Firstly, we should take pride in our people, who once again displayed a remarkable faith in the idea of choosing their government. Once again, they went largely unrewarded, except perhaps at the level of local government.
Despite the failure to at least hide what they have done, members of the ruling NRM party are still trying to “sell” what happened last week as not just genuine, but also “normal”.
They are now a mirror image of the many stalwarts of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party who still insist in referring to their 1980-1985 effort as “the elected government”.
This is where the trouble lies.
The NRM’s root justification for being in power is the outcomes of the 1980 election. And today, many in UPC cite the NRM’s current electoral conduct to “prove” that it must have been telling lies in 1980.
In his February 13 Daily Monitor opinion piece, UPC special envoy Joseph Ochieno persevered with this point.
The basic argument is that a few power-hungry individuals began an armed rebellion against a perfectly legitimate authority, and that the current illegalities of those now victorious rebels is a direct result of them never having had a valid political point to begin with.
First of all, we should always remember that the NRA was in fact just one of six different rebel armies that went up against the 1980 UPC regime. Their reasons were many, and they were not all in agreement with even one another.
By trying to narrow the anti-Obote rebellions down to the actions, character and outcomes of the NRA’s particular war, Mr Ochieno tries to cleverly discredit the entire rebellion by focusing on one of its worst examples.
Just because the NRM has become the phenomenal election-rigging machine that we see today, does not mean that the 1980 elections were not also rigged, and that therefore the rebellions were not justified. There is a disingenuous trick of logic in trying to say otherwise.
In fact, this is why the advent of the NRM regime has been the better outcome for the UPC, than say, DP finally taking power, since NRM now has as much to hide about vote stealing, as does the UPC.
It is these “managed histories” that remain a blind spot in our national political discourse, and why an election year in Uganda is always the occasion for political crisis.
Each scheduled election year since independence: 1966/67, 1970/71, 1974, 1979/80, and 1985/86, saw the vote replaced by a violent change of power, or just crisis.
1966 became the year the Independence coalition government fell apart, and prime minister Milton Obote used the military to make himself president.
The army commander of that violent putsch – one General Idi Amin – was to then use the same means to make himself president by ousting Obote in 1971.
The honeymoon period of Amin’s government ended in 1974, with the intelligentsia he had gathered around himself abandoning him to his ways, which is where the Tanzanian invasion found him, and drove him out in 1979.
The crisis of the 1980 election eventually led to Obote’s army commanders throwing him out in 1985. They too were to then be ousted in early 1986, by the rebel armies they had sought to make peace with.
After 1986, we simply saw a switch to a system donor-massaged, stage-managed events, which his has now also gone into crisis.
One of the issues that seriously hampered early efforts in the Ugandan diaspora to expose the NRM government was the fundamental difference between those who had arrived in exile before 1986, and those who came after, the question of the 1980 elections, and its outcomes, were an enormous sticking point.
The “elected government” mantra of the post had the gradual effect of making all those who had become exiles just before 1986, drift towards supporting the just-arrived NRM government.
It is extremely difficult to try and build a human rights coalition among people divided against each other, and in support of respective abusers of human rights.
This remains the challenge today, to some extent.
Rigging is not an event, it is a process referring to the act of setting something up to behave in a certain predetermined way. To ask: “What happened in December 1980?”, is to ask the wrong question. The more effective question is what ended then.
One has to look a bit further back, to May 1980, when a few of the armed factions within the post-Amin coalition conspired to overthrow that government in anticipation of the planned December election, and Paulo Muwanga, a UPC activist of longstanding became the head of State.
The first significant act was the selective creation of constituencies. There was some debate as to whether the constituencies of the last election – held nearly 20 years before – were still applicable.
In the re-drawing, the complaint emerged that areas deemed to have strong DP support were given much larger constituencies than those with a strong UPC following.
Given the electoral system then, where the party winning the greatest number of parliamentary seats would be the one to form government, this naturally meant that fewer voters were needed in some areas to elect an MP, than in others.
A number of UPC parliamentary candidates sailed through unopposed even before polling day, because nobody from the opposing party was nominated to run against them.
In a significant number of those cases, this was actually because those potential candidate had been detained on or before nomination day by the partisan security forces and held until the nomination deadline passed.
Polling was done in separate ballot boxes, with each party having its own. This led to several scenarios.
In some cases, such as in parts of West Nile, armed soldiers stationed inside the polling booths would simply bark at the voters and order them to place their ballot into the UPC box.
In other places, where it was obvious that the boxes of the other parties were receiving more ballots than the UPC one, then one or more of a number of measures were taken.
Since the ballots were indistinguishable from each other except for which box they were placed in, then the box labels were switched so that the fuller box was renamed a UPC one.
In addition, in some heavily DP areas, the authorities simply did not bother to collect the ballot boxes after voting.
Stories are still told by older Ugandans who, as youth, built bonfires and collected sticks and other rudimentary weapons so as to spend the night guarding the ballot boxes, in the vain hope that they would be collected the following morning.
Also, as happened in this election, there was the tactic of the late opening and early closing of polling stations in areas where the non-UPC parties were known to be popular.
We can all decide for ourselves if all of these acts had the cumulative effect of enabling the UPC party to then be declared the winner.
But the additional factor of Paulo Muwanga usurping the powers of the Electoral Commission cannot leave any doubts.
He decreed that anyone apart from himself caught announcing poll results (presumably including the Electoral Commission itself) would face a fine of Shs500,000 (roughly $68,000 at the time) and or up to five years in prison.
Some accounts report that this directive was later revoked. But the facts remain that Mr Muwanga went on to be a very big man in the government that was declared winner, and one Mr Vincent Ssekono, the Badru Kiggundu of the day, went into exile.
We cannot deny now that these events have had far-reaching effects on the country.
As head of DP, Mr Paul Ssemogerere – who has never been known to turn down an official posting – agreed to take his party into the new Parliament as the official Opposition, while also insisting that they had in fact won. This made activism difficult.
Many people – including international human rights organisations – could not understand why DP members were claiming they had been cheated, while their leader (president?) was seated somewhat comfortably in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition.
This is the gap that was exploited by armed groups prepared to organise the legions of angry youth into armies.
It is for this reason that this story remains important. Instead of recognising the crisis of credibility, and the extreme anger that the election outcome had created, the “victorious” UPC adopted a gloating, triumphalist attitude, and dismissed all calls for a more reflective attitude, just as the NRM’s leaders are doing today.
Uganda is a country with a very large young population, many of who are bitter and angry about the events of last week, just like it was in 1980.
The powerful lesson now being sent to this new generation is that elections do not change governments.
It is time for the riggers to stop “managing” their own narratives, before the youth begin to create their own.
About the 1980 elections
On July 15, 1980, the government named a five-man national Electoral Commission. The chairman of the EC was named as K.M.S Kikira.
Commissioners included Sam Egweu, A. Kera A. Ahmed Bilali and M. Matovu. Vincent Sekono was the secretary to the commission.
On September 18, 1980, it was announced that the general election would not now take place on September 30 as had been previously scheduled and would now take place on December 10, 1980.
On November 24, 1980, a 70-member Commonwealth election observer team headed by Ghana’s Ebenezer Deborah arrived in Uganda to monitor the forthcoming elections.
Finally on December 10, 1980, millions of Ugandans started voting in their first general election since 1962. The turnout was heavy. Reports of rigging by some UPC and DP party activists and candidates began to filter through.
Before the results were announced, the DP started to declare that it had won the elections. As thousands of its supporters were celebrating in the streets of Kampala, the chairman of the Military Commission, Paulo Muwanga, issued an announcement ordering anybody prematurely claiming victory to cease doing so and await the Electoral Commission’s announcement.
The following day as initial results start coming in, a pattern suggesting a landslide victory by the UPC started becoming clear. On December 18, 1980, Ssemogerere addressed a press conference in Kampala at which he said the officially announced results declaring Obote and the UPC the winners had been a reversal of the actual results.