Army Patrols, Internet Shutdown Mark Start of Ugandan Election

(Bloomberg) -- Ugandan authorities stepped up security patrols and shut down the internet as voting started in a hotly contested election.

The vote pits pop star-turned-politician Bobi Wine, 38, against a man twice his age -- Yoweri Museveni, who’s been in power for 35 years and for three-quarters of Uganda’s youthful population is the only president they’ve known.

The victor will oversee the implementation of about $20 billion of projects, including an oil pipeline, a refinery and other infrastructure as the East African nation prepares to become a crude exporter by 2024. A contested outcome that sparks civil unrest could jeopardize those investments and derail efforts to revive the coronavirus-battered economy.

Long queues snaked around polling stations from as early as 6 a.m in the capital, Kampala. There are more than 18 million registered voters in the nation of about 45 million people.

“I was at the polling station at 6 a.m. because I anticipated a high turnout,” Emma Bagoole, a 50-year-old real-estate broker in Kiwatule, a suburb of Kampala, said after casting his vote. “The mood leading to these elections was charged, and I didn’t want to miss out on voting.”

Security Patrols

Armored-personnel carriers, police and soldiers patrolled the streets of Kampala, in operations they said were aimed at thwarting any unrest.

The lead-up to the poll has been marred by violence. At least 54 people died in protests that erupted after Bobi Wine’s arrest in November. The government has also clamped down on social-media platforms after Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. both announced they’ve blocked accounts suspected of belonging to state actors.

MTN Uganda Ltd. said it received a directive from the Uganda Communications Commission to suspend all internet gateways and associated access points from 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

“MTN Uganda in compliance with its national telecommunication operator license, and in accordance to MTN’s group-wide digital human-rights due diligence framework, has implemented the directive,” spokeswoman Rhona Arinaitwe said in a statement.

The internet outage has raised concerns about accountability during the election, according to Godber Tumushabe, an associate director at the Kampala-based Great Lakes Institute of Strategic Studies. “The internet blackout means there is an absolute lack of transparency,” he said.

Museveni has been in power since a 1986 coup and lawmakers have changed the nation’s constitution twice to enable him to keep running. While his share of the vote dropped to 61% in the last election in 2016, from 74% in 1996, his popularity in rural areas and among older citizens is expected to help him extend his rule.

Results are expected within 48 hours after balloting ends at 4 p.m.