Ugandans go to the polls on January 14, to elect a president from one of the most crowded races in the country’s recent history. Even with 11 candidates in contention, the race to the wire is really between just three top runners. Between them, the also-ran candidates are unlikely to account for even five percent of the vote.
The Ugandan election is currently one of the most closely watched events on the continent because of the titanic clash between the incumbent and a generation he takes pride in having nurtured. At 24, the youngest contender was born a decade after President Yoweri Museveni had shot his way to power.
It will be the sixth time that Ugandans will be electing a president in the past quarter a century, yet they are approaching the day with a degree of trepidation. The process has witnessed unprecedented violence, with close to six dozen people dead since the political campaigns opened last November.
On that count, the 2021 election represents a reversal of gains. After 25 years of learning, one would not expect to see some of the things that have left a stain on previous polls. Disheartening as these developments might be, they should not be cause for Ugandans to give up on their civic duty to shape the political future of their country.
It will not be easy. The real choice before Ugandans is between the tantalising promise of a new era led by a generation that has come of age, and the staid predictability of an incumbent. For the proponents of change, the challenge is to demonstrate how they will sustain and build on the economic gains of the past three decades.
On the other hand, the advocates of continuity must show new thinking and convince one that they have what it takes to change their deplorable record grand corruption, missed opportunities and a more inclusive society.
With such a polarised electorate and a not so level ground, it will not be easy for whoever carries the day. Whichever way, the outcome is likely to be contested. The burden of duty is on the Electoral Commission to avert controversy by delivering a clean and credible poll.
So far, the situation has not been that encouraging and there is a need for rapid course correction. The EC has been issuing orders-on-the-fly that appeared designed to stymie the efforts of certain candidates. The latest is a ban on phones and cameras at polling stations as well as restricting observance of polling to only accredited media and officials.
In procrastination, the organiser of the poll has also surrendered too much ground to the security forces and regime whose actions have only undermined confidence in the process. One would also expect that there has been some learning from the snags such as late delivery of voting materials that have plagued past elections.
Coming on the shoulder of the dramatic display of electoral discord in the United States, many people in Africa feel vindicated and see those events as a validation of electoral malfeasance in their own backyards. On the contrary, those tantrums teach us that only by standing up to their duty in times of controversy, will the institutions of the state avert total disaster.