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Uganda blocks a million first-time voters

Silja Fröhlich | Alex Gitta bve
February 29, 2020

A million young Ugandans have been told they cannot take part in the 2021 presidential elections. Is this really due to a lack of time, or does President Yoweri Museveni fear the youth vote?

A person puts their voting slip in a ballot box
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Ugandan Parliament and the Electoral Commission are at loggerheads following revelations that over a million Ugandans who have just turned 18 will not be allowed to vote in the 2021 general elections.

The Uganda National Electoral Commission says it does not have the resources or time to register new voters as they are busy rolling out the electoral process for the vote. The exclusion of voters is nothing new in Uganda. Elections have often been marred by irregularities, such as the banning of opposition supporters, and despite calls to modernize the register, electoral officials are resistant.

"It's so ridiculous that any government or electoral commission that is mandated to its citizens can ever think of disenfranchising a million people from voting," Godber Tumushabe from the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies told DW. "If they were more organized, they could organize the registration of voters up to December 2020 and have the election in January. What they are saying is essentially a demonstration of incompetence."

Uganda's President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit
Yoweri Museveni ruled Uganda for 34 yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Novoderezhkin

'A horrible precedent'

Members of parliament also want the voter registers to be re-opened for young people. "There is no excuse, our position as a house is clear," said the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga. "We shall not be party to any attempt to disenfranchise Ugandans."

Charity Ahimbisibwe of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy told DW that politicians have long known about the issue. "We warned about it earlier, but it is just now that the MPs pay attention. Suddenly, they notice they will lose votes when these people are not on the register."

Ahimbisibwe sees the closing of the voter register a year ahead of the election as "a horrible precedent." "If they were really concerned about voters, the Electoral Commission would have demanded that Parliament change this, but they didn't." According to her, 3,800 Ugandans turn 18 every day. This could mean up to two million first-time voters will be barred.

Ugandan singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine is escorted by a police officer as he is arrested on charges of unlawful assembly before starting his first public meeting ahead of the presidential election next year on January 6, 2020
Opposition candidate Bobi Wine has been arrested several timesImage: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

77% under 25 years

Uganda is among the countries with the world's youngest populaces. Some 77% of people are under 25. The median age in Uganda is 17 years. Their exclusion from the next election has upset many Ugandans. 

"The population of Uganda comprises young people," one Kampala resident told DW's Alex Gitta. "The time should be extended so that they are eligible to vote. Their vote counts," she said.

"Many people [countries use electronic voting systems whereby the period when someone registers doesn't matter," another Ugandan argued. "We still have almost a full year, so I think it's only right that we should have a continuous registration process."

A move against Bobi Wine?

Political observers say the blocking of young voters could be an attempt to prevent supporters of the 2021 opposition presidential hopeful Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, from voting. The popstar-turned-politician boasts a large youth following. In January, authorities prevented Wine from holding a public meeting, where he planned to discuss his proposed to challenge longtime President Yoweri Museveni. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd of his supporters. The meeting had initially been authorized by electoral authorities. Days later, Wine was arrested after trying to hold a public meeting.

A burning campaign poster of Yoweri Museveni from 2016
Is Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni scared of the youth vote?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurkowa

Godber Tumushabe from the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies agrees that Museveni could be behind the decision to bar a million potential Bobi Wine supporters.

"Uganda's Electoral Commission is not in charge of the electoral process, it is managed by President Museveni's people who are focused on making sure he is announced the winner after the elections," said Tumushabe.

One way to do so would be to create uncertainty. "Shifting dates, not being able to determine who gets to vote and blocking eligible voters makes an electoral process unpredictable. When there is no predictability, you have voter suppression, and we have seen it from every dictatorship in the region: a low turn-out benefits the incumbent."

Electoral process 'rigged in all its dimensions'

"Young people are excited about Bobi Wine and are interested in change. But we have an electoral process that is rigged in all its dimensions, and young people need to see that elections are not a pathway to change or a different future," according to Tumushabe.

Charity Ahimbisibwe of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy thinks that Ugandans have disengaged from the electoral process. "There is a lack of civic and voter education, and up to this day, neither the Electoral Commission nor Uganda's Human Rights Commission has lived up to their mandate. People have been kept in the dark."

She warns that blocking young first-time voters removes their chance to influence the governance of their country. "These people will have no choice over who gets elected; they are blocked from determining their own future. This is about silencing a majority. It is unfortunate, it is uncalled for, it should have never happened."

Bobi Wine to challenge Museveni for Ugandan presidency


DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.