“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives…The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
If consent of the governed is the most fundamental concept of democracy, its most essential right is the right of citizens to choose their leaders in free, fair, and regular elections. Other rights are fundamental to democracy. Indeed, elections alone are insufficient to sustain it.
It was late on the night of 17th February 2016, the eve of the Presidential and Parliamentary election day in Uganda, an election that had been termed as a historic one, an election that had interested a big majority of the voting class; whether the urban elite, unemployed, young and old in rural Uganda. This was the moment that Ugandans had waited for in a long time since their independence. The impending General elections had been highly billed to bring the change the Ugandans were yearning for so their anxiety was understandable.
At exactly 11:25pm one of the major Social Media sites was blocked through its URL (www.facebook.com). The effect of this was that no one was accessing it in Uganda and the only avenue was through Android and other applications, a provision that did not last for long. I reached out to a friend in the Uganda Communications Commission who confirmed to me that they had received a directive from the Powers that be instructing them to block all Social Media sites. In a sense this confirmed to me that the plot to rig Uganda’s election was in the offing and this time they wanted to rob Ugandans of their victory in the dark. Having conducted opinion polls and projected their dismal performance, the ruling party knew too well that there was no better way to go around 18th February 2016 Presidential election without rigging it.
It should be remembered that Social Media played a very pivotal role in the 2016 election campaigns. For instance Facebook and Twitter discussions saw many young people getting involved in the Election process by engaging all Presidential Candidates directly and indirectly on issues in their manifestos. Some candidates became active on Twitter in order to engage their followers and presumed voters all in the name of securing their votes. In an unprecedented move, 42% (6.4 million) of the voters who turned up to vote on 18th February 2016 were young people aged between 18-30, many of whom actively participated in both campaigns and voting, expressing their enthusiasm and remarkable determination to exercise their rights and contribute to Uganda’s electoral process and democracy.
Throughout the campaigns, on all Social Media platforms candidates’ teams outdid each other through the use of social media to target the huge numbers of the first time voters that had shown interest in taking part in their very first election. There is no doubt that many young people have today embraced Social Media and the only way the first time voters were to be reached was through the use of social media platforms. The regime discovered that they did not have the vote of the young people so they resorted to introducing new regulations in the middle of an electoral process.
One of these absurd regulations was the prohibition of use of mobile phones and cameras within the voting the area. The Badru Kiggundu led Electoral Commission ordered that all mobile phones and cameras had been banned within the voting area, an order that was rejected and defied by voters across the country. This was another opportunity that was being used to lay fertile ground to propagate robbing the election in the dark because with the Selfie craze upon us the youth would capture with their phones and cameras all the events at the polling stations as they unfolded and perhaps that information would be used as evidence in case instances of malpractices and illegalities were recorded. Importantly also, for ease of coordination and timely reporting, some youth would immediately communicate results announced at each polling station to their Candidates in a timely manner to ease tension and anxiety which had the potential to erupt into violence but the good Engineer Doctor Badru Kiggundu wanted none of that.
On the morning of 18th February 2016 the country woke up to confirmation of blockade of the major Social Media platforms and Mobile Money services. This facilitated the carrying out of many irregularities that went unexposed and unchecked for example the tampering with voting materials, which led to violent confrontations between the voters and the security services in some areas. The idea of bypassing the social media blockade came early and expensive to some while for the others it was too late to help arrest the situation that had already sprung out of control. In many parts of Wakiso and Kampala districts the voting materials were delivered at the polling stations as late as 4:00pm, when the voting exercise was slated to end, yet these two districts alone have 2 million voters out of the 10 million registered voters. In essence a wider majority of the 2 million voters were disenfranchised. In some areas like Ggaba in Kampala gun-wielding men tried to ballot stuff in favor of one of the candidates, but the voters were too vigilant to allow the ballot stuffing go on under their watchful eyes.
Owing to the fact that Social Media platforms had been blocked, many irregularities went on with impunity as many agents for both Dr. Kizza Besigye and Rt. Honourable Amama Mbabazi went missing from Polling stations across the country.
A youthful polling agent in Sembabule said;
“I have been dragged out of Polling area, beaten and thrown in dirty water for being an agent of Dr. Kizza Besigye. I saw them with my own eyes as they stuffed for candidate Museveni and Anifah Kawooya the woman MP of Sembabule district. I am not going to be anyone’s agent again. I am done!”
There are many stories of this kind that happened across the country where agents of Dr. Kizza Besigye were either threatened off the polling station to facilitate the carrying on of electoral malpractices with unhampered.
As if that was not enough, various candidates’ agents at the polling stations were frustrated for not being paid. Some candidates employed agents all over the country to be their eyes and protect the interest of the candidates at the various polling stations with hope that they would be paid at the end of the day. With the country boasting of mobile money service providers with networks that serve the entire nation, the agents’ payments were to be transmitted through the mobile money platforms straight onto the agents’ phones. However the blockade of the mobile money service served to frustrate the agents in such a way that they thought they were denied their due payment since news of this blockade was never widely communicated by the Main stream media for fear of repercussions. This left frustrated agents at the mercy of their tormentors and regime sympathizers.
Commenting on the events surrounding the general election day, retired Major General Mugisha Muntu said;
“The country has been robbed at gun point and in this case you can say Tank Point.”
Justifying the blockade of Social Media sites and Mobile Money services, Godfrey Mutabazi the Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission said;
“In the early afternoon of 17th February 2016, I received a telephone call from the IGP [Inspector General of Government, General Kale Kayihura] who informed me that there was an imminent grave security concern by some individuals who wanted to use social media platforms and mobile money facilities to seriously destabilize the security of the country.”
As has become characteristic of the regime, again no one followed the law as these orders were flying between the Inspector General of Police and the Executive Director of Uganda Communication Commission rendering the Pearl of Africa a failed state. Perhaps if the National Security Council had advised the President on the imminent grave security concern and a through the due process of the law a decision had been reached to block Social Media platforms and Mobile Money services, Ugandans would not cry foul. Any matter of national security should be discussed by the National Security Council and in this case it would have been the Minister of Internal Affairs to call the Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission to request him to implement the decision of the Council. However a decision reached after flagrant abuse of the legal procedures served to highlight the abuse of law that Ugandans have been subjected to over the years.
To borrow the words of retired Major General Mugisha Muntu, on 18th February 2016 Uganda was robbed at gun point and in the dark. Free and fair, or genuine elections, mean that elections offer equal opportunities for all competing parties and candidates. Such equality requires the ability of political parties and candidates to register for office without unreasonable requirements, balanced access to the media for all candidates, the absence of campaign finance abuse, and an independent electoral process. It is safe to conclude that at the end of the day, the Ugandan election failed the test of a free, fair and genuine election and that we were all robbed at gun point in the dark.