Kampala, Uganda – A convoy of military tanks crosses the capital from time to time in a threatening manner as a show of force.
Ugandan People’s Defense Force soldiers, police and the local defense unit of government-trained and armed civilians to help bolster security are also patrolling the town on foot, mostly in areas perceived to be strongholds. of the opposition.
These are images that have become familiar with Ugandans during any election season. But the rollout in various urban cities across the country is much heavier ahead of Thursday’s elections.
Around 18 million voters are expected to elect a president and members of parliament.
The polls have been clouded by uncertainty and already marred by violence.
Robert Kyagulanyi, 38, a musician turned popular politician under the name Bobi Wine, is among 10 candidates challenging President Yoweri Museveni’s 35 years in power.
Bobi Wine mobilized many young people who were previously not involved in politics to come and vote. He and his supporters have been hardest hit by Uganda’s notorious security forces who have been accused by human rights groups of using excessive force to break up rallies and protests in the opposition during the campaign period.
Bobi Wine has been arrested on several occasions, often barred from attending his rallies, and some members of his electoral team have killed, disappeared or detained.
He told Al Jazeera that he lives in constant danger.
“That’s why I wore a bulletproof vest and a ballistic helmet throughout the campaign. I survived three shots. The police and the army fired live ammunition at my car, flattening the tires, and once a bullet was fired directly into the windshield, ”he said.
Hajara Nakito, a clothes seller in one of Kampala’s suburbs, described an atmosphere of tension and fear.
She told Al Jazeera how her 15-year-old son Amos Segawa was killed by soldiers during protests in November 2020.
He had accompanied her to the family store in town when news of Bobi Wine’s arrest sparked a riot. Her son was hit by two bullets as they rushed home. No less than 53 other people died during this demonstration.
Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesperson, admitted that sometimes security forces acted out of turn and non-protesters such as Segawa were caught in the crossfire, but he largely justified the crackdown by saying that most of the opposition rallies were violent and the demonstrators were often violent. attacked the police.
The election is also being held amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Ministry of Health, Uganda has recorded less than 40,000 infections and around 300 deaths from the disease.
Don Wanyama, the president’s press secretary, criticized some opposition leaders for flouting COVID-19 restrictions, such as keeping gatherings under 200 people.
“What security has done in this election amidst numerous provocations from the opposition is to try to stop what could be a health crisis,” he said.
“All political actors agreed that there would be certain minimum standards and rules to be respected. Then we have two candidates who come and say that we are going to challenge everything.
“They weren’t organizing rallies. They were just having super spreader events.
Several political analysts have accused the government of militarizing the disease to crack down on opponents of the president, who has also accused some foreign diplomats, the media, the LGBTQ community and now Facebook of colluding with Bobi Wine specifically “to hijack the will of the people.” .
Facebook recently suspended dozens of accounts of individuals linked to the ruling National Resistance Movement party and the Ministry of Information.
Uganda’s communications commission has in turn ordered internet service providers to block social media and other messaging platforms.
Museveni addressed the nation on Tuesday evening and said what Facebook had done was unacceptable.
Many in the capital, like Hajara Nakito, say it’s safer to be in rural areas during these difficult times. Cases of violence reported in much of the countryside have been rare.
For now, Nakito is taking his daughter to their hometown in central Uganda. She also has no plans to vote in an election she blames for her son’s death.