There is “fear and anxiety” ahead of elections in Uganda, as President Yoweri Museveni – who has ruled the country since 1986 – seeks a sixth term in office.
The election is being held despite the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which has complicated campaigning in the East Africa country.
“Due to COVID-19, the Uganda Electoral Commission issued a new road map which prohibited big gatherings as a step towards controlling the spread of the virus and this has in the end limited campaigning by most political players. This has also been one of the major causes of pre-election violence as the police and other security agencies struggled to enforce the Ministry of Health guidance, said Fredrick Ssemwanga, the parliamentary liaison for the Uganda Episcopal Conference.
Ssemwanga also serves on the Uganda National Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
“There is a lot of fear and anxiety on what may happen after the election on Thursday,” he told CAFOD, the development agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
“This has been mainly due to the current pre-election violence in the country with attacks to civilians, media, and civil society. Many are convinced that elections may not be free and fair,” he said.
“We may not have violence on election day itself. But depending on how the Uganda Electoral Commission handles the process of releasing election results – this is where the tensions will be. however, depending on how the Uganda Electoral Commission will handle the process of releasing election results, this is where the tension will be,” Ssemwanga said.
Opposition figures in Uganda are criticizing widespread violence by security forces ahead of Thursday’s presidential election, while main challenger Bobi Wine said soldiers who raided his home Tuesday morning arrested a security guard and beat two gardeners badly.
“The terror, frankly, is unprecedented,” Kizza Besigye, a veteran opposition leader who challenged Museveni in four elections, told the Associated Press.
“Violence, terror seem to be scaled up with every coming election. This election has witnessed untold violence. It gets worse and worse by the day.”
The 76-year-old president had the country’s constitution changed to remove term limits in 2005 and in 2018 changed it again to allow him to rule past the age of 75.
There are a total of 11 candidates running for president, and a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff vote.
Last week, Uganda’s Catholic bishops issued a statement saying they are “deeply concerned about certain anomalies that could taint the credibility of the electoral process and outcome of the polls if not addressed urgently.”
Among these it the violence perpetrated by the security forces against opposition candidates and supporters.
“We appeal to the police force and all other security agencies involved in the electoral process to dispense their mandate in a diligent and professional manner. In particular we recommend that: In the maintenance of law and order, the police should be seen to act impartially and refuse to be drawn into the political contestations, it must at all times be seen to account to the people, not to any political group,” the statement said.
“Moreover, apart from demonstrating lack of political maturity on the part of various political actors, such violence only weakens the foundations of democracy laid by the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda,” the bishops added.
The statement also draws attention to the use of intimidation in electoral campaigns in the country.
“We strongly believe that intimidation of any sort has no place in a civilized society, let alone political system. It undermines the will of the people to choose the leaders they want and the dignity of the human person, and violates several cardinal principles of democracy laid down in our own national Constitution and several international norms to which Uganda is a signatory. Indeed, nobody has the right to intimidate another. Each voter must be allowed to choose his or her leader, and candidates to reach out to voters without undue restrictions, but within the confines of a just law,” the bishops said.
Ugandan authorities also appeared to shut down Facebook on Tuesday in retaliation over its decision to censor many Ugandan accounts linked to Museveni that were allegedly engaged in inauthentic behavior.
Many Ugandans said WhatsApp also was not working.
A presidential spokesman on Monday accused Facebook of meddling in the East African country’s election.
With support from CAFOD, the National Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace is involved in voter mobilization, voter, and civic education on radio calling for peaceful elections, anti-electoral bribery and anti-corruption messages.
“With CAFOD’s support we have also built up the skills, knowledge and ability of Diocesan Justice and Peace coordinators from the nineteen Catholic dioceses of Uganda, who will act as national election observers,” Ssemwanga said.
“People are expected to go and vote, and voter slips are currently being issued to all eligible voters. People are ready to exercise their democratic right,” he added.
This article incorporated material from the Associated Press.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome