Even a bad poll is good enough, it keeps the flame of democracy alive

Tuesday January 19 2021

A ballot paper shows presidential candidates for the Uganda election at a polling station in Kampala on January 14, 2021. PHOTO | AFP


The Uganda election is done and dusted. In a country that has never had a free election since independence in 1962, and coming in an era of President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), who turn up the heat and violence against opponents with every other vote cycle, the result was a foregone conclusion as early as 10 years ago.

Yet, as the argument has been made before, even a bad election is still preferable to none at all.

For a strongman to subject himself to an election, and then get it rigged for him, is acknowledgement that it is worth stealing, and he has a duty to appear before the people and go through the ritual of asking for their vote.

Even bad elections, therefore, keep the flame of democracy alive. Last year, I was enamoured of an article on “elections without change” by Nic Cheesam, a professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, who writes a lot on African politics. Titled The remarkable power of African elections, he made the point that even where elections are fiddled, and the same party and leader keep “winning”, there is still progress.

That is because vote-rigging leaders still want to gain popularity, so, they will offer social bribes, and will sometimes come through with good policies.

Noting that, “If election manipulation was a sport…Museveni would be the Olympic champion”, he listed things he delivered, like free primary, where he was a first mover on the continent.


In fact, if one looked more broadly at Africa, starting from Egypt, one would add infrastructure, anti-poverty programmes, and a range of economic and agricultural reforms, including irrigation. A lot of these goodies have been delivered by vote-stealing leaders and/or those who repress their electoral opponents.

However, if elections can never be in vain, and there is no vote that is so bad it shouldn’t be held, the same cannot be said of the violence. There is a level of violence, as seen in the run up to the January 14 Uganda vote, that can delegitimise an election so much, it makes it worthless. Or at least, I thought so.

I spoke to a young Ugandan who blindsided me. A supporter of the National Unity Party’s of musician turned politician Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi), he told me that, privately, he understood why Wine and his campaign have been so brutalised.

“I tell you, if Museveni gave those boys even 15 percent space, he would lose this thing to them”, he said.

He added that in a Uganda-specific context, the violence, and the fact that Wine weathered it, and how he responded — campaigning in a bullet proof vest and helmet which made a pregnant political statement about Uganda today —set him apart and proved that “he belonged at the high table”.

In other words, if the biggest threat you face is embarrassment in a presidential TV debate, you will get all sorts of clowns coming forward to run for president. But if death, broken ribs, and spells in jail are very likely, then only the tough jump into the ring.

I listened to him. But I am too terrified to say he is right.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on January 16, 2021.