In five years will our destination be talks on the left, or junta on the right?

Thursday January 21 2021
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Author, Daniel Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE.

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

A week after Uganda went to the polls, the true story of what really happened and who did what to who, when, where and why is still just unfolding. This is, in large part, due to the unprecedented shutting down of the Internet for five days.

No official reason was given for the shutdown, although officials mumbled incoherently about warding off unspecified threats from unspecified foreign actors. It was as if some heavily armed foreign troops were ready to jump out of the cloud server, rappel down the national backbone, deploy to the last mile of fibre, then crawl out of ethernet ports and overthrow the government.

It is, of course, hogwash. The switching off of the Internet served three main purposes. First, it was to allow for all manner of malevolence and malfeasance to manifest on voting day. Evidence is now emerging of ballot-stuffing, of voters given wads of pre-ticket ballot papers, of elderly and illiterate voters being dutifully guided on where to tick. 

There were polling stations, in this, our year of the Lord 2021, where voting and counting were completed before the sun was fully half-way through the sky. In others, there were more votes than registered voters, perhaps fulfilling some pre-election cry by one (losing candidate) urging even cattle to be allowed to vote.

This was all supposed to happen in the dark. But there is also a more cynical justification for the shutdown. It was always likely that evidence of such electoral fraud would emerge, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, but only after the result had been announced, not during the process, where citizens could then mobilise to counter it.

It is possible that people seeing such images in real time would have protested. But this is not the threat to national security or public order that some have claimed to justify the shutdown. The original sin here is the rigging, not any protests that might emerge because of it. The absence of riots on election day and after is not evidence of a just and fair process. Peace is not the absence of war. 

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The third and similarly cynical reason was to stop the gathering, collection and collation of the evidence of this electoral fraud. Polls close at 4pm and counting – except in the aforementioned super-efficient polling stations where everything was done before the cows had even gone out to graze – would be over by 6pm. You can have a rough draft of the result crowd-sourced and tallied from across polling stations in the country before midnight.

Anyone genuinely interested in a transparent election would welcome this level of citizen agency and participation. But transparency is to vote thieves what the Cross is to vampires. So it went from trying to limit and restrict who can cover the elections, to banning photography at polling stations, to asking voters to go away after voting, to throttling social media and eventually to just pulling the plug on the Internet.

It didn’t stop there. We must be the only country in the world where, for now the third election in a row, results of the presidential election are announced with the leading rival contender under house arrest. Far from even trying to level the playing field, we have criminalised the idea of political competition itself.

This isn’t just about the optics. It is also cynically effective in undermining the ability to confer and prepare for a court challenge against any electoral fraud. Combined with a behind-the-scenes effort to track down and retrieve declaration forms, it is devastatingly effective.

It is also unsustainable. Political violence is self-consuming. With time, those wielding weapons have no one else to hack down except their own. We aren’t too far off the point when political violence begins to bring about negative marginal utility. 

Every passing election is harder to steal than the one before. That we went back to the arrests of 2006, the violence of 2001 and even the multiple voting of underage voters in 1996 suggests we are about to get to 1980 and either a comprehensive reform, or a complete abandonment of electoral processes. 

We are either on the cusp of a new round of Moshi Talks, or a return to full-on military rule. The brawling will be in the streets, not in the browsers.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

write2kalinaki@gmail.com 

Twitter: @Kalinaki

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