An already highly contested by-election campaign for the Kyadondo East parliamentary seat ended on a high-octane note, with the arrests of independent candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine and the ruling NRM's Sitenda Ssebalu.
Kyagulanyi's arrest due to a disagreement over venues for his and the NRM's rally had two dramatic effects. First, it sparked off running battles between his supporters and police at Kasangati trading centre. Then, it forced Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party candidate Apollo Kantinti to briefly suspend his campaign to go and "rescue" his rival from custody at Kira division police headquarters.
There was also an altercation involving Kantinti supporters commanded by former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, who forced Ssebalu and his supporters out of Wampewo playgrounds. It took police intervention to push the NRM candidate out of the grounds he claims he owns.
In a statement later, NRM spokesperson Rogers Mulindwa said Ssebalu was arrested together with the district NRM chairperson Hajji Abdu Kiyimba from Wampewo playground.
"Police could not tell the motive behind this act but the party continues to seek a clear explanation. The venue was also later invaded by the FDC supporters, rendering it impossible for our rally to take place," he wrote.
The dramatic last-day events in a constituency where Besigye resides further raised the stakes of what is arguably the closest by-election contest, ahead of voting tomorrow.
With the exception of 2011 when Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda defeated Ssebalu by 15,000 votes, elections in the constituency have always been won by hair-thin margins.
In 2006, Sam Njuba, the former FDC national chairman, defeated Ssebalu by 23 votes while, in 2016, the margin between Kantinti and the NRM candidate was 326 votes. Kantinti's election was, however, cancelled after court faulted the Electoral Commission for flouting electoral rules.
Consequently, tomorrow's election, analysts and political watchers say, is likely to be too close to call. Ssemujju, the FDC spokesperson and a former MP for the constituency, told The Observer on Monday that any of the three candidates (Kyagulanyi, Kantinti and Ssebalu) could take it.
"Election dynamics are not easy to interpret. Sometimes you could think that someone with big crowds will win and it turns out to be the opposite," he said.
Kyagulanyi has drawn the biggest crowds at his rallies so far. Some say that judging on the enthusiasm his candidature has generated, he has an edge over Kantinti and Ssebalu.
However, an FDC official who preferred to speak without being named told us at the sidelines of a Kantinti rally at Wampewo yesterday, that he believes the opposition let Kyagulanyi off lightly.
"FDC has surrendered this constituency to Bobi Wine. There are a lot of things that can be used against him [Bobi Wine], like his history of weed smoking and his disrespect for the Kabaka, but the party stopped us from attacking him as if they want him to win," the official said.
Kyagulanyi is largely favoured by the youths, many of whom say he identifies with their causes such as poverty and unemployment. His campaign events have had a festival-like ring and have been graced by other prominent local politicians. Yet, even if he loses, Kyagulanyi could use the campaigns as learning experience ahead of the 2021 elections.
As for Kantinti, this by-election is the biggest test of his political career. The entry of Kyagulanyi in the race complicated matters for the FDC candidate.
Kantinti has devoted a lot of time to squabbling with the musician and trying to convince voters that he has been an effective MP, even without having to speak many times in parliament.
Kantinti enjoys the backing of senior FDC bigwigs, including the party president, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu; Nathan Nandala- Mafabi, the secretary general, and Dr Kizza Besigye, the former party president. That, however, might not be enough to guarantee him victory.
A defeat for Kantinti will mark one of the briefest parliamentary careers in recent memory, if you exclude members who have died. It will also be a big blow to FDC whose candidates have lost in all other by- elections (Toroma, Kamuli municipality, Upper Madi, Kagoma) conducted so far.
Intriguingly, NRM's Ssebalu, who represented the constituency between 2001 and 2006, has a chance of making it back after three failed attempts (2006, 2011 and 2016).
This time though, analysts reckon that he has a good chance of making it if the differences within the opposition camp work in his favour. President Museveni spent part of yesterday campaigning for Ssebalu. At Wattuba, Nangabo sub- county, Museveni told the people that if they vote for an opposition candidate, they will not benefit from some of government's programmes.
He said: "We have an NRM caucus where we first meet and discuss programmes. If you bring me someone who is not NRM, how will he access the caucus and tell me your needs?"
Rogers Mulindwa, the spokesperson of the NRM secretariat, predicated that their candidate will win with about 55 per cent of the total votes cast.
"The NRM support and that of the opposition are almost equal. But since the opposition has fielded three candidates, Ssebalu has a very good chance," Mulindwa said.
Ssebalu has differences with some local NRM leaders, including Stella Njuba, who stood against him in 2016. In 2016, Stella, a daughter of Sam Njuba, garnered a respectable 4,122 votes and has not yet reconciled with Ssebalu. Some of her voters have already said they will not vote Ssebalu.
Of all the candidates, Muwada Nkunyingi, who some say has an outside chance, is the most eloquent. A lawyer by profession, his militant and straightforward approach to issues has enchanted many. In 2016, he garnered a respectable 7,560 votes to emerge third.
He told The Observer on Monday that he expects to win the election with 90 per cent. While this is highly unlikely, Nkunyingi is certainly a politician to watch out for in Kyadondo East in the near future.
According to figures from the national Electoral Commission, Kyadondo East has 72,818 registered voters and 93 polling stations. With the exception of Toroma in Katakwi, voter turnout in other by-elections, has not hit 50 per cent.
Analysts believe that a high turnout will most likely favour an opposition-leaning candidate because like some polls have shown, voter apathy tends to be higher in areas where the ruling government has little support. The spokesperson of the EC, Jotham Taremwa, told The Observer on Tuesday that they are more than prepared to deliver a free and fair election
"All is ready as far as Thursday's election is concerned, right from the ballot papers to the relevant forms and the training of our staff that will be conducting elections," he said.
Taremwa added that the campaigns had largely been peaceful and EC hopes that the people of Kyadondo East and all the stakeholders will ensure a peaceful polling process. Taremwa urged the people to turn out in large numbers to vote for a candidate of their choice.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Crispy Kaheru, the coordinator of Citizens' Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (Ccedu), said despite a few hiccups, they were satisfied with the conduct of the campaigns. They, however, noted that there was still potential for violence on election day.
"Ccedu implores stakeholders in Kyadondo East constituency, particularly political parties and candidates to exercise utmost restraint to ensure that the prevailing peaceful environment that has characterized much of the campaign period is maintained in the lead up to and after the June 29 2017 by-election. Ccedu calls upon political parties and candidates to urge their supporters to exercise maximum restraint in order to maintain a peaceful environment," Kaheru noted.
Reporting by Edris Kiggundu, Jonathan Kamoga, Rebecca Mutonyi & Baker Batte Lule.