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Uganda vote 'not 100% free,' observer says

Frank Yiga
January 17, 2021

Charity Kalebbo Ahimbisibwe, the head of the Citizens' Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, says she does not believe that the 2021 elections for president and parliament were free, fair and credible.

Charity Kalebbo Ahimbisibwe
Charity Kalebbo Ahimbisibwe, executive director of the Citizens' Coaltion for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU)Image: Frank Yiga/DW

DW: Would you describe the January 14 elections as free and fair?

Charity Kalebbio Ahimbisibwe: That's a very tough question to answer. You see, if you're going to talk about a free and fair election, you have to talk about the quality of the campaign, you have to talk about the nomination, you have to talk about both the "pre-" and the "during" process. And the Electoral Commission has done so well during the "during" process — the time of voting up to end of voting — in terms of updating the public, but the "pre-" had a lot of problems. It had violence in it, it had a limited time frame, it had the one point where two million Ugandans were not given a chance to register, It had little organization of polling stations.

It also had the lack of participation because the voters were not given a chance to interact with their candidates in rallies because of COVID-19. So they ended up not having sufficient information.

And then also the election had the question of the shutdown of social media. That hanging on its head, and the fact that there was not a lot of information flow —  you now put it on a weighing scale and begin to ask yourself. It is hard to answer the question was it free, fair and credible? It had aspects of all the three. But whether it was 100%, I don't think so.

What is your opinion of these elections?

My impressions of this election is that not very many voters came out to vote. A majority of them stayed away. Remember there were 18 million, but we are thinking of about 12 million that showed up to vote. That means about seven million did not vote and tells you that either they had no one to vote or they decided to abscond for reasons best known to them. But most likely they didn't know who to vote for or they were even just making a statement that maybe they don't want to be caught in this political tide altogether.

So I make of the election three things: The young people showed up in big numbers and voted. And so the the 58% plus of the president is coming from those who have clocked 35 years old and above who know "I have my car, I have my business, I have my home, I have my children" and they want to galvanize that status quo. And they also thought of NUP (National Unity Platform) as the alternative, not having sufficient leadership experience to maintain the status quo.

The opposition NUP leader and presidential candidate Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) cited some situations of vote rigging, the stuffing of ballot boxes, and said he would not concede defeat.

At the polling stations that we observed, we did not see any ballot stuffing. And at the 2,190 polling stations we observed in a scientific way that reflects the 34,000 polling stations, we did not come across rigging and ballot stuffing.

The only thing that we saw, at only one or two polling stations, was the question of returning officials giving one voter more than the three ballots that they were supposed to have. We saw that at about three polling stations. The other thing that we saw, a bit significantly, was party agents being denied a chance to be at the polling stations and arrested a night before the elections. But rigging, ballot stuffing — I don't think so. It was largely a peaceful process. Maybe the Honorable Kyagulanyi should actually bring evidence to that effect.

What do you see coming out of this election?

I see a lot of room for dialogue, for reconciliation. I see a lot of lessons we can pick out of this election. In some places there was a lot of what we call protest vote. That is why you saw a high turnover of ministers and former members of Parliament. So many ministers were dropped in this election, even ministers that we thought are dear to the public.

Now, that is speaking to something. The voter is saying there are certain things we've asked you to do and you've ignored them. And one of them was the question of amending the Constitution. The question of lifting the (presidential) age limit. Ugandans had said don't change the Constitution — we still need a safety net because, whether we want it or not, we must talk about the Uganda of the future. What kind of constitution will govern the future? What kind of government do we want going forward? And we also need to reflect on the democratic institutions. How do we strengthen the court? How do we strengthen the parliament?

We saw a lot of civil society being locked up during this time of elections, and that all create space for the need for dialogue, for government to understand the work that civil society does to promote democracy are not necessarily agents of foreign forces that want to pull down government.

Billboards showing incumbent Museveni along a street in Kampala
Yoweri Museveni has been declared winner in Uganda's 2021 presidential electionImage: Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

And, I also think that there is a need for dialogue for government to understand development partners and why they come on board. Development partners were not here to support the process of voter education, you have seen so many spoiled ballots, you have seen the lack of information during the election with over seven million people staying away because there is no voter education. When the donors are part of the process and help to have voter education, the turnout is much better.

Benita van Eyssen contributed to this article.