Polling stations were supposed to open at 8am on December 10, 1980 and close at 6pm. In many places they did not open until after midday and, similarly, did not close until the next day.
The election was a litany of errors and manipulations designed to give an unfair advantage to the UPC party and its candidate Milton Obote. As earlier noted, UPC went into the election with 17 out of 126 seats already decided in its favour by virtue of its candidates in those seats being unopposed.
In the majority of cases the candidates were unopposed, not because they were very popular, but because their would-be opponents had been frustrated or intimidated and prevented from being nominated to run.
Most, if not all, polling officials were UPC supporters and the Electoral Commission was under the thumb of the pro-UPC Military Commission led by Paulo Muwanga. The turnout for the polls was respectable in many areas, with many people voting for the first time in their lives after almost two decades of political instability.
The preparations were in many places shambolic. Polling booths were located in the most random places, including bars and in many cases had armed soldiers overseeing what choices the voters were making.
“Where the militia, the [Uganda National Liberation Army] as well as the [Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces] were deployed, the situation was appalling,” Francis Bwengye, a lawyer and DP candidate in the election recalled in his book, ‘The Agony of Uganda: From Idi Amin to Obote.’
“In some of these places, soldiers or militia could enter the polling booths and sit on [Democratic Party] or [Uganda Patriotic Movement] ballot boxes and then direct voters to cast their votes into UPC ballot boxes. Others would go at the back of the booths and point guns through the back doors or windows so that anybody going into the booth to cast his vote would be told to cast the same into the UPC ballot box.”
With the use of separate ballot boxes, several UPC functionaries had free rein to stuff their boxes with ballots and try to inflate their scores.
Despite all these concerted efforts, reports that trickled in as the day progressed indicated that DP was headed for victory in many parts of the country and was likely to win the election.
The Electoral Commission, in conjunction with the Military Council decided to extend the voting to 2pm the next day, December 11, ostensibly to allow people who had been unable to vote to do so. However, even polling stations where everyone had voted were then required to keep the ballot boxes overnight despite there being no preparations to protect the boxes.
Stuffing at its peak
This allowed UPC candidates who felt unsure about their fate to grab their ballot boxes, take them away for more stuffing, and return them. This happened even in polling stations where counting of the ballots had already been undertaken and completed.
None of this could shift the weight of the popular choice, however. On December 11, DP youths began to pour out into the streets to celebrate what they felt was their victory. They were soon disabused of the idea after a machine gun was mounted outside the DP office and orders given daring them to approach the office.
Paul Ssemogerere, the DP leader, could have perhaps forced the issue but after meeting with Paulo Muwanga, the chairperson of the Military Commission, and perhaps to avoid bloodshed, advised his supporters to return to their homes and await further information via radio.
The Commonwealth Observer Group, satisfied that their short sojourn out to the countryside had given them a working assessment of the election, returned to Kampala and issued an interim report, which was gushing with naïve emotion. “Surmounting all obstacles, the people of Uganda, like some great tidal wave, carried the electoral process to a worthy and valid conclusion,” they wrote.
Several media outlets carried stories indicating that DP had won the election, while Francis Hatega, Uganda’s ambassador to Tanzania, shared similar insights with officials in Dar es Salaam.
With power and the election slipping out of his hands and those of the UPC, Paulo Muwanga and the Military Commission seized the initiative. First, a statement on Radio Uganda noted that UPC candidates and supporters had been subjected to intimidation and violence in Busoga and Buganda.
Then Muwanga’s voice crackled to life on Radio Uganda on the evening of December 11 with an important announcement. No one, not even the chairman of the Electoral Commission had the power to announce election results and anyone who disregarded the order would pay a hefty fine of Shs500,000 or spend up to five years in jail, or both.
“Only Muwanga himself could announce any results once he was satisfied that a candidate had been properly elected,” Prof. A.B. Kasozi noted in his book, The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda.
“This step reversed the population’s election mandate: it was the chairman of the Military Commission, not the voters, who decided who had been elected and who had not, which results were correct and which were not. Ugandans had not voted for 18 years. Now their general will, as expressed through their choice of representatives was snatched from them. Everyone waited to see what would happen next.”
What would happen next would be the most infamous (but not last) case of political robbery and one that would send the country spiralling away from the first rungs of the ladder to democracy to the dark, decrepit pit of war and political instability.