With 78% of the population under 30 years old, Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world. President Yoweri Musevini, who was elected President in 1986 following a civil war, has been in power for longer than most of Uganda’s population has been alive. This year, Museveni was seeking a fifth term in office. His main opposition was Kizza Besigye, a doctor who was Museveni’s former personal physician.
Uganda has not seen a peaceful transition of presidential power since its independence in 1962. Many of the country’s youth were therefore hopeful for change. In fact, “change” was all I heard about in Kampala in the weeks preceding the February 18 election. The city was transformed into a sea of yellow and blue, as people walked around in colorful t-shirts that sported the faces of their favorite political candidates. Every inch of the city was plastered with colorful campaign posters. My favorite boda (motorcycle taxi) driver would repeatedly tell me about how “his man” Besigye was going to win the election. The conversation in my office revolved around one thing and one thing only: the election and the possibility of change.
Although many had high hopes that this election would be fairer than previous ones, signs were not good. In the months preceding the election, opposition candidates and their supporters were harassed by the police. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch criticized authorities for preventing opposition gatherings and intimidating journalists critical of the government. I also repeatedly heard accusations of likely vote-rigging, and clashes between supporters of opposing parties were common. All these problems left little space for freedom of expression and political debate.
Information about security during the election was inconsistent to say the least. Advice given to me ranged from “nothing will happen” to “make sure you have enough food and water to last a week in your home.” I was surprised that many of my international friends decided to leave the country due to concern over potential violence in the city. Since our office closed for the week, I decided to take their advice and went to the smaller remote town of Gulu. It proved to be a good decision: just three days before the election, police fired teargas in downtown Kampala to disperse a crowd that had formed after Besigye was arrested while trying to attend a rally in his support.
Nonetheless, despite tensions and heavy police deployment throughout the city, my Ugandan friends and coworkers remained determined to go out and vote.
Excitement turned to frustration. On February 18, many polling stations failed to open on time due to delays in the delivery of ballots by the Electoral Commission. Ugandans also awoke that morning to find that access to social media and mobile money in the country had been temporarily blocked for “security reasons.” The government’s decision to block access to social media backfired as many - including presidential candidates and media houses - began tweeting instructions to get around the blockade using virtual private network applications. The hashtag #UgandaDecides and the more controversial #MuseveniDecides trended on Twitter and became an excellent source of information throughout the day.
People all over the country tweeted about their negative voting experiences. There were reports of missing voting material and ballot boxes arriving unsealed. In some areas, voting material did not arrive until late in the afternoon when polls were about to close. Violence erupted at polling stations as voters began to protest against the delays. Some of the people I know, who were eager to vote and spent hours waiting in line, became discouraged and returned home without voting.
In the end, Museveni was elected to a fifth term, reportedly garnering 60.7% of the votes. Besigye came in second with 35.6% of the votes. Many Ugandans seemed discouraged. People who were once excited to parade through the streets sporting the color of their favorite presidential candidate decided not to vote in the local government elections that took place the following week.
I am now back in Kampala. The election is over. But political tensions in the city remain rife. My boda driver’s “man” Besigye is still under house arrest, and a heavy police presence can still be felt in the city as I go to and from work.
The election demonstrated the importance that the underlying democratic institutions play in the legitimacy of any election. Having an election in Uganda is one thing, but if Ugandans don’t perceive them as free and fair, they will not truly accept the results. Maybe the majority did not want change and in fact voted for Museveni. Unfortunately, accusations of vote-rigging, intimidation, voting delays, missing ballots, and government suppression of social media have left many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers skeptical that they are governed today by a democratically-elected President. They are still waiting for change.