At the end of Uganda’s election day last Thursday, hundreds of locals gathered around polling stations across the country to watch their votes being counted. In the Kampala neighbourhood of Bugolobi, people packed together to lean over railings in the market, looking down at the car park where officials held up each ballot so everyone could see it, before separating them by candidate.
The eventual result was a win for popstar and opposition leader Bobi Wine, who got 195 votes. There were 160 for the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, who has been president for 35 years, longer than most Ugandans have been alive.
Young people were buoyed by Wine’s encouragement to stay at the polling station all day and observe what happened. They hadn’t been able to check results on the internet, which was blocked nationwide between January 13 and 18. When they heard Wine won, they shouted “people power,” cheering and jumping up and down; daring for a moment to dream that their candidate might be victorious overall.
By early the next morning, Museveni had taken the lead nationwide. The eventual outcome, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by neutral observers, would see him win with 5.85 million votes compared to Wine’s 3.47 million. By Saturday, Wine’s home was surrounded by police and soldiers, placing the musician-turned-politician effectively under house arrest. In an interview with VICE World News on the eve of the election, Wine had anticipated the move, but claimed that it would not deter him. “I would say everything is worth it when one is fighting for freedom,” Wine said. “We want to be free. We want to live a dignified life. We want to be full human beings in our country. So everything is worth it.”
Museveni’s win gets him another five years in power, which will bring the 76-year-old’s rule to a full four decades. In a televised address, he appeared wearing a camouflage jacket - a deliberate reminder, local media said, of the strength of his military and the futility of fighting against it.
“I am not in politics [to get] anything for myself,” Museveni said, while calling this the “most cheating-free election" since Uganda's independence.
Wine has rejected the results, saying the election was rigged. Speaking to journalists on Friday, he called it “daylight robbery.”
“I am very confident that we have defeated the dictator,” Wine said. “General Museveni and his small clique of oppressors are trying yet again to impose themselves on the people of Uganda. The people of Uganda will and must reject the blatant suppression of their will and their voice… Our struggle is not over yet, it’s just beginning.”
Don Wanyama, a spokesman for Museveni, said allegations of vote-rigging are a “natural reaction by losers.” He was “excited” and “happy” about the “strong endorsement” the government had received. “Ugandans,” he said, “voted for continuity.”
The lack of reliable internet access prevented Wine’s supporters from organising or sharing information in the build up to, and the aftermath of, the election. It also made redundant an app the opposition designed to tally votes separately from the Electoral Commission, which it accuses of being biased. Even on Monday, when the internet came back on, social media was still blocked.
Wine himself is isolated. The 38-year-old musician, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, cut a lonely figure in the weeks before the vote. Friends, supporters and his campaign teams were arrested. His four children were sent to the US. Wine first said he received word of a plot to kidnap them, though later he said he didn’t want them to witness his post-election “humiliation”.
The day after the vote, men in military fatigues jumped his gates and positioned themselves in his garden, pointing a gun at journalists and scaring Wine’s wife, Barbara. “We want to inform the world that our lives are in danger… Should anything happen to us at least we have the chance to tell the world that what’s happening is illegal,” Wine said shortly afterwards.
On Saturday, the day of the final results, journalists were prevented from reaching Wine’s house completely. A drone flew overhead, blocking phone signals and reportedly intercepting communications. Facial recognition cameras captured the movements of those waiting outside – something an ambulance driver cited when he drove up saying he had witnessed someone collapse on camera (the ambulance left again with soldiers in the back). Police later said Wine's house arrest is a “protective” arrangement.
Francis Zaake, an opposition MP who was arrested and tortured last year, tried to drive in to see Wine. A boda boda motorbike driver said he saw Zaake being beaten by police on Wine’s road, Freedom Drive. Then the MP was driven out, screaming, locked in the back of a police vehicle. Spokespeople for his party say Zaake was later admitted to hospital.
“Clearly the state has outdone itself,” said Joel Ssenyonyi, the spokesperson for Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party, after he drove up to Wine’s house but was unable to enter.
“He’s defenceless,” Ssenyonyi told VICE World News. “He’s there with just the wife… It’s a very scary situation. They’re cutting off all forms of communication which is very disturbing. [The government and military] are scared of the people. They are scared because they know what they’re doing was wrong. This election was not democratic and they know that.”
While Museveni has repeatedly accused Wine of being supported by “foreigners and homosexuals”, Wine has called for Western countries to make more than a billion dollars of Western aid that Uganda receives annually contingent on its government respecting human rights.
Both the US and the EU cancelled missions to observe the voting, after their suggestions weren’t considered or their accreditation was denied. On Friday, Tibor Nagy, the US State Department’s assistant secretary for African affairs, tweeted saying the election had been “fundamentally flawed”.
There were few celebrations following the final result, apart from a contingent of boda boda motorbike drivers, wearing the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party’s yellow, who drove around Kampala together, cheering.
There were no obvious protests in the capital either, though police later said they had killed two people and arrested dozens outside the city.
Close to Museveni's official residence, dozens of his posters had been torn down. Locals muttered to each other that the election had been “stolen”.
“We will stay calm,” said a 29-year-old in Nakasero market, where demonstrations had previously taken place, leading to at least 54 people getting killed by security forces last November. The man said he had been taken from his home the previous week and beaten by police, who asked him how much Wine was paying his supporters.
A 42-year-old fruit seller, who spoke passionately about how much she wanted a new president ahead of the election, abandoned plans to protest. “We need change in everything,” she said, but last time they were tear-gassed with “nowhere to run”, and saw many injured people taken to hospital. “We are all quiet, our heads are down, we are mourning,” she said.
Many Ugandans stayed home, or voted for the ruling party, after listening to government warnings that there would be conflict if Wine won. The turnout was low – just 57 percent of voters took part, and the majority of Uganda’s 44 million people weren’t eligible or registered to vote at all. Many were simply grateful there had been no violence.
“We are happy because there is no war,” said a market vendor who gave his name as Musa. He was hoping things could go back to normal: security forces stopped them from working during the election. “They knew we were going to make shouting,” he said. “War is coming in the city when we are shouting too much. We are fearing. We are suffering. Poverty is too much.”
Across the city, there was a heavy military and police presence. The tops of high buildings had been taken over, and lines of armed men patrolled, eyeing up those they passed.
In Kamwokya, the slum where Wine grew up, supporters of his NUP party said they were sad about Wine’s loss, and feared arrest if they celebrated victories in the accompanying parliamentary elections. The NUP won all but one of Kampala’s parliamentary seats, making it the country’s largest opposition party.
“The military keep passing in a line,” said a 30-year-old who works in a video shop in Kamwokya. Like many others, he was afraid to give his real name. Usually, he posts his feelings online, under a pseudonym, but he’s not even able to do that now. “The government removed us from the internet because they don’t want us to know what is going on,” he said. “We fear even sitting in groups because the moment you sit in a group you can be arrested.”
In Kololo, a wealthier district nearby, locals said they expected this result and it wasn’t worth disputing.
“Must we die because someone has rigged [elections] for so many years? We have seen war in most parts of our country and we don’t want to see war again,” said Bob Barigye, a 32-year-old teacher. “In Kololo, most of us are educated. Bickering and fighting is not our thing.”
Uganda’s president should never have been allowed to wield so much power, he argued. “We look at Museveni as a symptom. Our problem is bigger than Museveni.”
In Kampala, even ruling party supporters were subdued. “[Uganda] is still not a democracy,” said Asiimwe Ambrose, a 28-year-old NRM youth leader. “[But] when our parents tell us what was happening [in the past] I have no problem with NRM. No one is going to compete.”
UPDATE 19/01/21: We have removed a line in this story about dozens of people being arrested protesting in the constituency of MP Francis Zaake. The protests in fact took place in another nearby constituency and it is unclear if they were directly related to his arrest. A government internet shutdown during the election period has made it difficult to verify local media reports.