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A lack of transparency and independence punctuated the Ugandan general election which took place on 18th February 2016. The incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for over 30 years now, since 1986, and faced his most difficult election this year. His main and most bitter rival was Kizza Besigye, who stood in these elections as the voice of change representing the Forum for Democratic Change party. The poles have now spoken: 60.8% to Museveni and only 35.4% to Besigye. Yet, do these polls speak the truth?
This blog will aim to scrutinise the fairness of these elections and unpack the complexities that echo around them. I will address the key facts and events of the elections, before assessing the perspectives of the Ugandan peoples and the reaction of the international community.
Museveni rose to power following a guerrilla war or ‘bush war’ which he led from 1981 until 1986 as the head of the National Resistance Army.
His rise to president in 1986 marked the end of a critically unstable and war-torn era in Uganda. Uganda had experienced both external and internal instability, with deep divisions along ethnic and religious lines; a never ending string of leaders; and conflicts on its borders. Coup after coup, Uganda changed leader from Milton Obote in 1971, to the terrifying reign of Idi Amin, one of the world’s most cruel dictators who earned the nickname of the “Butcher of Uganda”, in power from 1976-1979. An estimated half a million people died under General Amin’s rule which fueled the desire for rebellion among various guerrilla forces in Uganda. In 1979, Tanzania invaded Uganda, unifying the various anti-Amin forces under the Uganda National Liberation Front, forcing Amin to flee the country. Uganda suffered great instability with a succession of four different leaders until 1986, when the National Resistance Army rebels led by Museveni took Kampala and Museveni was installed as president.
As president, Museveni helped revitalise the country, providing political stability, a growing economy and improved infrastructure. He instituted a number of capitalist reforms and supported a free press. Museveni also put in place a number of measures to combat AIDS and Uganda is now the lead among other African countries in this regard. Museveni always opposed multi-party politics, claiming that it would regenerate ethnic and religious divides. However in 2005, following a referendum, Uganda returned to multiparty politics and this year held the country’s first multiparty general election.
2016 was a landmark year in Ugandan political history as televised debates were held prior to the elections for the first time. During one debate, Museveni promised, “No one can disturb our peace. We struggled against so many problems and we cannot allow anybody to disturb our people. It’s not acceptable”.
Given this insight into Uganda’s political history, it could very well be that Museveni is seen by some Ugandans as the man who brought peace and unity and perhaps is a symbol of stability and prosperity for the country. From this perspective, Museveni is likely to be the true and legitimate winner of these elections.
However, Museveni’s actions toward his main opponent, Kizza Besigye, and toward the people’s right to freedom of speech during these elections suggested a desperate attempt to cling to power and manipulate the voting.
Cultivating an atmosphere of intimidation
Kizza Besigye and Museveni have a long and sour history. Besigye ran against Museveni three times before the 2016 elections, being defeated every time. Besigye was exiled between 2001 and 2005 after one defeat, and charged with treason and rape upon his return in 2006. He was later acquitted on both counts. In an interview with the Observer, Besigye expressed despair, stating it is impossible to win an election that is being controlled by Mr. Museveni.
Despite all of this, he decided to run again in 2016 but only to face the usual challenges and intimidation. Besigye was repeatedly arrested during the election period: once during a rally with supporters (as captured on camera by Al Jazeera) and again on Election Day as he tried to show journalists a suspected vote-rigging operation in a suburban house.
Besigye maintains that there was foul play in these elections at the hands of Museveni.
The Ugandan capital also faced its share of intimidation on Election Day. Due to the late arrivals of voting materials, voters in Kampala faced enormous delays, waiting for hours under the scorching Ugandan heat to take part in the election. This is a testament to the perseverance of the Ugandans, determined to exercise their right to vote. This “voter’s futile attempt to vote” describes the outrageous real life experience of one Ugandan on Election Day.
By mistake, or by design? Besigye’s supporters are concentrated in Kampala, making it too coincidental for the delays to have been a mistake, especially seeing that all social media platforms were blocked on Election Day.
WhatsApp, Facebook and Mobile telephone money platforms were all shut down by the government for ‘security reasons’, which incited further skepticism surrounding the fairness of these elections.
However, not long after the social media ban, Ugandans looked to circumvent the restrictions with free internet tools, including proxies and the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) allowing them to regain access. Ugandans showed great resistance to their government’s attempts to restrict their freedom of expression and an utmost commitment to democracy, a united effort which was truly commendable.
On the whole, social media has played a great role in empowering the Ugandan people, proving to be a platform for free expression which the government had limited control over. With hashtags like #UgandaDecides and #1986pictures trending throughout the election process, and their use of VPNs to contest censures, Ugandans have shown through their social media activism that they want their democracy to be fully free and fully fair.
Ugandans Are Tweeting #1986Pictures As A Memo To President Of 30 Years, Museveni https://t.co/I3qTcWMB6L pic.twitter.com/YXxveaL40r
— Okayafrica (@okayafrica) 23 January 2016
1986: No mobile money No whatsapp No twitter No facebook 2016 No mobile money No twitter No whatsapp No facebook#UgandaDecides — nuwandinda junior (@njunr2012) 20 February 2016
Amnesty International has condemned the excessive use of force in the run up to the elections.
The EU and the US have cried foul: the U.S. State Department acknowledged numerous ‘reports of irregularities’ while the EU’s observer mission, who monitored the election process, denounced the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the country’s Electoral Commission for creating ‘an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates’ and for lacking transparency and independence. However, the mission praised the determination of voters who waited for hours to cast their vote.
#EU EOM encourages the @UgandaEc to publish the detailed results from each polling station https://t.co/HlupjIvCeZ pic.twitter.com/TszvoQi76i
— EU EOM Uganda 2016 (@eueomuganda) 25 February 2016
Overall, the fairness of these elections lacked a great amount of credibility due to an atmosphere of intimidation and the censure of social media outlets by the government. The Ugandan people, however, have shown incredible defiance in the face of attempts to dissuade them from voting freely, especially through social media. Therefore, despite these questionable poll results, there is a strong sense of hope for future advancements towards a legitimate democracy in the country.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.