The East African country of nearly 46 million people voted under an internet blackout in presidential polls after the communications regulator issued orders to suspend services.

An Ugandan man votes in Kampala, Uganda, January 14, 2021.
An Ugandan man votes in Kampala, Uganda, January 14, 2021. (AP)

Ugandans have voted in a presidential election that is pitting long-time leader Yoweri Museveni against an opposition galvanised by a popular singer and challenger Bobi Wine despite a campaign marked by brutal crackdowns.

Earlier, long lines of voters snaked into the distance in the capital, Kampala. “This is a miracle,” mechanic Steven Kaderere said. “This shows me that Ugandans this time are determined to vote for the leader they want. I have never seen this before.”

But delays were seen in the delivery of polling materials in some places, including where Wine was to vote.

Results are expected within 48 hours of polls that closed at 4 p.m. More than 17 million people are registered voters in this East African country of 45 million people. A candidate must win more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff vote.

Free and fair elections

Longtime President Yoweri Museveni, an authoritarian who has wielded power since 1986, seeks a sixth term against a strong challenge from Wine, a popular young singer-turned-opposition lawmaker. Nine other challengers are trying to unseat Museveni.

Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has seen many associates jailed or go into hiding as security forces crack down on opposition supporters they fear could mount a street uprising leading to regime change. Wine insists he is running a nonviolent campaign.

Wine, of the National Unity Platform party, has said he does not believe the election is free and fair. He has urged supporters to linger near polling stations to protect their votes. But the electoral commission, which the opposition sees as weak, has said voters must return home after casting ballots.

Internet 'blackout' in Uganda on eve of tense election

The East African country of nearly 46 million people was under an internet blackout after the communications regulator ordered telecoms operators to suspend services from Wednesday, according to the largest operator in Uganda, South African telecoms compa ny MTN Group.

“This election has already been rigged,” another opposition candidate, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, told local broadcaster NTV as polls opened, adding that “we will not accept the outcome of this election.”

Uganda's government has repeatedly alleged that foreigners are working in support of the opposition. Wine has been accused of being “an agent of foreign interests," which he denies.

Museveni announced that his government had shut down access to social media and blasted Facebook after the social network removed Ugandan accounts linked to his reelection campaign.

READ MORE: Uganda's Bobi Wine accuses military of raiding his home

Generation gap

The 76-year-old Museveni's support has traditionally been concentrated in rural areas where many credit him with restoring a sense of peace and security that was lost during the regimes of dictators including Idi Amin.

Security forces have deployed heavily in the area that encompasses Kampala, where the opposition has strong support partly because of rampant unemployment even among college graduates.

“Museveni is putting all the deployments in urban areas where the opposition has an advantage,” said Gerald Bareebe, an assistant professor of political science at Canada's York University. “If you ask many Ugandans now, they say the ballot paper is not worth my life.”

Some young people said they would vote despite the apparent risks.

“This government has ruled us badly. They have really squeezed us,” said Allan Sserwadda, a car washer. “They have ruled us for years and they say they have ideas. But they are not the only ones who have ideas.”

Asked if the heavy military deployment fazed him, he smiled and said: “If we are to die, let us die. Now there is no difference between being alive and being dead. Bullets can find you anywhere. They can find you at home. They can find you on the veranda.”

At least 54 people were killed in Uganda in November as security forces put down riots provoked by the arrest of Wine for allegedly violating campaign regulations aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Results of a 18 million vote are expected by Saturday.

READ MORE: Bobi Wine says bodyguard killed in violence ahead of Uganda polls

Source: TRTWorld and agencies