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Campaigning in Kampala

This is the first of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 elections written by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda – On February 18, 2011 Ugandans will go to the ballot box to elect their president and parliament for the next five years. In the run up to the polls black-and blue-uniformed police are much in evidence on the streets of Kampala, patrolling in twos and threes. More than 50 tear-gas trucks and other riot control vehicles have recently arrived, imported via Dar-es-Salaam from Chinese manufacturer in Tianjin. Police spokesman Vincent Ssekate has insisted that the equipment was ordered early in 2008, but the timing of its arrival has raised suspicions that it would be deployed against opposition demonstrators.

In the five decades since independence, none of Uganda’s heads of state have been voted out of office. President Museveni came to power by coup d’état or civil war in 1986. In 2005, Museveni amended the constitution to secure a third term in office. Most Ugandans believe that whoever controls the army will win any election. Although his National Resistance Army metamorphosed into the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), Museveni’s opponents believe that it remains a presidential guard.

The army has sought to reassure Ugandans that it is impartial and its remit is to maintain peace and stability during the polls. The UPDF’s code of conduct forbids soldiers from campaigning activities of any description. But most high-ranking officers come from western Uganda, Museveni’s homeland. A number of them attend the president’s campaign rallies. An army general – Kale Kayihura – heads the police. If there is electoral violence, opposition candidates believe that the UPDF and police will display their loyalty to the president.

President Museveni’s main challenger is his erstwhile ally and personal doctor, Colonel Kizza Besigye, who leads the Forum for Democratic Change. Among Bisigye’s prominent supporters is General Mugisha Muntu, a former Chief of the Defence Forces who retains considerable respect in the army. There are six other candidates, including former UN under-secretary-general, Olara Otunnu, and Norbert Mao president of the Democratic party. All but Besigye can be considered ‘also-rans’, and the opposition is riven by in-fighting.

Peace Baagi, from the south-west, speaks for most Ugandans when she says that all she wants is a peaceful country in which to raise and educate her children. But the older generation – those who witnessed Uganda’s tremendous, and traumatic, upheavals before Museveni came to power – are apprehensive about the prospects for a trouble-free poll, and aftermath. Stick-wielding militiamen have attacked and dispersed campaign demonstrations in Kampala, and attacked Besigye himself. Electoral Commission boss, Badru Kiggundu, has warned that nine militias are preparing to disrupt voting.

Opposition candidates have also moved to prepare ‘vigilantes’ to protect their voters at polling stations. The Uganda Police has made it clear that it is the only institution legally mandated to provide such protection. Thousands of special constables are undergoing training. The opposition and police seem set on a collision course. Besigye supporters have already clashed with supporters of the ruling NRM party in Alebtong, northern Uganda.

Hostility between supporters of rival factions is increasingly evident in pubs and on the streets. Posters of presidential, parliamentary and council candidates are being defaced and torn down – a crime which can carry a one year jail sentence. In Kampala, areas which witnessed violent riots last year between Bagandans loyal to their monarch, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, and government supporters are potential flashpoints.

Southern Sudan’s vote for independence, the ongoing power-struggle in Côte d’Ivoire, and the wave of protest sweeping North Africa and the Arab world have all overshadowed Uganda’s upcoming elections. The international media have paid little attention. It’s possible Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary votes will pass with little commotion . But a peaceful outcome to this month’s polls will depend on whether the security services act as agents of the Ugandan state or the incumbent president’s henchmen.