Ugandans choose between pop singer and longtime leader in tense election

Uganda's incumbent president, 76-year-old Museveni, has been in power since 1986

Hundreds of people were already lined up in Magere, on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital Kampala, as soldiers carried ballot boxes into polling stations on Thursday morning.

William, a 32-year-old who preferred to give his first name only, said he was going to stay all day until the results were counted.

“If the vote is fair the reaction will be fair,” he said.

Uganda's most anticipated election in decades pitted musician Bobi Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, against Yoweri Museveni, the 76-year-old president who has been in power since 1986 – longer than most Ugandans have been alive.


The city was quiet, with people spooked by the heavy police and military presence put in place as the election approached.

The night before the poll, the internet was shut down nationwide. Speaking to the media in his home before he voted, Wine said this was an attempt to make sure Ugandans “vote in the dark” without international attention. He encouraged voters to be peaceful and vigilant.

Many Ugandans were afraid to speak openly about who they were voting for.

“We are in the danger zone my dear,” said one young woman in Magere. “We are not willing to talk.”

First-time voter Pauline Jean (23) said she wanted the election to end peacefully with no deaths, but she had no hope it would be fair. She wanted better healthcare and education and more business, she said. “It makes no sense for us to finish studying and then there’ll be no jobs.”

“The turnout is far bigger than the last one,” said Agnes Lule (50), a teacher. “We need to change leadership in our country. I think a change is overdue. The population is young. They have different needs. I need a better future for my children.”

In Nakasero market, in central Uganda, fruit and vegetable sellers remain frightened having been in the centre of protests in November, when at least 54 people were killed by security forces.

Still, they proudly held up ink-stained fingers to show they had voted.

“Thirty-five years is enough,” said one fruit seller, referring to how long Museveni had been in power. “We don’t have medicine in the hospital, doctors, roads. Violations of human rights is the big problem.”

His friend, a 29-year-old, pulled down his shirt to show where police had beaten him the previous week.

“The gun is the master. If you complain you are taken to jail. We are tired,” he said.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa