Elections in Uganda have always been controversial. When the Catholic-leaning Democratic Party and its leader Benedicto Kiwanuka won the first election in 1961 just before Independence, the Anglican-aligned colonial government muddied the waters and arranged fresh elections the following year. They were dutifully won by the Anglican Uganda Peoples’ Congress and Milton Obote.
After being ousted by Idi Amin, Obote returned in 1980 to, once-again steal the election from DP this time under Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere. This gave Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement the justification to launch the five-year guerrilla war that brought him to power but little incentive for electoral reform.
Each of the five direct elections the country has had since 1996 have been marred by widespread vote-rigging, gerrymandering, violence and other unconventional barriers. For the 2006 election the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, was nominated while in jail facing what were later declared trumped-up rape and treason charges.
In 2016, Dr Besigye was arrested on Election Day after he stormed a security location at which he claimed the results were being tampered with to favour the incumbent.
Yet the violence in this election has been unprecedented. It started in December 2017 when fistfights broke out in parliament during a controversial, but ultimately successful effort to amend the Constitution to remove the presidential age-limit and allow President Museveni to run again.
It continued into subsequent parliamentary by-elections and political mobilisation. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Political rallies and gatherings were some of the first to be banned when the government imposed social distancing rules.
“It would be dangerous and even madness to conduct the election if the coronavirus is not contained by the end of July, President Museveni said in a television interview in May. “To have elections when the virus is still there will be madness. Countries like Iran went on with the elections when the virus was still around and it caused a lot of problems. It is very dangerous.” Yet the pandemic and the social distancing rules it forced have been used to stymie opposition candidates. Ruling party MPs were left to campaign freely during party primaries in October, only for opposition candidates to be battered when they tried to campaign.
When Bobi Wine was arrested in November on allegations of breaking social distancing rules while on the campaign trail, riots broke out in different parts of the country and at least 54 people were shot dead by security agencies. Subsequent reports indicate that many of those killed were not involved in the riots.
Patrick Oboi Amuriat, candidate of the biggest opposition party, FDC, has also been arrested several times and denied access to campaign venues. Others have suffered a war of attrition. In December four human rights lawyers involved in documenting abuses were arrested and one of them detained for nine days before bail was granted. The bank accounts of at least four NGOs involved in civic education were frozen without warning, while journalists covering the campaigns have been targeted for assault or arrest.
At the tail end of the campaign the Electoral Commission banned campaigning in about a dozen districts that it said faced the highest risk of the spread of the coronavirus. An investigation by a local newspaper, the Daily Monitor, showed that most of these districts had fewer cases than the national average. They also happened to be districts historically supportive of the opposition, and in which the leading opposition candidates were yet to campaign.
President Museveni also complained about not being allowed to campaign in those districts, but said he would comply with the EC directives and urged his rivals to do the same. Then he launched a series of ground-breaking and project launches — in his capacity as incumbent, not candidate — that just happened to be in many of the same districts. There’s never a dull election in Uganda.