MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Uganda cannot hold free and fair elections under the selective and opportunistic Covid-19 lockdown measures

By Mohammed Ndifuna 5 January 2021

Supporters of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, otherwise known as Bobi Wine, cheer as he passes through Mukono during his presidential campaign in Kampala, Uganda.(Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Next week, on 14 January, Uganda holds a general election. In recent weeks, the election campaign has been marred by police killings of people attending rallies, and arrests and harassment of opposition politicians. The signs are extremely worrying.

Mohammed Ndifuna

Uganda has recently gained traction for the good, the bad and the ugly, all in one season. 

When Uganda unveiled her Covid-19 control measures, heads turned in her direction. The authorities acted fast, firmly and looked innovative in their handling of the pandemic. For starters, Uganda has a long history of successful implementation of public health campaigns, especially in response to epidemic outbreaks. 

It was given accolades for its rapid alert, immediate response and effective coordination in the field, and robust logistical support that turned around the largest recorded outbreak of Ebola between 2000 and 2001. 

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) characterised Covid-19 as a pandemic and the virus wreaked havoc on many nations in a short space of time, Uganda seemed sure of its capacity. And for once, it seemed such a great thing to be a Ugandan and to be in Uganda at a time of global adversity.

Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu salutes the crowd as he passes through Mukono on the outskirts of Kampala during his presidential campaign. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

The bad news

In March 2020, Uganda confirmed its first case of the novel coronavirus. The government of Uganda brought the war drums. A raft of measures was announced. Movement was generally restricted and the country went into lockdown. The security operatives took a central and unnerving role — ostensibly to keep law and order.

But the security agencies unleashed terror upon the citizens as they brutally enforced the lockdown, curfew and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). 

The ordinary person on the street vending or striving to make ends meet was on the receiving end. Before one could say Jack Robinson, Uganda had developed the dubious reputation of a country where one stood a greater danger of dying from police brutality rather than from Covid-19. There was hue and cry in regard to the heavy-handed manner in which Covid-19 regulations were being enforced. It was brutal and glaringly partisan. 

The Electoral Commission issued a number of SOPs on the conduct of prenomination, nomination and campaign activities in the Covid-19 environment. According to the Electoral Commission, the SOPs incorporated measures made by the commission with various stakeholders in the electoral process, guidelines put in place by the Ministry of Health and the outcome of consultations to prevent and combat person-to-person, person-to-object and object-to-person spread of Covid-19 during election activities.   

An injured supporter of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu is carried away during his presidential campaign in Kampala, Uganda.(Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

The candidates are required to ensure that no more than 200 people attend their public rallies and that all attendees wear masks and maintain physical distancing. 

The candidates and their agents are encouraged to use other non-contact means of communication, such as broadcasting, publishing, cell- and web-based platforms, to interact with the electorate during the campaign period. This includes fliers, posters, banners, radio and TV announcements, radio and TV talk shows, SMSes, voice messaging, new digital media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and websites. 

During the campaign period, candidates may use community-based public address systems and a programme for usage should be communicated by the candidates/agents to the respective returning officers. 

The political opposition leaders have alleged that President Yoweri Museveni’s government was opportunistically using Covid-19 SOPs to frustrate their lawful and legitimate campaigns as they prepared for the presidential elections.  

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni addresses the nation.

The question then is: Will Uganda be able to deliver free and fair elections as enjoined by the 1995 Constitution?  

There are a number of factors that work against the realisation of this objective.

The candidates belonging to the opposition are being denied the right to freedom of assembly and association. They are not able to move unencumbered to canvass for votes. 

The Public Health Act and the Covid-19 SOPs are now being used opportunistically by the regime supporting security apparatus to break up public gatherings organised by the opposition leaders. Previously, the police had relied on the infamous Public Order Management Act (Poma) to restrict and clamp down on public meetings and rallies of the political opposition. However, Poma was recently annulled by the Constitutional Court, partly disarming the police. The security agencies are using a heavy hand to break up opposition public gatherings while the National Resistance Movement (NRM)-leaning assemblies and those of the incumbent Yoweri have a free rein.

Police fire live rounds outside a medical centre where colleagues of Bobi Wine were being treated. (Photo: Getty Images / Getty Images)

The political candidates have been saddled with burdensome responsibilities within the SOPs which they must discharge as a requirement during campaigns. Although online campaigns have been recommended as part of the package for safe campaigns, political candidates (especially the opposition to the NRM) who may wish to promote their party on the web are somewhat hampered by a new requirement for every blogger to register with the Communication Commission. 

Some candidates, especially Bobi Wine, are being harassed with umpteen criminal charges and constrained by a requirement to appear in courts of law to answer charges levelled against them. 

This is an old political stratagem that is often deployed during elections to destabilise opposition rallies. The countrywide riots following the arrest of the leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP) suggest that the change- demanding youth political activists of the NUP will not permit the brutalisation and harassment of their leadership. 

In view of all the challenges that beleaguer the elections in Uganda, it is a tall order to expect the 2021 general and presidential elections to be free and fair. DM/MC

Mohammed Ndifuna is a Ugandan human rights defender, and an expert in police accountability and security sector reform, atrocity and atrocity crimes prevention in Uganda and further afield.

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