Museveni rants

Uganda: Is election rigging history repeating itself?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

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Posted on July 17, 2023 14:35

 © Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in his trademark hat. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, in his trademark hat. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

“This sounds like a film,” Uganda President Yoweri Museveni said in a letter detailing poll fraud in a by-election for a district chairperson.

Museveni ordered the army to investigate, but analysts and political party officials say there are no easy solutions to country’s electoral fraud.

In Uganda, the district chairperson office isn’t a prestigious position that should trigger tooth-and-nail fighting. It comes with a basic salary of about $550 per month. Districts receive little money from the central government, meaning that chairpersons have little money to play with. However, elections for these offices are becoming tense.

Before local elections were held on 15 June in Eastern Uganda’s Bukedia district – the one Museveni referred to in the letter – an independent candidate’s home was attacked by “government officials”.

On the night of nomination day, thieves stole David Steven Omago’s academic papers and more than USh160m ($44,200) to block his nomination. The electoral commission extended the nomination deadline by a day.

When the aspirant came to register as a candidate, Museveni recounted in the letter, “he was attacked at the gate of electoral commission”.

On the voting day, “government officials invaded polling stations and voted on behalf of voters”, Museveni said in the 26 June letter. Seven people have been arrested on the president’s order, including a district police commander, for participating in rigging.


Yet less than two weeks later, vote rigging was widespread in another election for an MP post, which fell vacant after the previous incumbent was shot dead by his bodyguard in May. The election was also characterised by ballot stuffing, prompting Museveni to issue another message. “I condemn and demand action against the law-breakers that are said to have ticked the ballots on behalf of the voters,” he said.

In the 26 June letter, Museveni warned that he did not want to see Uganda slip back into 1980 election fraud “that forced us to go to the bush”.

Under the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC), Milton Obote, the country’s first prime minister, won the disputed 1980 election – the first in which Museveni was a candidate.

Numerous Ugandan historians have argued that the Uganda Peoples Congress stole the election from the Democratic Party.

Many forms of fraud, such as intimidation, blocking opposition candidates from registering, ballot stuffing, outright alteration of results were manifest in the 1980 election. It is often pointed to as one of the dark moments in Uganda’s history.

“A UPC candidate in one of the Tororo constituencies, [who had] congratulated his DP opponent after all the votes were counted, was stunned when he reached Kampala to find that he had been declared the winner,” Samwiri Karugire said in his book Roots of Instability in Uganda.

Even though Museveni had no chances of winning, he used it as one of the excuses to launch the 1981 bush war that propelled him to power in 1986.

Oh, shocked

Opposition politicians were shocked that Museveni, who they have accused of rigging every election he has participated in, could author such a letter bemoaning the same vices he has benefited from.

Rigging elections in Uganda has become part of political culture

“If this letter isn’t fake, it’s further evidence of the FAKENESS of the author,” said Dr. Kizza Besigye, a bush war veteran who vied with Museveni in presidential elections between 2001 and 2016.

Musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, who was the main opposition candidate in the 2021 elections said: “He [Museveni] knows so well that he is still in power today because of these same crimes and even worse that he committed against the people of Uganda in 2021. Yet here he is now, claiming to care about the quality of elections!”

What is the problem?

Analysts argue that weak political parties, increasing monetisation of politics and poor electoral management systems are the causes of fraud.

Opposition political actors point fingers at Museveni and his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), for condoning electoral fraud while electoral managers argue that they operate from an environment in which they require support of all politicians to be effective.

Political scientist Golooba Mutebi tells The Africa Report that “rigging elections in Uganda has become part of political culture”.

He argues that even if other political parties were in the position that the ruling party holds now, they would be tempted to engage in electoral malpractices. He says political contestations within all political parties have been less free and fair.

“NRM isn’t the only party plagued by vote rigging problems,” he says.

Ahead of the 2021 election, when choosing party candidates to contest in the general election, NRM found itself with many contestants crying foul. As many as 501 candidates who participated in the NRM member of parliament primaries ahead of the election were dissatisfied with the outcome and chose to contest as independents in the general election. 43 of them won.

“During NRM primaries around 2019/2020, we saw bloody fights, people hammering each other with tyres, people knifing each other. We saw bloody scenes,” Mutebi says.

Views from NRM

Tanga Odoi, NRM’s electoral commission chairperson, tells The Africa Report that elections have become “a do or die” contest as politicians invest heavily financially, including taking loans to win. This makes it difficult to organise peaceful elections within parties, he says. “They want to do everything possible to make sure they are elected.”

Odoi says the ruling party is supposed to maintain a member register, but does not, which makes intra party elections difficult. Having a register for internal elections is to enable party members pick who they wanted to represent them.

Many of the disputes out of NRM primaries were due to lack of a register.

A multitude of candidates contested the NRM register, which had been manipulated during the 2020 intra-party elections. Museveni consequently ordered that on voting day, any ruling party member “be immediately added to the register and permitted to vote” as long as they were above age 18. His directive caused chaos on voting day.

The National Unity Platform (NUP), which is led by Bobi Wine and later emerged as the main opposition party – measured by the number of legislators – never held party elections to select its candidates. They were selected by a committee set up by the party.

For the by-elections that have been held after 2021 general elections, all political parties, including NRM, have opted to select rather than have party members elect a flag-bearer.

Aspirants backed by top politicians, or those with a higher bargaining power, are the ones who are often chosen by parties to be candidates. In the ruling party, for instance, sons of deceased politicians have been twice fronted to succeed their father.

What can be done

To tame cases of fraud, Odoi says the ruling party must have a legitimate register before it starts preparing for 2026 general elections. He also says the party needs a strong disciplinary team so that candidates can be dealt with strongly and even “dismissed from the party” if need arise. For all political parties, Odoi says, they need enough time to organise credible internal elections. Parties usually hold internal elections months before the start of national campaigns.

“Let this election come early, when we have enough time to do thorough investigation of issues raised by candidates,” he says.

“If primaries are held in [mid-] 2025 or end of 2024, you have time to vote in [a] by-election where [if] you found there was thuggery”, you could deal with internal disagreements, he adds.

Paul Bukenya, spokesperson of Uganda’s electoral commission, tells The Africa Report that community dynamics play a vital role in how elections are managed. “We recruit presiding officers [people who manage voting] from communities, candidates come from communities, these are people we work with. If someone doesn’t play their role in accordance with the set guidelines, then the system becomes vulnerable.”

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