KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda’s long-serving President Yoweri Museveni has said it would be wrong to hold a presidential election expected for early next year if the coronavirus persists, signalling for the first time a possible delay.
“To have elections when the virus is still there… It will be madness,” the 75-year-old Museveni, whom opponents cast as an authoritarian clinging to power, said in an interview with the local NBS Television aired late on Monday.
Uganda has recorded a relatively low case load of the COVID-19 disease – 121 infections and no deaths – and began easing a strict lockdown a few days ago. Though no date was fixed for the 2021 vote, it is typically held in February.
In power since 1986, former rebel fighter Museveni has not confirmed whether he would run again, though the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party has already asked him to be their flagbearer and voters expect him to stand.
The strongest opposition presidential aspirant is pop star and lawmaker Bobi Wine whose music endears him to the young.
Asked by Reuters about Museveni’s comment, Wine’s spokesman Joel Senyonyi accused Museveni of capitalising on COVID-19 fears to try and entrench himself further and cow the opposition.
“We have seen repression in this COVID-19 outbreak, they are using it to cement their grip on power, without doubt,” he said.
Security personnel were last month accused of torturing and blinding a lawmaker allied to Wine over alleged violations of coronavirus social distancing rules.
Opposition leaders and rights groups have long accused Museveni of intimidating critics with detentions, torture and tear-gassing of rallies. The government denies that, saying arrests are to preserve the law.
Under the 45-day anti-coronavirus lockdown, most businesses were shuttered, public gatherings banned, schools closed and movements largely curtailed.
Museveni’s doubt over holding the election contrasts with nearby Burundi where campaigns are in full throttle ahead of a presidential election next week.
Museveni has won five presidential elections and in 2017 Uganda’s parliament, dominated by NRM lawmakers, removed an age cap from the constitution, allowing him to seek another term.
That parliament vote was marred by violence that included fist fights in the chamber and at one point soldiers from the army’s elite special forces entered and removed lawmakers opposed to removing the age cap.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Duncan Miriri and Andrew Cawthorne)