Uganda's leader Museveni in bid to extend 30-year rule

Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni (right) greets his supporters upon his arrival at his last campaing rally on Feb 16, 2016.
Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni (right) greets his supporters upon his arrival at his last campaing rally on Feb 16, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

KAMPALA (BLOOMBERG) - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni looks set to extend his three-decade rule in Thursday's (Feb 18) elections, as security forces pack the capital to quell potential unrest and opposition voices' fears of intimidation.

The former guerrilla commander is vying with seven candidates to run a landlocked country that's Africa's biggest coffee exporter. The East African country is planning oil production in two years and may build a pipeline to channel the fuel to the Indian Ocean. While Museveni, 71, pointed to steady economic growth in last week's presidential debate, analysts say his victory will probably stem from the mobilization of loyalists and a divided opposition that has been targeted by crackdowns, including periodic detentions of its main challenger, Kizza Besigye.

"Incumbency is a big problem" on the continent, said Alex Awiti, director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya. "It's really hard to take them down because they use state machinery to their advantage."

Uganda's US$27 billion (S$38 billion) economy has companies such as London-based Tullow Oil Plc and France's Total SA developing its estimated 6.5 billion barrels of oil resources. While a foreign aid recipient, Uganda plays a prominent role in the region, contributing troops for the African Union campaign fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia and militarily backing South Sudan's government when civil war erupted in late 2013.

The Ugandan president's re-election bid shows a growing trend in Africa, where 15 leaders in countries with regular elections have either served more than two terms or indicated plans to do so, in some cases amending their constitutions to allow the move. Long-serving presidents in Rwanda, the Republic of Congo and Djibouti have demonstrated their resolve to cling to power, with all favourites to secure re-election. Burundian leader Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term last year amid violence that's claimed more than 440 lives.

Museveni took office in January 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war, and has been elected four times in disputed polls. He's one of Africa's longest serving presidents, alongside Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

Two recent opinion polls suggest Museveni may win slightly more than half the ballots, with his former physician Besigye, running for his fourth time, trailing by at least 20 percentage points and ex-premier Amama Mbabazi on just 2 per cent. While such support would secure Museveni a fifth term without a run-off vote, it would be a decline on his 68.4 per cent backing in 2011's election.

As the race nears its conclusion, authorities have clamped down on opposition gatherings, say they'll boost police numbers to 149,000 and use imported crowd-control equipment. On Monday, security forces teargassed supporters of Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) marching in the capital, Kampala. One person died during scuffles in the city, police spokesman Patrick Onyango told NBS Television.

Human Rights Watch has warned that police brutality against government opponents risks undermining the vote's credibility, while Amnesty International has urged the disbanding of a civilian anti-crime force affiliated with the ruling party whose members have allegedly "acted in partisan ways and carried out brutal assaults and extortion."

Uganda's electoral body on Wednesday said opposition political groups are trying to form illegal militias and that the police alone will provide security during polling. Museveni will benefit from divisions in the opposition, which failed to choose a single candidate. While Mbabazi's defection from the ruling National Resistance Movement could have split Museveni's support, instead it's divided the opposition vote, said Awiti.

"The opposition in Uganda has failed to present a clear, different choice," he said.

About 15.3 million of Uganda's 34.9 million people are registered to vote for presidential and parliamentary candidates at 28,010 polling stations on Thursday. The results are scheduled to be declared within 48 hours of the polls closing at 4 pm. A new biometric system requires voters to scan their fingerprints, which the Electoral Commission says will stop people casting multiple ballots.

The opposition FDC says that won't affect the count, which is still vulnerable to fraud, while any technical failure that prevents people voting could "cause trouble," said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, an independent political analyst in Kampala.

"This is where tempers may flare up and lead to clashes" with security forces, he said. The commission has vowed to oversee credible elections.

Besigye expressed confidence in an interview Tuesday that he will win the election, even as he described it as having no chance of being free and fair. Accusing the police of violence, he said he would keep challenging Museveni's government if there are signs of vote-rigging. Besigye disputed the outcome of three previous polls he lost to Museveni, including in 2011.

A spokesman for the president's campaign, Don Wanyama, dismissed the claims, saying their candidate, President Museveni, and the ruling party would win the elections fairly as they've done in the past.