KAMPALA, Uganda — Tensions and the specter of violence are rising before Uganda's Feb. 18 election.
President Yoweri Museveni, in power for 25 years, has altered the constitution to allow him to run for another five-year term and is running on a platform of combatting terrorism and extremism and maintaining stability in the key East African nation.
The international community is watching Uganda closely, too. Uganda has achieved relative stability in a region of unrest and it has new strategic importance because of its newly discovered deposits of oil.
The controversial anti-homosexual bill that calls for the death penalty for gays, under certain circumstances, is another reason why Uganda is being watched closely. The controversial bill has not been a campaign issue.
The U.S. Congress directed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “closely monitor preparations for the 2011 elections in Uganda." Clinton was instructed to watch all aspects of the election from voter registration to the announcement of results as well as the campaign and freedom of the candidates and the media.
As Ugandans prepare to cast their ballots, some say that it is becoming unlikely that Clinton will see much that she can declare free and fair.
Almost all seven opposition candidates offer a litany of alleged election offenses including the absence of voters' ID cards, ghost polling stations and the registration of juveniles and foreigners.
In addition to the U.S. monitoring team, a 34-member delegation from the European Union has arrived in Kampala and will fan out across the nation to observe the presidential poll.
However, even with so many eyes watching, some Ugandans fear the worst.
“I fear that people will take advantage of the situation and if they don’t get the results that they want, they will fight,” said Sheila Kirunda, a university student.
As if anticipating Kirunda’s concern, three-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye said that he will “announce his own election results at the polling stations,” indicating that his Inter-Party Coalition (IPC) does not trust the Electoral Commission to be fair in their vote count.
Museveni quickly responded. “Uganda is not Ivory Coast. It is not Kenya. Don't expect what is happening or happened in these countries to happen here,” he said.
Museveni warned: “Nobody can announce results here, not even me. That will be a shortcut to Luzira for any candidate who does that.” Luzira is a well-known prison where Besigye was held when he was arrested in previous campaigns.
Further heightening tensions, the Ugandan police recently unveiled a shipment of vehicles that can fire tear gas and pepper spray and have water cannons for crowd control. The anti-riot gear arrived with troop carriers, supplied by a China-based firm.
Three Ugandan opposition candidates had a short but intense meeting in Kampala with U.S. officials, including the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. In that meeting the candidates said they described their fears that the elections will be rigged.
"Anything can happen in Uganda now ... Dictators cannot be removed by free and fair elections," said Besigye. "I do not think Kayihura [Uganda's Inspector General of police] has the tools that could prevent a protest like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt."
Not all Ugandans are worried.
“One of our biggest challenges is uniting our different communities, our tribes,” said media personality, Sophia Aniku. “I think that we are inching our way to free and fair elections, as our economy grows stronger we have more to lose ... I think that the elections will be free and fair.”
However, many Ugandans are concerned about the election.
“Many Ugandans worry about election violence because they expect rigging,” said Paul Ekuru, executive producer of a popular national talk-show, “Uganda Speaks.”
During a recent taping of the talk show, a heated exchange took place about possible rigging between spokesmen for opposition parties and the chairman of Uganda’s election commission.
Edward Kakonge, a spokesman for the opposition party, Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), charged, “We have been going through their registry, which was sent to us by the Electoral Commission, we have found a number of registered voters who are under-aged, born 1999 or 2001.”
Uganda's voting age is 18 years.
Badru Kiggundu, chair of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, responded, “The registry is not 100 percent ... because Uganda is in the process of cleaning up.” Kiggundu, who was appointed by Museveni, is widely suspected of not being impartial.
More worrying was the response from Museveni's ruling party, which sounded like a threat. Fred Bamwine, spokesman of Museveni's National Resistance Movement responded to Kakonge’s criticism of voter registration accusation by saying: “These people are looking for signatures. Instead, I think they are looking for violence!”
Talkshow producer Ekuru, a Kenyan, said, “I have seen serious tribal divisions, worse than Uganda and look what happened,” he said, referring to Kenya’s devastating 2007 election riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed.
At the end of Ekuru’s “Uganda Speaks” show, a poll question was asked, “Do you think that the Ugandan Electoral Commission will conduct free and fair elections come February?”
The media poll was unscientific but it gave emphatic results: Yes — 27 percent, No — 73 percent. It seems many Ugandans are suspicious about their country's election process.