If we’ve to steal votes, let’s do it the smart way

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

The biggest mistake we make is we rig the vote in darkness, ticking ballot papers in seedy “bufundas” with candlelight, and stuffing the boxes behind latrines

Ugandans of goodwill have been talking about this privately for a while, and after the recent Soroti East bye-election, we can no longer keep quiet. Uganda will never have a free non-violent election, at least not during the time of this NRM government (a future one might be more enlightened).

 Arresting Opposition leaders, breaking into homes of their supporters and polling agents in the dark of night to ferry them off to secret prisons, beating and teargassing people (and killing them as has happened in several elections), blocking NRM rivals, and crudely stuffing ballot boxes the way it is being done only continues to damage our beloved country’s standing in Africa and the world. We have become the laughing stock.

 In the runup to the Constituent Assembly formation in 1994, Prof George Kanyeihamba decried Uganda’s contempt for experts. Nearly 30 years later, we haven’t heeded Kanyeihamba’s cry.

 Because we are doomed to keep stealing elections, for Christ’s sake, let us bring in experts. The present approach is just too messy and an embarrassing spectacle for a great people. We can’t have our athletes beating the world at the marathon at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, and yet we can’t neatly rig a local election.

 The biggest mistake we make is we rig the vote in darkness, ticking ballot papers in seedy “bufundas” with candlelight, and stuffing the boxes behind latrines. When the photographs and videos emerge, they look slimy, with illegality written all over them. This can be done with more class.

 Champions steal elections in the open and under bright lights. Magicians and leading election riggers elsewhere in the world have long known the value of the false bottom. You can have a thin sealed bottom inserted at the base of a ballot box with pre-ticked ballot papers. You can even press the papers with a flat iron and line them in the false bottom. Rather than have to stuff a single ballot box crudely, you spread a few of these “hi-tech” papers in each box.

 For the top, you use a material that dissolves after the right number of hours. With the floodlights on, all the opposition agents, and the international and local election observers looking, no one will see the fix. Journalists will be left writing about how your candidate “upended the area electoral playbook” and all such colourful phrases as you sit pretty on your elegant electoral heist.

 Then, this savagery of beating and arresting the Opposition. Really? The sad thing about this is that Uganda has a lot of talent to manage the problem the violence is trying to solve here.

The first elections of the NRM, the Resistance Councils, were not by secret. People lined up behind their favourite candidate, it was counted, and everyone saw the outcome. This brought on great pressure to win before people got into the queues.

 There was an impressive burst of election cheating creativity in the country. In western Uganda, a politician who will not be named (he’s a good man otherwise) got some of the rival candidates and the electors of other opponents hopeless drunk at a venue in a pre-election feast.

 He didn’t drink. By the time morning came, most of them were still passed out in chairs and in the rooms at the venue. He got up early and with his people, locked the doors and gate, and went to the polling station to queue with the keys in his pocket.

 There were hardly any rivals in sight, and for those who turned up, their bu-queues were miserable. He won. He had cheated, but his reputation was largely intact because there were no messy scenes.

 This same NRM that seems to love ugly and violent elections today was once quite accomplished in the art of the electoral steal. The new generation of party activists and cadres that have taken over seem to be totally incompetent.

 After the 1995 Constitution, there was the 1996 election, the first almost-proper election of the NRM era under the mongrel “no party” system. President Yoweri Museveni faced off with DP’s Paul Ssemogerere.

In some places, especially in the south of the country, Museveni’s campaign drove through towns with pick-ups and lorries full of motorcycles and bicycles, literarily with the names of Ssemwogerere’s polling agents and local opinion leaders written on them. They would stop at a safe distance just out of town.

 Many Opposition people made a beeline for the motorcycles and bicycles and went to the polling stations as Museveni acolytes in Ssemogerere’s caps and t-shirts. There was even no need to have armed soldiers standing guard. Things took care of themselves.

 No blood, no tear gas, no bullets, no arrests. And how much did Museveni win? A good 75.5 per cent of the vote, his highest margin ever. Let’s get serious, shall we?

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”