Thursday March 13 2014

A credible voters register is everyone’s responsibility

By Crispy Kaheru

In fields such as research, those inclined to disputing given research findings will always latch on to the ‘methodology’. In elections, however, it is overly becoming the question of the integrity of the ‘voters register’. Since 1996, the question of how clean and credible the voters register in Uganda is has come to the fore not once or twice but several times – both from voices that take active part in the elections as voters or candidates and those that at times stand and look from a distance – the election observers.

Despite the semblance of normalcy in the May 9, 1996 presidential elections in Uganda, thousands of voters were turned away from the polling stations across the country on account of their names missing from the voters roll – actually, the real complaint was that their names, which had originally been on the 1994 Constituency Assembly (CA) voters register, had been omitted from the 1996 ‘corrected version’ of the national voters roll.

The grumbling of how this could have affected the election could ostensibly be heard through the sentiments of those who were candidates but can also be traced in observer reports of institutions such as the National Organisation for Civic Education and Election Monitoring.

Come 2001 elections, the suspicion around the spike in numbers of voters on the register did not make it easier, especially for the election managers. Whereas the 1996 register carried 8.4 million voters, the 2001 roll had more than 10.7 million voters – a relatively sharp increase (despite the statistical fact that Uganda’s population growth rate remained the same – 3 per cent in between that electoral cycle).

Presidential candidates in the 2001 elections, including Dr Kizza Besigye, spoke in various forums of how the manipulation of the register had skewed election results and disenfranchised legal voters in the election that had handed victory to President Museveni. It also goes without saying that in the 2001 election, over 3 million registered voters did not turn up to vote.

Sentiments from the 2006 and 2011 elections have not been any different. Of course, doubts about the national voters register has become a recital in all subsequent elections. In 2006 though, out of the 10.4 million registered voters, more than 3.2 million voters still did not appear at their respective polling stations to vote, an occurrence that further reaffirmed some people’s claims that the roll had a significant number of ‘ghost’ voters.

On the heels of the February 18, 2011 elections, both candidates and voters raised questions around the comparatively sudden increase in the number of registered voters from 10.4 million in 2006 to 13.9 million in 2011. More than 3.5 million voters had been added throughout that period was all around Uganda’s voting population.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) had around the same time (in line with its mandate) informed us that about 52 per cent of Ugandans were 15 years and below. Going by the UBOS statistics, it would, therefore, mean the 2011 voters register had 100 per cent or there about of every body above 18 years registered. How far true, practical and possible this could have been, remains a hotly debated issue which election administrators have often shoved to the sidelines.
In short, the challenges around Uganda’s national voters register are (allegedly or realistically) deep and recurrent, extending beyond isolated issues such missing voters’ bio-data on the register and flaring up to having ‘ghost’ voters, multiple entries of a single voter on to the register, underage voting and occasional inaccessibility of the voters register.

This time round, the Electoral Commission has indicated its intentions to leverage from data collected in the on-going citizen registration process to ensure a clean, credible and reliable voters register ahead of 2016. It is at this juncture critical that as Ugandans, we resolve to support any process geared towards making our register a tool that genuinely safeguards every eligible voter’s franchise.
And because history repeats itself, we (ahead of the 2016 elections) must put our feet down to have a clean and credible voters register that we will all believe in. And since there is a possibility of the 2016 voters register being linked to the on-going national ID process, we must closely follow how the national ID project is progressing but also continue pushing for answers and clarity on the pending legal questions around the EC using data from the national ID process for voter register purposes.

In a nutshell, our election administrators have to keep re-assuring Ugandans that the 2016 voters register is going to sail above the previous numerous tests. Most importantly, the election administrators must come out and allay the fears of those who are being moved to think that the 2016 voters register could be last-minute patch-work that may deeply slant the electoral terrain of Uganda.

Mr Kaheru is the coordinator – Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda.