What it costs a woman to run for a political office

Saturday November 21 2020

Shamim Nanfuma, a contender for the Kampala Woman MP seat says elections are an expensive venture for women. PHOTOs /file.


Shamin Nanfuma, a contender for the Kampala Woman MP seat, waits patiently on a cloudy Monday morning for officials from the Central Executive Committee of her party – the National Resistance Movement (NRM) to address the gathering.

She is among tens of other party members waiting for the reconciliation meeting to begin – people who are standing as Independent candidates in the forthcoming general elections after they lost out in the party primaries.

They demand that the NRM party should meet certain conditions before they step down for party nominees. One of the conditions is that the NRM –the ruling party, meets all expenses they incurred during primaries.

“I spent more than Shs250 million in this election. My budget for the general elections is about Shs300 million ($80,294),” Nanfuma says.

Nanfuma, a surprise candidate in the race crowded by a professor, a lawyer, two journalists, and a social worker, owns stalls in Kibuye, Nakasero and Owino (St Balikuddembe) markets in Kampala. 

As with the past elections, the availability of money or lack of it, is a deciding factor in whether a candidate can run a successful campaign or not. In October last year, a report titled “Unregulated Campaign Spending and its impact on Electoral Participants in Uganda” was released by The Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring, a civil society group that tracks election financing in Uganda. The report estimates that the cost of an individual candidate campaigning for parliamentary seat in 2021 will be in the range of Shs500 million. 


At Local Government level, candidates for district LCV chairperson are estimated to spend between Shs300 million to Shs500 million. The report states that the figures are inclusive of what candidates will spend on party primaries.

However, with the Covid-19 pandemic in the picture, these costs have more than doubled.

Scientific campaigns black hole

On June 16, the Electoral Commission (EC) released a revised electoral roadmap that banned open-air campaigns. Many people thought the recommended scientific campaigns – which were supposed to be carried out in the media – would be cheaper. The reality is far from the truth.

“Media houses need money. If you don’t have money, you probably won’t have a chance to attend a political talk show. I know that when I go there (to TV and radio stations), I have to ‘see’ the producers and hosts in a certain way,” Nanfuma says.

This ‘seeing’ of producers and hosts is in addition to paying for airtime if a candidate wishes to have an exclusive slot in the traditional media.

Nancy Kalembe, a presidential candidate standing on an Independent ticket, says some editors are asking her to pay what she refers to as ridiculous amounts of money in order to secure for her front pages in some leading dailies.  Kalembe says she is using her savings and donations from well-wishers to facilitate her campaigns.

“The incumbent pays the huge amounts with ease, but for the rest of us, this remains unrealistic.  I joined these political campaigns because I want to serve Ugandans. Unfortunately, elections are highly monitised, and that is why we are having bad leaders because they bought their way to political office. For some of us who have worked hard for everything that we own, we feel guilty spending this kind of money,” she says.

Perry Aritua, the executive director of Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) Uganda Chapter, agrees that the cost of media is prohibitive to some politicians.  “Access to the media goes to the highest bidder and we know that the social and economic positioning of women in our society is slightly below that of men. When it comes to social media, the over-the-top (OTT) tax and Internet data are expensive. Also, some women are also not conversant with the use of technology,” she says.

 Access to the same networks

Traditionally, during weekdays, the broadcast media holds political talk shows in the early mornings and late evenings. Given the curfew of 9pm – 6am, one wonders if women are holding the tail end of the bargain.

“It disadvantages women, especially those who do not have the means (cars) to go to these stations. Women are more afraid than men to go for the late night talk shows, first because security for women at night is an issue, but also because they fear being arrested for violating curfew regulations,” Aritua says.

However, the female contestants we spoke to say they are not at a disadvantage because of their gender. Their only sore point is with the monitised campaigns.


Sumayiyah Muwonge, a TV anchor with Top Media, who is contesting for the Kampala Woman MP seat on the Democratic Party (DP) ticket, says she can access the same media with the men.

 “Some women can access the media more than men. A male Independent candidate or even a DP candidate may have no access to the media because he does not have money, yet a woman from the ruling party will not have similar issues because she has the money,” she says.

Being a late night news anchor, appearing on late night talk shows is not a barrier to Muwonge. For Nanfuma, though, the disadvantage is in two forms.

“I can have the same access to the media if given a chance. Most media houses, though, only invite political party members. For instance, if they are to invite women MP aspirants, it is rare for them to invite Independent candidates. I have never been invited for any late night talk shows even though it is not hard for me to move at night,” she says.

With broadcast media attaching high fees to adverts, candidates increasingly have to rely media generosity to invite them as panelists or guest for talk shows. Kalembe, a former media practitioner, says she has been invited to most of the shows she has been on, averaging three shows a week.

 “But, going forward, there are some shows that we shall be seeking out (to pay for) obviously. I believe I am more at an advantage than most men because I am part of a media fraternity. I am hoping and praying that the media sees me as one of them and supports me,” she says.

 However, relying on invitations from well-wishers in the media completes a kind of vicious cycle. No media appearances, no funds. With few media appearances, it is difficult to reach an electorate you hope will fundraise for your campaign expenses. Muwonge has resorted to moving door-to-door, as well.

“Door-to-door is very expensive. I need Shs700 million to run my campaigns but I have only collected 10 per cent of that amount, yet the election is in a few days away,” she says.

A 2016 report by Women’s Democracy Group on the general elections, titled “Women in Uganda’s Electoral Processes,” states that there is need for a candidate to have the ‘individual touch,’ which necessitates moving door-to-door. In many households, candidates visit, the occupants narrate their problems, compelling the candidate to leave money and other gifts behind in every home visited. This makes the election expensive and unaffordable to many women. 

Muwonge is a DP party candidate, however, apart from the ruling party, few political parties in the Opposition can afford to make substantial campaign contributions to their flag bearers. Some Opposition parties can only manage to pay nomination fees and campaign poster expenses for their flag bearers.

Muwonge owns a school but currently, it is not operational because of regulations against the spread of Covid-19. She is relying on her salary to meet her campaign expenses, yet her employer expects her to resign soon and take the plunge into politics.

Nanfuma says besides dipping into her businesses and savings, she gets contributions from well-wishers. Out of the Shs300 million she requires to smoothen her campaigns, she has only raised 10 per cent.

There is a perception in the electorate that a candidate has to offer them cash, if they are to vote for him or her. Madinah Zalwango, a procurement professional, who stood in the NRM primaries in Entebbe Municipality and lost, says the expenses would have been bearable if one only had to pay for registration and printing posters.

 “I was in a campaign where voter bribery was the order of the day. People were being given Shs10,000 in the voting line. This campaign came at a time when our people were just emerging from the lockdown. So, it was easy for candidates to manipulate them with money,” she says.

Being unable to bribe voters, Zalwango spent money on printing 25,000 posters, 5,000 banners, and fuel for the outdoor truck on which she mounted loud speakers. She lost the election.

Scientific campaigns more expensive

Last month, the EC allowed candidates to hold campaign meetings of not more than 70 people. This means for every meeting, candidates have to incur costs on hiring venues, buying beverages, and paying attendees transport refunds. Some candidates have to pay attendees for their time.

“Just imagine, in an open-air rally, you would spend only about Shs5 million on hiring the venue, stage, artists and a sound system, and about 1,000 people would come to the rally. But, now holding small meetings with different groups and moving door-to-door will make us run bankrupt,” Muwonge says.

Of course, the downside of commercialised elections affects both the candidates and the voters. A candidate who has spent a lot of money in the campaigns will be looking to recoup that money once they are voted into office, hence the rise in political corruption, lack of accountability, and poor service delivery.  The candidates who lose an election, inevitably fall into debt since they ate into their savings during campaigns. Whichever way one looks at it, monetised political campaigns are a stumbling block, especially for women.


I cannot discuss with someone I do not really know how much money I need to run my campaign. However, money should not be a barrier. I am a positive person. If money is a barrier, find creative ways to go through that barrier. In leadership, challenges are going to be there, whether you like it or not, so you either find ways around them or through them.

I think the scientific campaigns are a blessing to women. It’s all about ideas now, and women are great with ideas, because this time round, it is not going to be about the politics of noise.

People are going to be forced to listen to issues, and leaders who have nothing to offer are going to be exposed. At the end of the day, I’m not going to come to NTV and spend two hours making noise saying, “Museveni agende! I don’t like FDC! I don’t like NUP! I don’t like UPC!”

Whether you like it or not, in those two hours you are going to be asked pertinent questions which you have to have answers to.

Nancy Kalemba

Presidential candidate