How free and fair was the 1996 election?

President Museveni (R), accompanied by his wife Janet, swears in as President of Uganda for the first time as an elected president in 1996. File photo

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Elections. Uganda has had six elections in its 53 years of independence. The forthcoming February 18, general election will, therefore, be the seventh. Save for the 1962 independence election organised by the departing colonial government, the running thread in all the country’s elections has been one malpractice or the other. There have been gains and there have been losses at every electoral turn. In the fifth part of our series, Saturday Monitor’s Faustin Mugabe looks at the events of the 1996 election that saw Yoweri Museveni get his first term as an elected president of Uganda.

Electing new leaders in many African countries is still a do or die business, but more so the president. The incumbents tend to glue to the chair as their opponents push the hardest for their exit.
On May 9, 1996, Uganda hosted the first direct presidential elections in the history of the country. Incumbent President Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party won the three- man race. And three days after, on May 12, he was sworn in as president at Kololo airstrip in Kampala.

Museveni had obtained a total of 4,428,119 votes (74.2 per cent). The Democratic Party (DP) president general Paul Ssemogerere, who was the coalition presidential candidate of the Inter-Party Forces Cooperation (IPFC), came second with 1,416,139 votes (23.8), and the JEEMA party candidate Mohammed Kibirige Mayanja trailed with a paltry 120,000 votes. About 196,000 votes were spoilt. The total votes cast was 6,193,816 while 8,460,509 Ugandans were registered voters.
The composition of registered voters in the four regions of the country was: Buganda 2,477,714, western 2,230, 186, eastern 2,198,181 and northern had 1,554,428. Another historic record set was that Museveni defeated Ssemogerere at Bendegere B, in Nkumba Entebbe, formerly Mpigi District, now Wakiso District. Bendegere B polling station is where Ssemogerere cast his vote. Museveni got 256 votes, while Ssemogerere polled 209 votes. Kibirige got only five votes, while 11 votes were spoilt. To be defeated by your opponent at the very polling station you cast the vote can indeed be too hard to comprehend.

Hours after the Interim Electoral Commission (IEC) led by Stephen Akabway had announced provisional results on May 10; the IPFC candidate Ssemogerere dismissed them as false at a press conference at IPFC headquarters in Kabusu, Kampala. Ssemogerere said: “I cannot accept these results as valid”. The New Vision, The Monitor, as well as the Crusader newspapers of the following day, quoted him as having said.

“I have been a patient person in public life. I thought this was the best thing for this country. I have spent time with people I don’t agree with for the sake of democracy. I have not known time before or after independence, when people of different political beliefs, religions and nationalities have come together for once. Now all this has been shattered by the stubbornness of [Yoweri Museveni] wanting to cling to power,” he added.
During the press conference, Ssemogerere also revealed 54 cases of malpractices recorded by DP across the country. The 64-year-old DP stalwart said rigging of votes included intimidation of voters by the State, use of pre-ticked ballot papers, use of fake voter’s cards and doctored voter registers.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Monitor at his home at Kabusu in Kampala recently, Ssemogerere confirmed that there was rigging. “For instance, at the [former] Kadogo Army School Polling Station in Mbarara, those soldiers [Kadogos/young soldiers] were allowed to vote for Museveni several times. Someone who was there came and told me. That person is still around,” he said. Asked whether he would have won the elections if there was no rigging, Ssemogerere answered: “Whether Museveni won the elections or not, I can tell you, there was rigging”. Asked why he didn’t challenge Museveni’s victory in the courts of law;

Ssemogerere answered: “Going to court? It all depends on what you want to achieve.”
Two weeks to the polls day, DP had formally warned the IEC boss, Akabway of what they saw as imminent rigging for candidate Museveni. In a letter dated April 24, 1996, which, Ms Maria Lubega Mutagamba, then chairperson of the Inter-Party Electoral Commission and National Chairperson of Ssemogerere’s campaign team, wrote to Akabway threatening to block the entire election exercise on the polls day.

The letter in part read: “I must warn you, Mr chairman, that unless all members of the campaign team of Mr Museveni are removed from the position of presiding officers and polling assistants, I shall instruct all my polling agents to refuse all the stations to open.”
The letter mentioned 30 names of Museveni’s campaign agents, who were also presiding officers or polling assistants. Among them were: Musisi Sam Sseruga, who was said to be the chairman of Museveni’s campaigning team in Kakeeka Zone, Rubaga South in Kampala. He was also the presiding officer of Kakeeka 1 Village in the same area.

Another one was Margaret Kituuka, who was the head of Museveni’s campaign team in Kabusu zone, South Rubaga, but was also appointed the polling assistant in the same area. Mutagamba, who after the elections crossed to NRM, and is now the Minister for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, also quizzed why some civic educators were allowed to use candidate Museveni’s posters while demonstrating the voting exercise. She also wondered why 10 civic educators had been withdrawn without replacement in Busiro constituency by Akabway after candidate Museveni’s campaign agents complained about them.

Political commentator Charles Rwomushana saw it all

Was there rigging for candidate Yoweri Museveni? Political commentator Charles Rwamushana (pictured), who was Constituency Assembly (CA) delegate for Rujumbura County in 1994, and a victim of electoral violence in 1996 as he contested for Rujumbura County in Rukungiri District against then Brig Jim Muhwezi, answers the question.

“Let us look at Rukungiri District where I was with Ssemogerere when we faced the barbaric attacks from these [NRM] people,” Rwamushana says, adding: “If the election was to be free and fair in Rukungiri, it would have been a miracle for Ssemogerere to get 10,000 votes in the district, which included Kanungu.” He goes on to say that the persecution of candidate Ssemogerere in Rukungiri was not because the people hated him. “The violence against Ssemogerere, led by a District Internal Security Officer (DISO), was State-inspired. “The DISO carried out Operation Tumukyirize, where Ssemogerere supporters who had nominated him in the district would be arrested by a gang, who would then lift that person facing the sky and let him fall down; this would be done repeatedly until that person would accept to withdraw his signature from the nomination book. As a result, Ssemogerere did not have the required 100 signatures from Rukungiri.”

Rwomushana also asserts: “There was under age voters who were allowed to vote early in the morning so that they could not be seen by the election observers. This, I witnessed at my polling station, Kahoko, Nyakagyeme [Sub-county]. They rigged elections which Museveni would have even won in a free and fair election because, at the time, Museveni was still popular, except in the north.”
Still in Rukungiri District, Ssemogerere was blockaded inside Sky Hotel by wild youths for hours as they roasted a bull outside. Museveni obtained 99.8 per cent and Ssemogerere polled 0.1 per cent in the district.

Election violence
In Rukungiri, Rwomushana says he survived death in the State-inspired electoral violence, but was admitted at Nyakibaale Mission Hospital for days after his main opponent’s supporters had savagely attacked him and his supporters.
“They [NRM] wanted to kill me even when I was at the hospital. I was saved by the nurse who told me of the plan and I left the hospital,” Rwomushana said in an exclusive interview with Sunday Monitor.

Former Electoral Commissioner speaks out
Lawyer Charles Owor (above), one of the seven Electoral Commissioners of the Interim Electoral Commission, spilled the beans two years after the elections. On October 16, 1998, Owor reaffirmed at an organised conference in Kampala that there was “under-age voting” to favour NRM. Owor said without mentioning candidate Museveni. The conference with the theme: “Uganda’s wars: Military vs. Political solutions,” was organised by “The Free Movement”, a political pressure group, which Owor was the vice chairman. The conference attracted some of the country’s top intellectuals, who included late Noble Mayombo, then deputy director of Military Intelligence, DP’s Norbert Mao, among others. In the hot debate, Owor insisted that the elections were not free and fair.

Left to fight alone
However, when Mayombo challenged him to seek court redress if the elections were rigged, Owor responded that as an individual, he could not take the government to court due to lack of finance. Owor’s outburst was recorded by the Ugandan print media for several months. Earlier in April 1996, when the NRM party pressed the scandalous skulls of Luweero war victims in a full page advert in the New Vision newspaper, Owor was the only Electoral Commissioner who castigated the infamous advert; attracting harsh response from John Nagenda, the architect of the advert. Nagenda was also President Museveni’s adviser on media and public relations. Later, on October 23, 1998, Owor was hosted on Radio One FM on the Spectrum talk-show, where he insisted that there were what he called “fundamental flaws in election”. Owor was later relieved of his duties when a permanent Electoral Commission, chaired by Aziz Kasujja was appointed and Owor was later to die in what is said to be a road accident in Kenya.

Continues tomorrow in Sunday Monitor