What you need to know:
- Tall order. Unlike before, the mainstream Opposition has come to a consensus that elections cannot facilitate the removal of President Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement, but as Derrick Kiyonga writes, calling for an election boycott is equally an uphill task.
The campaigns for the Soroti East by-election that pitted Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) Moses Attan against National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) Herbert Ariko that lasted for not more than a week had looked peaceful by Ugandan standards.
Politicians from either camp had pitched camp in the eastern city of Soroti, making the case to voters on why they should vote for Attan or Ariko.
Opposition doyen Kizza Besigye, who had taken a sabbatical from the campaign trail, was joined by a group of politicians from National Unity Platform (NUP) led by singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine to make a case as to why Attan – whose victory was overturned by the courts by on grounds of the Electoral Commission’s (EC) errors – should return to Parliament.
It was a rare show of unity between FDC and NUP that have largely not warmed up to each other.
“We spent the day in Soroti City, drumming support for our brother Hon Moses Attan. As NUP, we decided to support a FDC candidate in the spirit of the unity of forces of change. We firmly believe that we are stronger together,” Kyagulanyi said after a mammoth rally in Soroti City.
But on the eve of the election, the clouds started to turn dark when Opposition activists spotted cars without number plates patrolling the Soroti streets, reminding them of events that happened before the Kayunga District chairperson by-election last year, which was controversially won by NRM’s Andrew Muwonge, and the Omoro parliamentary by-election, which was won by Andrew Ojok Oulanyah, again of NRM.
Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja had jetted into Soroti to campaign for Ariko.
And like it was in Kayunga, the ruling party was accused by FDC activists of doling out money to voters only to be intercepted by Opposition vigilantes.
Storming Adeke’s home
Their fears turned out not to be far-fetched as a group of security operatives, who, according to FDC officials were led by Moses Karangwa, NRM’s Kayunga District chairperson, in the middle of the night stormed the home of Soroti District Woman Member of Parliament (MP) Anna Ebaju Adeke – who was leading Attan’s campaign – in the process, arresting FDC party president Patrick Amuriat Oboi.
That night, police stormed lodging facilities, arresting more than 50 people they had identified as FDC agents and deposited them at a police station in adjacent Dokolo District.
“The District Internal Security Officer (DISO) of Soroti had sent LCIs within the town and entire constituency to write down the names of guests of every facility. That’s how they were able to know who was sleeping where: They went to more than 17 hotels and lodges and picked more than 100 people, putting our campaign in disarray,” Adeke, who is also the FDC’s deputy president in charge of Eastern Uganda, claimed.
By morning, evidence of apparent vote rigging had started streaming on social media: Owolo Polling Station had no ballot papers by midday yet several people were still in the queues waiting to vote.
At Omarela Polling Station, there were allegations of ballot stuffing after FDC agents were chased and by evening, EC declared Ariko the victor with a difference of 636 votes, prompting the Opposition to go into soul searching if at all it still makes sense to participate in elections.
“They arrest polling agents, they arrest supervisors, everybody who complains about ballot paper stuffing they arrest you immediately and detain them, then in the evening after they have done the rigging they release them,” David Lewis Rubongoya, NUP’s secretary general, said.
According to analysts, the decision by NRM to win by-elections by all means stems from the way People Power, now called NUP, emerged after winning a string of by-elections, which gave them hope that they could win the 2021 General Election.
“People Power gained a lot of momentum after the 2016 elections with NRM not keeping an eye on it,” says Yusuf Serunkuma, a socio-politico commentator. “Now going into the next elections, the NRM wants to snuff out any momentum the Opposition can get.”
People Power gained momentum in the Kyadondo East by-election that led to the emergence of Kyagulanyi.
Kyagulanyi would later take credit of helping Asuman Basalirwa claim Bugiri Municipality, Kassiano Wadri take the Arua Municipality seat and Paul Mwiru take the Jinja East seat, consequently turning him into a national politician.
It wasn’t the first time that by-elections organised in urban areas have tended to swing towards the Opposition and have given a number of Opposition politicians the chance to jump-start their careers.
For instance, the by-elections that resulted from the 2011 elections led to the emergence of Mr Muhammad Muwanga-Kivumbi, who has since made the Butambala seat his own.
In like manner, Luweero District Woman MP Brenda Nabukenya, then of Democratic Party (DP), became the first Opposition member to win a seat in Luweero District since NRM shot its way to power in 1986.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the Opposition struck into Mr Museveni’s backyard of western Uganda when FDC’s Oddo Tayebwa took the Ishaka-Bushenyi Municipality, only to lose it during the 2016 parliamentary elections.
The difference between the 2011 and 2016 by-elections is that the latter gave birth to Kyagulanyi, who immediately clashed with FDC when he mobilised voters to turn out and vote in 2021 with the thinking that they could overwhelm NRM.
“For the leader to say that a vote will never oust Museveni without offering another option is disappointing. We continue to call Ugandans and we say what we politicians can’t solve the people of Uganda can solve. They should go ahead and register as voters and be many,” Kyagulanyi said in 2019.
“We have seen it in the recent past. The power of the people prevailed in Kyadondo, it prevailed in Bugiri, it prevailed in Rukungiri, it prevailed in Arua, it prevailed in Jinja and indeed it’s going to prevail in the whole of Uganda in 2021.”
Though he didn’t mention any names, Kyagulanyi’s tirade was aimed at Besigye who, having stood thrice against Museveni, was firm that elections can’t bring about change in the country and was talking about the ambiguous ‘Plan B’.
“The mistake Bobi Wine can make is to think he will go into the elections, people cast votes and he will be declared victor,” Besigye said in 2020. “I know many opportunists are pumping him up to stand because they just want to get positions as MPs and councillors.”
As the 2021 elections were closing in, Besigye warned: “None of the 10 contestants will be announced, president. The reality is, Mr Museveni is just a nominated candidate like John Katumba and Nancy Kalembe, but he simply cannot humble himself to become a candidate. He is the Electoral Commission and everything.”
With NRM winning this term’s by-elections after the incarceration of Opposition agents, it seems Kyagulanyi is now in agreement with Besigye that elections can’t bring about change in Uganda.
“We need to be realistic after what happened in Kayunga. How can I tell people that please come and we go and vote?” Kyagulanyi recently told NTV. “It means I’m not telling them the truth because even if they vote those who announce results will declare the loser’s victors. So how can I tell people to vote when we are still working under the same circumstances? Now what I can say is that voting no longer makes sense.”
With political space narrowing, Opposition seems to be caught between the proverbial stone and hard place – whether to boycott or not to boycott elections. There was a precedent in Uganda’s history that makes a boycott not effective.
In 1996 when DP’s Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, who had formed an alliance of convenience with Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), lost his second presidential bid to President Museveni, citing electoral fraud, both Opposition parties ordered their members to boycott the subsequent parliamentary elections.
Some members of both parties adhered to the boycott, while others didn’t, as expected. For instance, Damiano Lubega, who had represented Rubaga South in the Constituent Assembly (CA), which midwifed the current Constitution, was one of the DP members who obeyed the orders not to stand.
But as the old adage goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and so it was with Lubega’s decision not to stand playing right into the hands of John Ken Lukyamuzi of Conservative Party, who went on to make the seat his for decades.
The fear is that if the Opposition parties call for a boycott now, a similar scenario will be replicated.
“They can boycott, but then the Independents will stand. When the Independents stand most people won’t realise that the Opposition is not there. Unless there was a law that stops the Independents to stand such that NRM will go throw unopposed such that the whole exercise is de-legitimatised,” says Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a political-historian at Makerere University.
Another fear is that if FDC, NUP, Justice Forum (Jeema), and Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) agree to boycott, this will be rendered ineffective by DP and UPC who have formed alliances with NRM.
“There is DP and UPC who are ready to step in and NRM will ensure they get the logistics they need to participate in an election so the process will be legitimised. For me, I would advise them to participate in the exercise, possibly not with the view to win but mobilise their constituents. You only boycott when there is no other person standing,” says Ndebesa.
In this week’s impromptu meeting NUP, FDC and Jeema came short of calling for a boycott.
“Now, therefore, the undersigned leaders on behalf of our respective political parties and formation, recalling the sacrifices of our people over the years including the thousands who lost their lives during the war Gen Museveni led claiming to fight against vote rigging, do hereby make it clear that we shall not watch on as Gen Museveni, aided by [EC chairperson Simon] Byabakama, Nabbanja, [NRM secretary general Richard] Todwong, [NRM EC chairperson] Tanga Odoi and they’re irk continue to hijack the will of the people,” the document the Opposition signed partly read.
Though the meeting was interpreted as the formation of an Opposition alliance, Besigye has denied it.
“We have a lot of media misrepresentation. Frankly, you people in the media need to style up and give your audience factual information. We made a joint statement on the state of elections and our country. We didn’t sign any agreement,” he said.
There are three pending by-elections – in Gogonyo County (Pallisa District), Bukimbiri County (Kisoro District), Busongora South (Kasese) – and the Opposition has agreed on the narrative to use those elections.
“Going forward, we shall jointly or severally use any upcoming elections to organise and rally the population to defend their democratic rights and end the election madness that has bedevilled our country since independence,” the document concluded.
NRM electoral commission chairperson Tanga Odoi, who has been accused of playing a key role in vote rigging, laughed off the claims, saying NRM won because it’s organised.
“In areas where they say there was rigging data shows that FDC won but by small margins,” Odoi said. “But where NRM won it won with big margins.”
EC spokesperson, Paul Bukenya, said they will do their own audit of the by-election, but he deflected from answering questions that relate to arresting Opposition before elections contending that they should be directed to police.
“We shall evaluate how we performed and we shall communicate our findings,” Bukenya said. “For the arrests, it police that’s best placed to explain that.”