Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

Same again

Yoweri Museveni was today (20 February) declared the winner of Uganda’s presidential election. His main rival, Kizza Besigye, today under house arrest, described the process as a ‘creeping military coup’.

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Police outside the home of Kizza Besigye, who was held under house arrest today

Yoweri Museveni was today declared the winner of Uganda’s presidential election, extending his power for a fifth elected term. In official results he won 61% of the vote, a drop of seven percentage points from 2011, on a turnout of 64%. The main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, was officially on 35% but denounced the result as a ‘sham’. As the vote was announced Besigye was under house arrest at his home in Kasangati, just north of Kampala, where he had been held throughout the day.

The conduct of the election has been widely criticised by opposition activists and international observers. Shortly after the announcement Besigye issued a press release through his wife, describing the contest as ‘the most fraudulent electoral process in Uganda’ and the government as a ‘military regime’. European Union observers said that Museveni’s dominance had ‘distorted the fairness of the campaign’, adding that ‘state actors created an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates’.

After outbreaks of violence yesterday, and with a massive police and military deployment, the streets of Kampala reacted quietly to the result. But there were no signs of celebration in the capital, where even the official tally gives two-thirds of the vote to Besigye. Whether resignation will turn to protest remains to be seen.

Backgammon and bras

In Katwe, an area of slum housing close to the city centre, there was little reaction to the results. One shop played the radio through a loudspeaker, but few stopped to listen. Pots were washed. Backgammon games continued. One man walked around selling bras.

Nobody cheered, and nobody cursed. The local TV hall was showing the Arsenal game, and young boys kicked a ball by the train tracks. But there was something unusual about the atmosphere in Katwe: nobody was smiling.

There had been unrest in parts of Katwe yesterday, as youths clashed with police after the arrest of Besigye. But the mood today was one of resignation. Similar scenes were reported from across the city. Kampalans posted photos of empty streets on social media, captioned sarcastically as ‘celebrating crowds’.

‘Bloodied fangs’

Meanwhile Besigye’s house was guarded by armed police, who prevented access to journalists. Besigye was arrested by police at his party headquarters yesterday, and taken to his home in the evening. Police accuse him of planning to announce alternative results, in contravention of electoral law (his party’s unofficial tally gives him 51% of the vote). Besigye was also detained on Monday, and again on election day (see ‘Showing defiance’, 16 February and ‘Watch and Wait’, 18 February).

‘[Besigye’s arrest] is a flagrant violation of the law,’ said Erias Lukwago, mayor of Kampala, standing outside the opposition leader’s home. He added that Besigye’s friends and supporters had been unable to contact him since last night.  Lukwago was arrested shortly after speaking to the press.

Besigye later issued a statement through his wife, Winnie Byanyima, a former politician and diplomat who now works as Executive Director of Oxfam International. The statement condemned the conduct of the election, calling on Ugandans and the international community to reject it as a sham. ‘The regime is baring its bloodied fangs and claws for all to see,’ Besigye said. ‘This has not been an electoral process. This is a creeping military coup.’

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The EU Election Observation Mission deliver their preliminary report

Lack of trust

The EU Election Observation Mission used more diplomatic language, sidestepping questions about whether the election was ‘free and fair’. But their preliminary report contained stern criticism of the Electoral Commission and the behaviour of police. ‘The Electoral Commission lacks trust among everybody with which we spoke,’ said Eduard Kukan, the Chief Observer from the mission, adding that ‘there are no legal measures to ensure a level playing field in the campaign’.

Jo Leinen, head of an accompanying delegation from the European Parliament, said that ‘the monetisation of the election campaign is higher than in 2011’, lamenting the lack of progress since previous elections in 2006 and 2011.

But while the observers criticised the process, they were reluctant to dismiss the outcome. Kukan described the problems on voting day – including late arrival of ballot papers – as ‘just organisational failures’, which he believed did not affect the overall results.

That seems a cautious judgement. Museveni enjoys genuine support, especially in the countryside and among older voters, grateful for the stability he has brought in his thirty-year rule (see ‘Party People’, 15 February). But rumours of ballot-stuffing, combined with an atmosphere of intimidation and a lack of transparency about vote aggregation, make it difficult to trust the results announced today.

Much may just be rumour: it is impossible to tell. But many Ugandans, especially supporters of the opposition, consider that this election has been stolen. They may come out on the streets in the coming weeks; or, as today, they may judge it more prudent to stay at home. As for Museveni, he embarks on another term in office – his next challenge will be to remove a clause in the constitution which prevents a president ruling past the age of 75 (he is currently 71).

Failing the people

Nobody will know whether Besigye would have won a free and fair election, as his supporters claim. But there is little doubt that this election was not free and fair. Democracy in Uganda is going backwards, not forwards.

On Thursday the Ugandan people, in their millions, queued for hours to cast their votes. On the campaign trail supporters of all sides have been enthusiastic, excited, even jubilant about the democratic process. They have been failed, and their country is a little less hopeful for it.

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2016 by in African Politics and tagged , , , .
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