By Peter Kasolo, a correspondent

Presidential Candidate KalembeThe outcome of the January 14th, 2021 presidential election was as predictable as day follows night. While the script was familiar, there were some changes in the candidates, notable of which was the absence of Dr. Kizza Besigye who had previously tried unsuccessfully four times to unseat President Museveni. The new faces were Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, of a new party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), Patrick Amuriat Oboi of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and other minor candidates like Ms Nancy Kalembe. President Museveni of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), was unsurprisingly declared the winner.

As usual, the opposition rejected the outcome of the election on allegations of rigging. Some people were quick to dismiss such claims, liking them to ex-President Trump’s patently false claim of massive election fraud in the November 2020 USA election. The two situations are not equivalent. the latter was dismissed for lack of evidence in every state, including those run by Republicans, where the results were challenged. In any case, the Ugandan situation should be evaluated on its own merit, based on facts.

So, a valid question is whether the opposition have a valid case about election rigging in the January election in Uganda. To answer this question, one must look at the mode of governance and the history of elections in the last 35 years. It means that election rigging must not be seen only from a narrow perspective of ballot stuffing and simple numerical manipulation of the votes. Instead, it must include all the tools the president uses directly or indirectly to yield the results in his favor. By so doing, it becomes easy to see that the election was not free and fair.  

To begin with, over the years, the Museveni regime has developed a well-oiled patronage system in which the President appoints many top government employees, who in turn are expected to appoint supporters of the ruling party. This system works particularly well in Uganda where many people are vulnerable because there are not enough juicy jobs to go round with unemployment being so high. Through this mechanism, the president secures a significant number of votes that the opposition has no access to.

One of the most impactful appointments the president makes is the electoral commission, an agency that is supposed to be independent, but everyone knows that it is 100% beholden to the president. It has been accused of mismanaging the election process including delaying delivery of ballot boxes, delaying opening voting centers, illegally extending voting time, stuffing of pre-ticked ballots, and manipulating the final vote numbers before announcing the results in favor of the president. As they say, whenever there is smoke, there is fire somewhere, which was glibly confirmed by President Museveni himself when he proclaimed that this has been the “most cheating free” election. Uh! Interesting admission to election cheating.

Police flogging citizensIntimidation is another tool the president applies regularly to rig the election. In the name of maintaining peace, the regime gratuitously uses the police, military intelligence agencies and militia to intimidate, arrest, detain, torture, sometimes shoot to kill members of the opposition parties. It is most disheartening that such state violence is committed with impunity on the ground that they are protecting peace.

During the campaign, the opposition’s ability to politically organize is constrained in several ways, particularly by the regular abuse of the 2013 Public Order Management Act. While the intent of enacting such a law might sound good, it became a handy tool for the regime to cripple opposition parties. Alleged violators are tear gassed, beaten, arrested, and sometimes shot dead with impunity. The opposition is often denied access to the radio and TV. Broadcasts by the opposition on the Radio or TV are often unceremoniously switched off despite lawful contracts to use such public media. Mass media owners are frequently threatened with revocation of their licenses.

As it was the case in the past, social media was shut off in the name of maintaining national security when in fact it was for fear of the public using them to monitor and document election irregularities and more seriously organize massive protests like the Arab Spring.

Election IntimidationIn the last election campaign, the regime took full advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measures that required social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings. The measures were unequally applied by turning a blind eye when the regime supporters violated the protocol but responded with violence against the opposition.

In the past, there were international election observers from America, Europe, and the African Union and civil organizations. This time there were no international election observers, except for a limited number around the Capitol, Kampala. The COVID-19 pandemic was partially to blame, but it appears also that some organizations did not want to be involved knowing what the outcome was going to be. More importantly, the regime simply did not want prying eyes to gather evidence of fraud at the various polling stations. Expectedly, there are complaints about ballot box stuffing with pre-ticked ballots and arrests of party representatives at some polling stations.

The electoral commission is also alleged to have manipulated the data in favor of the ruling party candidates. Even the “winner” himself, in a self-serving statement, acknowledged that there was cheating, but this time it was less than previously. Such a statement confirms the belief that he would not have “won” any of the contests if they were free and fair.

After the 2016 elections, various election observers recommended some electoral reforms to ensure that election is free and fair. None of the proposed reforms were implemented. Instead, the election suffered from the Paul Biya’s syndrome, which asserts that a candidate who is also in charge of election cannot lose election. President Museveni has overseen elections for 35 years. The rest is history.

The response of the opposition is to challenge the election results in court. However, if history is our guide, the attempt is doomed to fail. Only Kenya had a challenged election result overturned. After all, the judges owe their position to the president who appointed them. It is unlikely that they will rule against him. The excuse some judges had used in the past was that voiding election results would cause social unrest and that it will cost too much to repeat the election. Thus, the court decision will just be another last nail on the coffin of free and fair election.

In the early stage of the campaign, there was excitement and hope that Bobi Wine would win because of the overwhelming support of the youth. Such hope soon evaporated when the regime turned up the heat on the opposition, culminating in the killing of 54 people in Kampala. Some constituencies were even closed towards the end of the campaign to ensure that the oppositions would not win.

Some people also got excited that Museveni lost in the central region, Buganda, and Busoga. While that is true, it did not matter. In 2016 he won in the central region while losing in the northern region. This time it is the opposite. The result is still the same. He “won”, and the opposition “lost”.

Clearly, ex-President Trump’s claim of stolen election in the USA that resulted in an insurrection on January 6th is by no means the same as the systemic election rigging that exists in countries under autocratic rule like Uganda. Thus, the so-called “what about” argument by apologists of dictatorial regimes to push back against valid criticism of rigged elections should be rejected forthwith.

Having ended with the same presidential election results for 35 years should make people pause and ask whether it is worth doing the same thing and expecting different results.