Ugandans went to the polls today (February 18). With little trust for state institutions, people have taken it upon themselves to ‘protect the vote’.
All over Uganda, people are watching. They voted today in their millions, at 28,010 polling stations across the country – and now, they say, their vote must be protected. Few trust state institutions, like the Electoral Commission, to do the job for them: four previous elections have been marred by vote-rigging and intimidation. And so, as the votes were cast and now as they are counted, the people must be their own observers: all day, and into the night, they sit and watch.
Though voting has been free and fair in many places, there has also been enough today to confirm the suspicions of opposition activists. The late arrival of voting papers; malfunctioning machinery; reports of pre-filled ballots; a social media shutdown: all point to a dangerous mix of incompetence and interference. In the worst incidents of the day, tear gas was fired at crowds protesting vote delays, and opposition figurehead Kizza Besigye was arrested while attempting to identify alleged malpractice (he was subsequently taken to his home by police).
This matters. This year’s election may be the closest for years. Long-term president Yoweri Museveni, who last month celebrated thirty years in power, retains substantial support – and, crucially, control of the army and police. Besigye, his main rival, has been defeated, some say unfairly, in three previous contests. But Besigye’s supporters have high hopes that this time he can force a second-round run-off (which occurs if no candidate gets 50% of the vote). They say they will not have another election stolen from them. Rumours of vote-rigging could fuel mass protests, and possible violence, in Kampala and other cities.
Money and votes
Julius and Haruna, two Besigye activists, lent on a fence next to a polling station in Masaka, a town some 120km south-west of Kampala. They, like so many others, were watching. They said that the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Museveni’s ruling party, buys support by offering people sugar and soap. ‘We have a saying in the opposition,’ said Julius: ‘they have money, we have votes.’
Others also expressed mistrust. ‘That man is a thief,’ said one first-time voter, referring to Museveni. By four in the afternoon, when the polling station closed, a sizeable crowd had gathered to watch the count. Most were Besigye supporters.
Votes in Uganda are counted publicly, each paper being opened and held aloft by the presiding officer while party agents watch closely. There was some kerfuffle before the count began; eight teenagers were pulled from the crowd to hold the papers for each of the presidential candidates.
‘Museveni,’ shouted the presiding officer, as the first paper was opened. There were a few murmurs in the crowd. Then: ‘Besigye’. Cheers. ‘Besigye’. More cheers. Fists were pumped in the air as the fourth ballot paper was opened: Besigye again. The handful of Museveni supporters grimaced, and shuffled their feet.
It was the same across many towns in Uganda. But in the villages there was a different story to be told. There are many divides in this election – between regions, between ethnicities, between young and old – but none more so than the split between town and country. In some urban areas, the support for Besigye feels overwhelming. In the villages – where five-sixth of Ugandans live – Museveni is still king.
In Kyamurinu, a small village in Uganda’s far south-west, Jouanis was also watching. A housewife and mother of five, she was not shy to announce her vote: ‘Museveni,’ she said, a broad grin on her face. ‘He has done so much for us: we have good roads, our children get education, we have hospitals.’
Others nodded in agreement. Only one young man, a local mechanic, thought differently. ‘We don’t have good roads,’ he said, gesturing at the dirt track snaking off through the banana fields. ‘There is no medicine in the hospitals. Museveni will cheat us.’
The listening crowd tut-tutted. ‘This is just a drunk man,’ fretted one girl. Most agreed with Jouanis when she said: ‘We have free and fair elections. We are at peace.’
The peace part was hard to deny. After years of war, Museveni brought stability to much of Uganda; his regime has favoured villages like Kyamurinu, in his native Ankole region. Some Besigye supporters describe these villagers as ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards’, poor peasants easily swayed by bribes. But as people queued patiently to vote, watched by a herd of long-horned cows, the concerns that animate Kampala seemed remote.
Does not compute
It is in the villages, opposition activists claim, that most of the vote-rigging takes place. Far from the eyes of the media and observation teams, it is easier for ballots to be lost or boxes to be stuffed. In Mbarara, a southwestern town, a woman gave me the registration number of a car that she claimed to have seen at a petrol station, stocked with ballots pre-filled in favour of Museveni. In Masaka, there were rumours that a similar car had been discovered in nearby Sembabule: ‘if they can do it here,’ said one man, ‘imagine what they can do in the far villages.’
One tool to stop such cheating is a new biometric voting system, announced with great fanfare last month. Handheld scanners are used to match voters’ fingerprints to their details on the electoral register. But at one polling station I visited in Mbarara voting was delayed as the fancy new machines malfunctioned. ‘The officers have not had proper training,’ complained an observer. ‘It’s like me learning to use a smartphone.’
Dodgy equipment was not the only reason for delays. In many polling stations voting started late – not until the afternoon, according to some reports – as ballot papers failed to arrive. The closing time was pushed back in many locations, but not before angry protests from those who feared they would not be able to vote. Police reportedly used tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Kampala.
It is too soon to judge whether the cause was incompetence or something more sinister. But an atmosphere of mistrust means that many Ugandans have already made up their minds. The Electoral Commission, staffed with Museveni appointees, is widely seen as biased. At one point Besigye swore not to run again unless its unpopular chair, Badru Kiggundu, resigned (he remains in place).
The clumsy management of the Commission was evident again today, when it was apparently behind a social media shutdown (and later attempted to deny it). Mobile banking services, on which many Ugandans rely, were also switched off. Museveni himself later went on TV to justify the move, claiming that it was necessary ‘for security’ and ‘to stop people telling lies’.
In perhaps the most incendiary incident of the day, Besigye was detained by police outside a building in Kampala where he claimed vote-rigging was taking place. He and his supporters were attempting to gain access to the house, but police held Besigye before later returning him to his home. There were echoes of events on Monday, when Besigye was twice detained by police while his supporters were tear-gassed for attempting to rally in the city centre (see ‘Showing Defiance’, 16 February).
Hope and Fear
That is why they watch. Crossing Kampala as dusk fell, the sight every half mile was the same: crowds of people, sometimes up to five hundred-strong, gathered round polling stations to protect the vote. Some local results are already being posted online, by savvy Ugandans using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to evade social media blocks.
It is only the beginning of the story. Results must be collated and aggregated, an opportunity for further manipulation. Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister turned opposition candidate, claims to know how the votes were rigged last time, and how to stop it happening again. That may be bluster.
The problem is partly that nobody has any idea what a fair result would look like. A Museveni victory could be the product of cheating (as it maybe was in 2006). Or, as in the 2011 election, Museveni may have enough support to win anyway (the consensus then was that there had been malpractice, but not enough to affect the result).
It will be weeks before it is possible to judge the fairness of this contest, when international monitoring teams publish their final reports. Before then, a result will be announced, possibly on Saturday afternoon. Depending on the result, the atmosphere could be febrile, especially in major towns like Kampala. As they keep their vigils, Ugandans feel both hope and fear.