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Uganda: Uncertainty As Uganda Heads to the Polls

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“There is not a country in the world that conducts multiparty elections and comes out error-free,” former Electoral Commission (EC) chairperson Badru Kiggundu argued while announcing results of the 2016 presidential polls.

Perhaps his statement was plausible but lacked context. Elections in the West usually have a few hiccups and are manifestly free and fair. However, in many parts of Africa, an imperial presidency largely relies on the army to subdue the population, raid the Consolidated Fund to rent support and buy off the Opposition, use a patronage system to build grassroots support and have a pliant EC as part of the regime appendage.

It was a dispute over the 1980 elections that drove the then young, Marxist-leaning, Yoweri Museveni to wage a rebellion against the Milton Obote II government.

On the day, Mr Kiggundu declared the incumbent, President Museveni, with 60.8 per cent poll victory while two leading contenders, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)’s Kizza Besigye and Go-Forward’s Amama Mbabazi were under house arrest–or what police called “preventive arrest.” Dr Besigye had attempted to raid a house in Naguru he alleged was the rigging centre, a place manned by the military.

Barely after the polls were announced, international election observers from the European Union and Commonwealth labelled the Kiggundu-led EC as outrightly “incompetent” and the gross irregularities in polling as “inexcusable.” African election observer groups on the other hand gave the elections a clean bill of health.

Mr Kiggundu presided over three elections, in 2006, 2011 and 2016, two of which were contested in the Supreme Court. In 2006 the judges concurred with the petitioner, Besigye, that the elections fell short in many ways but stopped short of annulling the results.

Mr Kiggundu retired in November 2016 and was replaced by Court of Appeal Justice, Simon Byabakama.

Last Friday, this newspaper quoted Mr Kiggundu as saying: “I recall very well when he (Byabakama) was even sworn in, you people carried his pledge that he is coming to correct what Kiggundu has failed to meet. Now is not the right time, but I shall ask him after the election what are those you came to address and have they been addressed?”

Several of the absurdities witnessed in the ongoing electoral cycle are usually footnotes that government barely rectifies. Election observers have previously pointed out these flaws that have been repeated as part of recommendations in the various Supreme Court judgments.

For Justice Byabakama’s first organised election, there are fears that this could be the messiest.

This has been partly escalated by the Covid-19 pandemic and worsened by an ever-present incumbent in key decision making.

This–the incumbent’s use of his position to the disadvantage of other candidates– the Supreme Court highlighted in the 2016 election petition of Amama Mbabazi vs Yoweri Museveni ruling.

“… in the past two presidential petitions, this court made some important observations and recommendations with regard to the need for legal reform in the area of elections generally and presidential elections in particular. Many of these calls have remained unanswered by the executive and the legislature,” the judges noted in the ruling.

For instance, while campaigns were suspended in 13 districts over Covid-19, the incumbent has been busy commissioning infrastructure projects as well as addressing his supporters.

From a bad beginning

“Who doesn’t know that the EC is working in concert with the NRM?” the FDC spokesperson, Mr Ssemujju Nganda, said.

“This is the worst election I have ever witnessed; you don’t know what next is going to happen but you only work on scenario that if they do this, I do that.”

He said nearly all electoral laws in the Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Acts have been flouted mostly to disadvantage the Opposition “while NRM gets away with anything.”

Throughout the campaign trail, since presidential nominations last November 2, police, the army and a motley gang of unidentified security personnel have teargassed and harassed, especially the National Unity Platform (NUP) candidate, Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, and FDC’s Patrick Amuriat.

Independent candidate Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde and Alliance for National Transformation’s Mugisha Muntu have been equally disrupted from attending rallies. But most of their pleas to the EC have not been addressed.

Police, the army and the government public relations machinery have defended the disruptions on grounds of stopping the spread of Covid-19. Whereas, the NRM candidates’ campaigns have flouted the public health guidelines on preventing the spread of the disease, they have only received a slap on the wrist.

In Kampala and Wakiso, two districts with the highest Covid-19 caseload, and among the 13 districts in which EC banned campaigns late last month, Opposition candidates’ processions have been violently suppressed by police while the NRM’s processions have not been stopped.

Uganda registered its first Covid-19 case on March 21, 2020, while the plan for the elections was already in motion. With government, as the rest of the world, overwhelmed by the pandemic, Constitutional law jurists implored government to rely on the Constitutional mandate under the state of emergency to postpone the elections, an idea which was rejected.

Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Ephraim Kamuntu while appearing before the Parliamentary Legal Committee on July 1, 2020, alongside the Attorney General William Byaruhanga and Justice Byabakama, argued that a delay or postponement could cause anxiety.

Five months later and four days to the polls, the jury is out on whether the country can hold free and fair polls.

Last month, clerics mulled the idea of rescheduling the elections three years later on the back of heightened violence and Covid-19 spread.

The party primaries, particularly the NRM’s, were another jumbled affair that only exposed the partisanship of state actors, especially police. While Opposition candidates were brutally arrested, NRM candidates would at times be given summons sometimes in the media.

Justice Byabakama had earlier argued that they had zeroed down on a “hybrid concept” of political gatherings being limited or forbidden and candidates relying on the media to campaign. Several stakeholders said this would never work citing the low reach of the mediums and the need to reach voters.

Short, messy campaigns

This clamour to conduct such hybrid elections, the first of its kind in Uganda, several actors warned could place the country on a dangerous path. Constitutional law scholars specifically argued that it would lead to flagrantly flouting the Constitution and other electoral laws tainting the process as a sham while Opposition MPs warned the EC about being preoccupied with holding “regular” polls in a crisis situation.

The Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, told the House in April 2020 that she and the [former Chief Justice Bart Katureebe] had proposed to the President to declare a state of emergency but the objections came from one of the senior ministers.

It did not take long for Opposition candidates, particularly Mr Kyagulanyi, to be blocked from already-paid-for radio talk programmes while the FDC’s Amuriat spoke for 30 minutes on a paid-for talkshow in Agago District before it was noticed that the transmission had been disconnected.

By November 2020, there was bloodletting after more than 50 people were killed by security in quelling protests that broke out following the arrest of Mr Kyagulanyi in Luuka District for violating the public health guidelines. Dozens were injured while scores were arrested and are yet to be charged in courts while security continues to pick up Opposition–especially NUP supporters.

For EC, another setback came with the firing of the senior management team last July amid graft investigations.

Later in September, President Museveni revealed that he sacked the EC officials because they were corrupt after they procured biometric voter verification machines which couldn’t recognise voters during the last general election.

The biometric machines were procured at Shs70b. After buying the machines in 2016, the EC later acknowledged that it would rely on the hardcopy of the national voters’ register, not the expensive gadgets that were dysfunctional.

For this election, the EC indicated that the machines have the ability to recognise the voters’ identities to eliminate multiple registration, voting and ballot stuffing. To effect this, the voters register is loaded onto every machine and voters will be required to provide their thumb-prints for authentication.

Sources familiar with the matter, however, told this newspaper that the first batch of the gadgets were flown into the country last Wednesday and were not part of the polling materials dispatched across the country. Four days to the polling, it is not clear if the EC will have conducted enough training and sensitisation about the gadgets hence, in the event of any technical glitch, officials will have to rely on the hardcopy register.

The EC chairperson, Justice Simon Byabakama, said the technology–the biometric machines–will work out well but eventualities are common with technology but the hard copy voter register will be on the sides.

Another concern has been the uneven playing field. Going by previous experiences, the question and possibility of whether elections will be free and fair, is contested.

Uncertain ending?

“First we have curfew and as we know it vote counting goes into the night; the curfew is enforced by the military commanded by one the candidates. EC is saying it doesn’t allow crowds at polling stations and after voting people should leave yet they have a right to witness the counting. You have an unclear voters register,” argued Mr Ssemujju.

As a result of the problematic register, Mr Ssemujju said there were areas, like in the President’s home district, where polling stations had 100 per cent voter turnout and not a single invalid vote recorded in the 2016 presidential election.

“Our polling agent was kidnapped by the military at one of those polling stations and even made to sign a declaration form that the numbers were accurate,” he narrated. The EC dataset for the last elections shows there were 18 polling stations all in western Uganda which recorded 100 per cent voter turnout. He added: “Now that [President] Museveni pressed for the election to happen, this is going to pass as another experiment. We can only ask the population to be assertive, otherwise the election might plunge the country into uncertainty.”

The NRM’s director for information and publicity, Mr Emmanuel Dombo, described some of the latest EC’s polling guidelines as loose ends but said as a party “we will get a way around them.”

“We have trained our polling agents; we wait if there will be any additional guidelines so we can comply with the law,” he said. “Surely these are unprecedented times that we have to work around to win in a credible and fair manner. The Opposition is simply lamenting because they have already sensed defeat.”

Another sticky issue is the increase in the number of eligible voters by 400,000 from the 17.7m first recorded last February to almost 18.1m voters spread across 34,684 polling stations.

In the last General Election, 10.3 million Ugandans or 63.5 per cent cast their ballots at 28,010 polling stations across the country out of the 15.2 million voters in the EC register.

Mr Ssemujju said since the revelation, they have written several letters to the EC seeking clarification but have received no response.

NUP’s spokesperson Joel Ssenyonyi told Daily Monitor that “we are simply doing the best we can otherwise we are dealing with a rigging machine.”

“Campaigns were halted in 13 districts. Our candidate has been the most harassed. Our supporters are arrested day and night, and EC knows all this. But since we know they just remote controlled from somewhere, what do you do?”

1996 precedent

Since 1996 presidential elections have been messy, routinely marred by hateful propaganda, bloodshed, arbitrary arrests and inhumane treatment of Opposition actors, and thrice, President Museveni’s victories have been challenged in the Supreme Court.

In the last election, international election observers said the polls lacked a level electoral playing field, an increased prevalence of money in politics, misuse of state resources, and the “intimidating display” of gun-wielding military personnel and heavy police deployment nearly at every corner, including near polling stations added to the tense environment including disenfranchising voters, especially in Opposition strongholds.

Mr Crispy Kaheru, an independent election observer, acknowledged that while there have been challenges in the administration of this election, it is possible we could save something if we’re all proactive as election stakeholders understanding that it’s a collective effort.

“There is a lot of anxiety across the country. There have been war drums sounded, a lot of sarcasm and all these thing are created to create the mistrust and paranoia you are seeing today,” he opined. “The environment significantly determines the participation of people in an election; when the environment is tense, fraught with violence, definitely the levels of participation are very low.”

As the country hurtles towards polling, politicians across the aisle should trade the battle trumpet with an olive-branch if Uganda is to avoid violent polls.

Adodo, defunct ULC General Secretary is dead

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