Saturday March 12 2016

When women were deployed to avert election violence

Electoral Commission head, Badru Kiggundu (2nd right), ack

Electoral Commission head, Badru Kiggundu (2nd right), acknowledges the Women Situation Room and commits to peaceful elections. PHOTOS BY STEPHEN OTAGE. 

By Nelson Wesonga

A palpable sense of fear of election–related violence preceded Uganda’s February 18 election. Already, there had been reports of supporters of some aspirants for elective positions fighting during political parties’ primaries.

Either side accused the other of rigging or of having benefitted from rigged polls. As those that had sought legal redress waited for the ruling on their petitions, others resort to violence. In Sembabule District in central Uganda, some people went as far as torching a party office.

If people could fight to have their person elected to represent the party in the national polls, what could they do were those candidates to lose the national polls? Worse, perhaps.

Many women in Uganda were worried. “When we looked at the indicators and they spelt we were going to have a violent election, the women could not sit back and watch the country catch fire,” Jessica Nkuuhe, the national coordinator of Women’s Situation Room (WSR), says.

So the women invited the Liberia–based Angie Brooks International Centre (ABIC) to Uganda. ABIC copyrighted WSR, and early warning and rapid response mechanism to avert conflict arising out of elections in many African countries.

Through WSR, which ABIC has so far “deployed” in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, ABIC helps to mobilise local women to work towards preventing election violence.

According to International Court of Justice judge Julia Sebutinde, election violence includes thuggery by individuals or groups, use of force to disrupt political campaigns or meetings, and the use of deadly weapons to intimidate voters.

How it works
In the run up to polls in countries where WSR has been invited, WSR gets in touch with the countries electoral commissions and police, explaining WSR’s objective. “The objective is to ensure peaceful elections,” says Elizabeth Lwanga, former United Nations Development Programme deputy regional director for Africa.

Through national women’s organisations, WSR then looks for at least 10 non-partisan women to work in select districts in a given country.

It trains the women on election laws and how to spot and report possible sparks of election–related violence, which the contact groups report to the “Situation Room”. It also reaches out to the people competing for public office and counsels them to conduct themselves civilly and for state institutions to carry out their duties judiciously.

WSR facilitates the contact groups with mobile phones and a toll-free number, which they use to relay information to WSR, comprised of the Eminent Women.
The eminent women are generally known for their achievements, networks and contacts in influential circles. “If we need to reach political leaders, we have eminent women who can make that happen within our midst,” explains Lwanga.

The eminent women operate from the situation room, which is usually in the capital city. When they receive reports from the field, WSR, with guidance from a ‘group of the wise’, assesses the reports and decides where to forward them for resolution.

It forwards the reports to representatives of the electoral commission or the police – whichever is appropriate. These do whatever they can to attend to the cases before they get out of hand.

February 18 report
For the presidential and parliamentary elections, WSR trained 450 contact persons. These made 1, 415 calls from 15 districts where they were stationed.

Half of the calls were about voters asking about how to vote. The rest of the calls were about voter bribery, allegations of voter bribery, pre–ticked ballots, names missing from the national voters’ register and intimidation by security agencies.

In Uganda, WSR recruited 450 young women as observers to work in 15 districts, which WSR had identified as hotspots. Chancellor Yvette Chesson–Wureh, ABIC International coordinator, says WSR decided to embrace the youth since they were the ones used to execute violence.

“It is important that the youth understand that the country they [might be] about to blow up is their country. They have nowhere else to go. They have the peace of the country in their hands, they can create peace or violence,” Chesson–Wureh says.

The Eminent Women usually arrive three days to an election and often leave for their home countries or jobs at least three days after elections. UNDP, UN Women, GIZ, Agent Action Fund and the Swedish government are some of the actors who support WSR activities.

According to UN Women Uganda representative, Hodan Addou, election violence partly explains why many women do not take part in elective politics. Although one cannot conclusively say WSR alone stops election violence, Lwanga says WSR’s role cannot be underestimated.

“The Women’s Situation Room is not just a room; it is a mechanism that in the two countries where I was a part of WSR, it contributed to preempting serious violence and resolved disputes that could have led to serious situations, particularly after the voting,” Lwanga says. Lwanga served as an eminent woman in the WSR during Sierra Leone’s election in 2012 and Kenya’s in 2013.

WSR shared these reports with the police and electoral commission representatives for attention. Later, WSR called the contact groups to find out if the cases, which the police and electoral officials, had been notified about and had promised to address, have been attended to
Last week, WSR met President Museveni at State House Entebbe, and FDC’s presidential candidate in the just concluded general election ,Dr Kizza Besigye, to persuade them to check their rhetoric, lest it stokes violence.

The eminent women
1. Elizabeth Lwanga, a former United Nations Development Programme Deputy Regional Director for Africa
2. Justice Julia, Ssebutinde a judge at the International Court of Justice; the first African woman to sit on the world court
3. Professor [honoris causa] Maggie Kigozi, a medical doctor, former executive director of the Uganda Investment Authority
4. Mary Oduka – Ochan, a senior adviser at Irish Aid and founding member of Finance Trust Bank Limited
5. Frances Akello, a former member of the 1960 – 1961 Legislative Council
6. Professor Joy Constance Kwesiga, an author, a university administrator, social development analyst, woman activist, founder member of Action for Development
7. Reverend Canon Diana NkesigaBarlow, the vicar of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala and one of the first women to be ordained by the Anglican Church in Uganda
8. Victoria Sekitoleko, the chairperson of the governing board of Uganda Agribusiness Alliance; she is former director of the Food and Agricultural Organisation
9. Hajjat Aphwa Kaawaase Sebyala, the director of Energising Solutions Limited. She is an insurance expert and international climate change champion
10. Justice Mary Maitum, a principal lecturer, Law Development Centre and a member of The Elders Forum of Uganda. She was formerly a member of the Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Commission, the Police Authority, chairperson of the National Community Service Committee, deputy chairperson of Makerere University Council.