaron Mukwaya, a senior lecturer in political science at Kampala’s Makerere University. “The government already knows the outcome it wants and it will get it by using money, the military, and all the apparatus of the state.”
Museveni's top rival
Chief among Museveni's opponents is the president’s former doctor and current nemesis, Kizza Besigye, from the Forum for Democratic Change party.
Mr. Besigye is hoping his third attempt to defeat Museveni will be a charm. And this time round may offer his best chance.
As Museveni has gone from a new breed of African leader in the early 1990s to a continental dinosaur, the past few elections have seen his share of the vote slip from over 75 percent to around 59 percent.
But with more money and resources at his disposal, few in Uganda doubt that Museveni will win again comfortably.
Concerns of fraud, violence
Fears of vote-rigging and violence seem justified. Following the last elections in 2006, Uganda’s High Court ruled that the vote had been marred by intimidation and violence but decided against annulling the results.
Even the September primaries for Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement descended into fist-fights and shooting amid accusations of widespread fraud.
Meanwhile, government-backed gangs of stick-wielding, plain-clothed men – known as Kiboko squads – have increasingly been used to disrupt opposition events.
In a televised interview after he was officially nominated Monday, Besigye was already calling the elections “inherently fraudulent.”
Only two weeks ago, Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled to drop treason and terrorism charges against Besigye dating back to 2005. The accusations – dismissed by the opposition as politically-motivated, along with another previous charge of rape – saw Besigye arrested repeatedly in the run-up to the last elections.
The opposition also has itself to blame, however. Government opponents have failed to unite around a single challenger.
Two charismatic candidates from war-ravaged northern Uganda, Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party and former United Nations bigwig Olara Otunnu of the Uganda People’s Congress, have decided to stand and could split the opposition vote.
Oil finds raise the stakes
Since the last elections the stakes have risen. Recent oil exploration in Uganda has uncovered an estimated two billion barrels of oil. Drilling is expected to start as soon as next year and will swell government coffers.
As for the major Western donors, analysts say they will likely be unwilling to rock the boat over any claims of vote-rigging due to fears that they could risk destabilizing one of their few reliable allies in a volatile region.
Uganda is the major troop-contributing nation to the African Union’s mission propping up the UN-backed transitional federal government in Somalia. Even more pressing are fears over a return to war in neighboring southern Sudan, where a referendum over possible independence will be held just weeks prior to the Ugandan elections.
“The donors have shifted their focus from the issue of free and fair elections to the issue of stability in Uganda and in the region,” says Mr. Mukwaya. “Stability in Uganda is very important for them. It is the basis on which they can operate in this area.”