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Opinion: Can the 2021 General elections be free and fair?

Justice Simon Byabakama is presiding over the general elections for the very first time having been appointed to the position of chairperson of the Uganda Electoral Commission in 2017 taking over from Eng. Badru Kiggundu.

Electoral Commission Chairperson, Justice Simon Byabakama (Photo Credit – Next Media)

Eng. Badru Kiggundu presided over three general elections, in 2006, 2011 and 2016 during his two terms (2002–2009 and 2009–2016) in office as the chairperson of the electoral body. Two of these were contested in the Supreme Court even though National Resistance Movement (NRM) under Gen. Yoweri Museveni won with a big margin.

Taking over from Eng. Kiggundu, Justice Simon Byabakama took over an office that many looked at with little respect and even less regard and thus had a uphill task of reinventing the whole electoral body and the office of the chairperson in particular.

He promised to “correct what Eng. Kiggundu had failed to do” something that put him even deeper in the spotlight.

Eng. Kiggundu himself looked up to Justice Simon to clean up the mess that he has allegedly accumulated over his two term reign at the helm of the electoral body.

Former EC Chairperson, Eng. Badru Kiggundu (left) with President Museveni (Courtesy Photo)

“He said he was coming to correct what I failed to do so I am looking forward to that even though he never told me what exactly I failed to do; may be I will ask him after elections” Eng. Kiggundu said after handing over office to Justice Simon Byabakama in 2016.

Fast forward to a couple of years after taking over office, Justice Simon Byabakama was tasked with organizing and playing oversight over the 2021 Elections. With both local and foreign eyes looking up to him to do better like he promised, things haven’t really been good enough.

Past occurrences in the past elections, more so the 2006 and 2016 general elections saw mass irregularities being reported and heavy deployment which was visible more so in the central region. The heavy deployment in the country’s capital and other parts of the country, more so in opposition strongholds, only project a repeat of what happened in the previous elections if not worse.

The incumbent’s use of his advantage over others to continue campaigning even in cities, towns and districts were campaigns were allegedly suspended by the Uganda Electoral Commission paints a whole another picture, even if we ignore the fact that the opposition candidates are treated to unimaginable brutality by the security forces.

The heavy deployment of security forces, both Police and Military, in and around Kampala City as well as other parts of the country, also gives a different message to those looking keenly.

Police deploy during the November 2020 riots across the country following Bobi WIne’s arrest (Courtesy Photo)

To the National Resistance Movement (NRM), this deployment only signifies that the security of the nation is intact and nothing can shake Uganda’s knees. According to NRM’s Director of Communications, Emmanuel Dombo, the deployment of Security Forces is only to assure Ugandans of safety and peace during the election period.

Forum for Democratic Change spokesperson, Member of Parliament for Kira Municipality and Opposition Chief Whip in the 10th parliament, Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda disagrees with Emmanuel Dombo’s analogy. Ssemujju believes that deploying soldiers that have been fighting rebels in Somalia and Congo to deal with civilians only signifies that the ruling government is turning Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono (areas with the heaviest deployment) into war zones.

The deployment aside, the data availed by the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) ahead of the elections is also subject to scrutiny. The figures availed to the public indicated that the country had 17 million voters while that availed this year indicates that there are 18.1 million voters across the country, which data raises a few concerns.

These fluctuation in the numbers availed by NIRA and the electoral commission only signify a bigger plot by the government to rig elections, as the data on different polling stations, let alone the general voter population is inconsistent according to Hon. Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda.

Looking at how the security forces have treated opposition candidates during previous elections which closes correlates with how they have treated opposition candidates since their nomination clearly indicates that nothing much has changed over the last five (5) years.

Dr. Kizza Besigye, for example was arrested more times than we can remember in 2016 during and after his run for the presidential seat, which is more or less the same thing that has happened to his successor in the blue coner, Hon. Patrick Oboi Amuriat as well as NUP’s Kyagulanyi Sentamu who have both spent a fair share of nights behind bars.

Dr. Kizza Besigye being arrested in 2016 (Courtesy Photo)

Many polling agents reported that they had been arrested on the morning of the election day, kept in police vans and patrols only to be let out in the evening to sign declaration forms according to Hon. Ssemujju Nganda.

As unethical as this sounds, it is likely to happen again according to the trend of events that have already happened. It is also likely that, not just the polling agents but also their candidates will be arrested on D-day.

As if, the Electoral Commission has not been controversial enough, their new guidelines set to be followed by everybody and enforced by the police and other security organs raise eyebrows of whoever cares to read, listen or pay attention to them.

Banning of use of phones, cameras, ordering voters to leave polling stations after voting and requiring polling agents to have valid negative COVID-19 tests all sound very suspicious.

In July 2020, President Museveni fired at least eight (8) senior officials from the Uganda Electoral Commission less than a year to the General Elections amidst graft probe.

As we look back to the 2016 elections, which was filled with a couple of irregularities one among which was the faulty biometric machines. These were sent to polling stations along with voters’ registers. It was just frustrating for the polling assistants who could not operate the machines while those that could operate them had unfunctional machines.

For the 2021 Elections, the biometric machines were shipped into the country last Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 ahead of the elections scheduled for January 14th, 2021.

It is a great thing that they are here, but it also raise a question of whether or not there will be enough time for the polling assistants and other stakeholders to be well equipped with the knowledge of how to use them, or like i said previously, we could have a repeat of the 2016 elections were the biometric machines either failed to work or the people charged with using them did not know how to use them.

Their efficacy is on the balance and not necessarily because they may be faulty but their usage may depend solely on people who have not had ample time to learn how to use them.

The playing field has never been leveled for this exercise. Dr. Kizza Besigye who happened to be Museveni’s biggest opponent during the 2006 and 2016 elections, spent a significant amount of his would be campaign time under arrest (either home arrest or at various police stations) during both of those elections.

The same script has been used for the 2021 Presidential race which has seen both NUP’s Kyagulanyi as well as FDC’s Patrick Oboi Amuriat have been on the receiving end of Police and Military brutality and have both been arrested a couple of times right from November 2020 when they were nominated as presidential candidates.

If the government’s play book is anything to go by, chances are opposition candidates as well as their polling agents and many of their supporters will be arrested on polling day and probably be released hour, days or even weeks later on.

But that is just my opinion and projection, which only signifies that Uganda may yet again witness another ramshackle election which is only a decoy for democracy.

The question of whether elections in Uganda can ever be free and fair is up for you to answer but basing on the trend of events surrounding elections more so the most recent ones, it is hard not to be skeptical.

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Arnold Nkalubo
Arnold Nkalubo is a writer and editor with an exceptional interest in issues that influence passion and lifestyle.