Gatherings put country  between rock and hard place 

NUP’s Presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, aka, Bobi Wine campaigns in Fort Portal on November 23. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA
 

It would be “dangerous” and “madness” to hold elections in the middle of Covid-19 pandemic, President Museveni said in an interview that Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) Television aired on May 11, 2020.

 At the time, Uganda had registered only about 120 coronavirus infections and no death. The country was under lockdown imposed to prevent spread of the disease and buy time to prepare to handle a possible worse Covid-19 scenario.

 In addition, at least Shs2.2 trillion – from the national budget, domestic and foreign donations and loan from the International Monetary Fund - was appropriated to different government agencies to respond to the emergency and build capacity, according to the Finance ministry’s October Covid-19 intervention audit report.

 “If it (coronavirus) is still there, it will be madness to continue [with the elections] …,” Mr Museveni said in the NBS interview.


 That ominous statement has seven months later turned almost prophetic. The campaigns for presidential, parliamentary and local government elections - a vote-canvassing exercise that the Electoral Commission recalibrated as “scientific” meetings - are in full throttle.

 Cumulative coronavirus infections in the country stand at 27,532 and fatalities have risen to 221, according to the Ministry of Health’s December 12 update, meaning the virus has on average killed 50 Ugandans every month since the index death in Mbale on July 21.

 An earlier December 9 report detailed the highest single-day positive coronavirus tests in the country, at 1,199, and 12 deaths, nine of which occurred between December 4 and 5.

 Health officials and President Museveni, without tendering evidence, have blamed the rising infections on mass rallies by particularly presidential candidates Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, of National Unity Platform (NUP) and Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party’s Patrick Oboi Amuriat.

 “The Electoral Commission; this [EC chairperson Simon] Mr Byabakama, I don’t know what they are doing and why they should allow this nonsense to go on. I am not happy with the Electoral Commission … and police,” the partly state-owned New Vision newspaper quoted Mr Museveni as having said at the National Thanksgiving Prayers last Friday.

 It was unclear if he was complaining as a president or flag bearer of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), with the latter making him a possibly conflicted party.    

 The EC had a day earlier already summoned Bobi Wine and Mr Amuriat to appear before it today to answer charges of flouting the guidelines for vote-canvassing during the pandemic, although both candidates have said they will be a no-show.

 Those guidelines, christened standard operating procedures (SOPs), forbid a candidate from addressing a gathering of more than 200 people, and oblige them to ensure those they speak to wear masks, maintain a physical distance of at least two metres and make available hand-washing facilities with soap and water.

 The SOPs also prohibit conduct of processions on public roads, through towns and trading centres, holding of rallies in non-designated venues, making impromptu stopovers and attracting and addressing public gatherings on busy highways from car rooftops.

“There is a consistent pattern of breaching Covid-19 guidelines that we have observed and needs to be stopped,” EC spokesperson Paul Bukenya said last evening, suggesting that there was compliance at local government and parliamentary levels, and among some presidential candidates.
 
If strictly followed, the SOPs would still nearly bring all Ugandans in contact, rendering them ineffective over the 60-day course of campaigns.
 For instance, the 11 presidential candidates would at the minimum theoretically meet 2,200 people if each addressed a socially-distanced rally or meeting a day. 

However, because the campaign period has been contracted to two months yet the country has been split into 135 districts, 15 cities and 26 municipalities, many of the presidential candidates hold at least three rallies, meaning they meet up to 6,600 people a day. 

This translates into 396,000 people over 60 days, excluding contacts during tactical campaign planning and evaluation meetings.

 Further, if each person attending a meeting takes a minute to wash their hands, it means that the 200 people will require more than three hours of activity-packed day just to clean their hands prior to attending a candidate’s meeting or rally.  

EC statistics
 EC records show that some 3,290 people have been nominated to run for parliamentary and district chairperson seats. If each contestant a day gathered 200 people in compliance with the SOPs, it would mean 658,000 people would assemble in different parts of the country, translating into 39.5 million over two months of campaigns.

 This excludes meetings by candidates for chairperson slots in the 2,184 sub-counties in the country, increasing the possibility of multiple interfaces by voters at different rallies of candidates.

 Presented with these statistics and asked if the number caps in the SOPs can limit contact as intended, EC’s Bukenya referred this newspaper to the Health ministry that provided the scientific advice.

 We were unable to speak to the Ministry of Health by press time.
Speaking at the State of Security address in Kampala last Friday, Dr Monica Musenero, the presidential adviser on Covid-19, said experts endorsed the holding of elections which is a “…democratic process citizens deserve to select their leaders…” because Ugandans were initially compliant with government pandemic prevention guidelines. 

 “All candidates convinced us and agreed with the Electoral Commission that they [would] observe the SOPs… unfortunately after that agreement, some people no longer care,” she said.

The laxity by the population has been a concern for authorities for weeks, although politicians canvassing for votes are encumbered to rail against voters a month to the voting day.

Whereas the Health ministry and President Museveni fault Opposition politicians, the December 9, 2020 results showed that 666 of the more than 1,000 people who tested positive of the disease were from Kampala and Wakiso districts where all presidential candidates, except Mr John Katumba, are yet to campaign.

But the guard did not just drop with presidential campaigns.  With the reopening of  places of worship,  market places, public transport, and schools  among others, many did not follow the SOPs and, therefore, exposed many to the Coronavirus.  Downtown Kampala, for example,  remains a congested place with little adherence to SOPs.

Health minister Dr Jane Aceng, who is standing for the Lira District Woman MP seat, was caught in a procession with supporters, many not wearing masks, ahead of NRM’s September primaries, and again a few weeks ago when she addressed a well-attended rally in Lira Town. 

Before then, supporters of Investment minister Evelyn Anite and Dr Charles Ayume, her successful challenger in the NRM primaries, tangoed in Koboko with back-to-back street processions to show numerical strength.

Last week, the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council warned that mosques, which breach the SOPs, risk closure, with general secretary Ramathan Mugalu advising Muslims to perform ablution from home, carry their prayer mats to mosques, wear masks, wash hands and minimise touching surfaces.

 “This is an emergency and if you can’t adjust, please pray from home. We need to act before the government intervenes,” he said.

Elsewhere, on the day candidate Mr Museveni campaigned in Arua, a group of his mobile cheerleaders led by musician Bebe Cool held processions in town and, after the NRM flag bearer met his agents at Muni University, Bebe Cool staged a performance in town that ran deep into the night. A similar crowding preceded Mr Museveni’s campaign in the north-eastern Moroto Town.

In a marked departure from other candidates, the NRM candidate has largely avoided open rallies and impromptu campaigns, preferring to talk to groups of seated party and youth leaders that he assigns to undertake door-to-door campaigns. However, the chairs are arranged side-by-side at the meeting, not two metres apart as required under the SOPs.   

Multiple times, police have teargassed and dispersed Bobi Wine and Mr Amuriat’s rallies, many of which are huge crowd pullers. In one of the standoffs, Bobi Wine without a mask was captured on camera in eastern Uganda pulling a mask off the face of a senior police officer, claiming he wanted to clearly identify his tormentor. 

 Police previously arrested Bobi Wine, accusing him, among other things, of doing an act likely to spread an infectious disease.

 The November 18 arrest in Luuka District, which happened three days after Health minister Aceng’s crowded manifesto launch rally in Lira Town, triggered a two-day unrest in and around Kampala in which at least 54 people were killed. Many of the victims succumbed to gunshots.

Security briefing
In last Friday’s security situation briefing, the Inspector General of Police, Mr Martins Okoth-Ochola, noted that candidates’ “non-compliance with the law and the compliance issued for the campaign period necessitates the intervention of law enforcement agencies to safeguard public health and safety.”

The challenges police encounter in enforcing SOPs, he said, include deliberate and consistent non-compliance by some candidates, provocation and obstruction of law enforcement officers, departure from routes, hooliganism and riotous behaviour, assault and violent behaviour toward security personnel and disobedience of lawful orders.

“Lawlessness and hooliganism under the guise of political activity as the country has witnessed on a number of occasions shall not be accepted and shall be dealt with firmly and decisively,” the IGP noted in a statement issued last Friday.

The warning came a day after EC chairperson Byabakama, in the letter summoning Mr Amuriat and Bobi Wine to appear before him today, described breaches of the SOPs as “unacceptable.” 

Whereas none of the 11 presidential candidates signed to comply with the Covid-19 standard operating procedures, EC spokesperson Bukenya told Daily Monitor that their candidature was premised on their endorsement of General Election legal framework and guidelines from which the memorandum of understanding was extracted.

Asked if the candidates could be de-registered if they remain defiant, Mr Bukenya said the commission will assess the situation and act according to the laws of Uganda. “But the commission has always wanted every nominated candidate to stay in the race.

 That is why we engage them, to show them where they go wrong such that [they can] correct,” he said.

It is unclear why the Executive and Parliament did not invoke constitutional provisions to defer the vote, aware holding elections presented the possibility of accelerating coronavirus infections.

Article 110 empowers the President, in consultation with the Cabinet, to declare a state of emergency if satisfied that circumstances exist in whole or part of Uganda “… which render necessary the taking of measures which are required for securing the public safety...”

With the life of the current government and Parliament due to lapse next May, legal scholars argue that MPs could have invoked Article 77 (4) to periodically extend the life of Parliament and use powers bestowed in the House to determine how the tenure of the President could be extended.  

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