Unless there is a truly independent EC appointed by those who are not contesting elections, future elections may not be any different from the ones we have held since 1996 and could be shunned by voters, writes Musaazi Namiti.
The oft-repeated accusation against Justice Simon Byabakama, the chairperson of the Electoral Commission (EC), which declared President Museveni winner of the January 14 presidential election, is that in 2005, while working as a senior prosecutor, he brought fake charges against Dr Kizza Besigye.
Dr Besigye was challenging Mr Museveni for the presidency in the 2006 General Election.
The former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party president, who had spent four years in exile in South Africa and had returned home to run for president, lost the election (his second in a series) but was never convicted of rape, treason and misprision of treason because there was zero evidence.
That was always going to be a contentious issue and has created credibility problems for Justice Byabakama and, by extension, the EC.
Although the Commission says its mission is to “organise and conduct regular, free and fair elections and referenda professionally, impartially and efficiently”, few voters believe what it says, especially where presidential elections are concerned.
Justice Byabakama record
Many doubt that Justice Byabakama, whose record Mr Museveni knew perfectly well before he appointed him, will ever run an impartial and independent electoral body.
And why the President went ahead and appointed him when there are judges with no credibility issues, and when he knew that his tainted past would cause problems, remains a mystery.
To be fair, Justice Byabakama was vetted by a parliamentary committee, along with his commissioners, which means, at least in theory, that he is fit to head the Commission. The committee is made up of not only MPs from the ruling NRM but also Opposition MPs, although it is headed by a staunch supporter of Mr Museveni named Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament.
Justice Byabakama has completed his most important task since he assumed office in 2016, but problems had already started to crop up in the run-up to the election, with the Opposition fretting that he was openly favouring the hiring manager, Mr Museveni.
When, for example, lawyer Male Mabirizi asked the Commission to release the academic credentials of National Unity Platform (NUP) party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who has been Mr Museveni’s main challenger, citing discrepancies, the Commission was quick to do the job. (Mr Kyagulanyi held a news conference and explained the discrepancies.)
However, the same Commission dragged its feet when lawyer Muwada Nkunyingi, a member of the NUP, requested for Mr Museveni’s academic papers.
Months later, Mr Museveni was to surprise the country by announcing that he had changed his name, in a deed poll, from Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Kaguta Museveni. He said: “Since completion of my education, the names Yoweri Museveni, Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Kaguta Museveni have been used interchangeably in reference to me.”
For many Ugandans, 2020 was the first time they were hearing the name Tibuhaburwa.
In all past elections, including the very first presidential election Mr Museveni contested in December 1980 on the ticket of the defunct Uganda People’s Movement (UPM), the party he once led, that name was not used.
It is still not clear why Mr Museveni announced the change of his name in the run-up to the election and only after an Opposition lawyer requested the EC to release his academic credentials, which, by press time, were yet to be shared publicly.
The move only deepened suspicion that the President probably had something to hide — and it was, therefore, no surprise that when the EC started announcing results suggesting that Mr Museveni, who for decades has made it impossible for the Opposition to campaign freely and reach out to voters, was leading the 10 candidates in the race, Mr Kyagulanyi rejected them, saying they were “fake”.
Mr Kyagulanyi was effectively put under house arrest as this article was being written, his home in Magere, Wakiso District, surrounded by heavily armed security forces, who had prevented him from going out and had barred anyone trying to get in. He insists the election was rigged and has vowed to seek legal redress.
If he launches a petition over the outcome of the election, a task he has to perform in 10 days, according to election laws, and produces evidence that conclusively proves that he polled more votes than Mr Museveni, and that he would have been declared winner had there not been irregularities, he will have made history. All previous petitions have ended in failure for lack of substantial evidence of irregularities.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we should take from the January 14 election and previous elections is that the failure by Uganda’s political elite to create an independent and impartial electoral body is responsible for the current embroilment.
Unless there is a truly independent EC appointed by those who are not contesting elections, future elections may not be any different from the ones we have held since 1996 and could be shunned by voters — turnout in January 14’s vote was slightly above 50 per cent.
To understand how serious a problem the current electoral body is, let us look at the number of votes Mr Museveni polled and those of Mr Kyagulanyi.
According to the EC, Mr Museveni garnered 5,851,037 votes (58.6 per cent) of the total number of votes cast.
Mr Kyagulanyi finished second with 3,475,298 votes (34.83 per cent). The difference between the two proportions — 2,375,739 votes — is huge. It means that even if Mr Museveni gave Mr Kyagulanyi 2.3 million votes, he would still be the winner.
If we had a truly independent electoral body and a level playing field, the figures cited would be hard to reject by losers, and allegations of rigging would ring hollow. You cannot say that officials overseeing an electoral contest have stolen millions of votes for your opponent when they are acting independently and can be seen to be acting independently, which, sadly, does not hold true of the EC.
Allegations of electoral fraud have persisted since 1996, and it is not hard to see why.
The Constitution that provides for the institution of the EC appears to be short on proper wording. Article 60, for example, simply says “there shall be an Electoral Commission which shall consist of a chairperson, a deputy chairperson and five other members appointed by the President with the approval of Parliament”.
It does not say the president who appoints the EC shall not be a presidential candidate in elections that the electoral body organises.
About the EC’s independence, Article 62 says “subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the Commission shall be independent and shall, in the performance of its functions, not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority”. This article is silent on what form of sanction is imposed on individuals who try to control the EC.
Yet Mr Museveni does occasionally interfere with the EC. Last year, for example, he reportedly caused the sacking of a number of EC officials shortly after Mr Kyagulanyi’s NUP was registered, much to his chagrin.
In August 2018, while presiding over the passing out of newly elected women council leaders, he blasted the EC, accusing it of gross incompetence. The accusation followed the defeat of a candidate from his party by the FDC in a by-election in Jinja.
“The Electoral Commission is full of rotten people,” Mr Museveni said. “I am going to get rid of them. Why should we suffer from corrupt election officials when the NRM has got so much manpower? They should get out.”
These comments suggest that Mr Museveni cannot tolerate an electoral body that acts independently. He has changed the Constitution twice — in 2005 and 2017 — in order to continue in power.
A president who manipulates his country’s governance systems would require an electoral body that is malleable and is able to do his bidding.
The EC has often dismissed charges of favouring Mr Museveni and says it does not and cannot tamper with the results.
Presidential candidates, it adds, are represented at polling stations by polling agents. They witness the counting of votes and sign off on declaration of results forms, the best evidence of who won or lost an election. After all the results from polling stations are in, the EC publishes them on its website.
Why then does the Opposition insist that every election Mr Museveni has won since 1996 is rigged? Two factors explain this.
First, and as has already been mentioned, the independence of the EC remains in question.
Second, there has never been a level playing field in Uganda as Opposition candidates are harassed, intimidated and persecuted whenever they try to reach out to voters.
Indirect rigging of the electoral process (in form of controlling who gets access to voters and the mass media, uncapped spending during campaigns, etc) before and during campaigns seems to be a more serious problem than irregularities such as ballot stuffing that are often cited by the Opposition.
While Mr Museveni’s NRM can be blamed for indirect rigging, it is not clear whether that rigging can adequately explain why no Opposition candidate has ever polled at least 50 per cent of the vote, the closest you get to the threshold above which you are declared winner.
This year’s election, like the one in 2016, is being disputed.
Dr Besigye, who was the main challenger, claimed many times that he polled more votes than Mr Museveni and was cheated of victory by the EC, then headed by Dr Badru Kiggundu.
He was placed under house arrest immediately after the election, so he could not launch a petition.
However, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, now leader of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) and former head of the FDC, like Dr Besigye, said in October 2018: “You all know that after the 2016 presidential elections, we had decided to contest the outcome as declared by the EC. When we set about gathering our evidence, however, we found ourselves in a situation where we could not collect or locate more than 9,000 DR [declaration of results] forms.”
The revelation means that Dr Besigye would never make progress if he had petitioned the Supreme Court over the election results, and it casts serious doubts over his claims that he got the highest number of votes in the 2016 election.
Mr Kyagulanyi could face the same challenge if he launches a petition. A day after the election, the New Vision reported that a spot check conducted in Hoima District revealed that only Mr Museveni had polling agents at polling stations. That means many candidates, including Mr Kyagulanyi, may struggle to produce tangible evidence of how they performed at all polling stations.
More lessons from past elections
The 2021 General Election and previous elections provide more important takeaways. One of them is that veteran and ageing politicians, perhaps because they are contesting elections in a country with a young electorate, have been roundly rejected by voters. With the exception of Dr Besigye, all veteran politicians often end up with a laughably small number of votes.
Here are some of the veteran politicians and their measly percentages.
Patrick Oboi Amuriat (3.24 per cent in 2021), Major General Mugisha Muntu (0.65 per cent in 2021); Amama Mbabazi (1.39 per cent in 2016), Nobert Mao (1.86 per cent in 2011 and 0.56 per cent in 2021); Bidandi Ssali (0.44 per cent in 2011); Beti Olive Kamya (0.66 per cent in 2011); Abed Bwanika (0.90 per cent in 2016, 0.65 per cent in 2011 and 0.95 per cent in 2006); Aggrey Awori (1.41 per cent in 2001); John Ssebaana Kizito (1.58 per cent in 2006); and Paul Ssemogerere (24 per cent in 1996).
In the 2021, 2016 and 2011 elections, the total percentage of votes polled by senior politicians who have challenged Mr Museveni for the presidency does not even reach a quarter of the threshold — 50 per cent and one vote — that is required to be declared winner.
Another important takeaway is that a united Opposition fielding just one candidate would still fail to dislodge Mr Museveni from power given these dismal percentages.
Mr Museveni has defeated and continues to defeat his opponents in disputed elections. He once boasted that his votes are like Lake Victoria, which never dries up. But the Opposition insists the votes are stolen.
The author is a veteran journalist