I just washed my hands and the water flowing from the faucet is almost scalding hot. This is apparently the hottest year in the recorded history of mankind. The general sentiment in the scientific community is that we’re directly responsible for this; in our insatiable desire to have more when and where we want it, we have misused the planet to the point where it’ll soon be too hot and toxic to sustain us. It would seem that humanity has an innate death wish it just can’t shake.
I mention the weather because prior to this heatwave, the hottest place I’d been in this country was Kasese. I was based in the beautiful and incomparably serene Fort Portal in late 2013 and early 2014 and occasionally, I had to venture out into the neighbouring districts and climb mountains, bump across the rift valley and, on one occasion, get lost in a game reserve on the back of a bajaj. I only got worried when the grasses begun to get taller than us and we chanced on the odd carcass here and there.
I don’t know how hot Kasese is right now, but if the news is anything to go by, I’d say the mercury is going up the mountain. Some days past, the nation witnessed a horrific scene where uniformed police officers shot dead a middle aged man who was holding what appeared to be a stick and started hurling stones at them as they advanced in his direction shooting in the air. It’s hard to explain it without sounding biased, so if you haven’t see it, you’d better take a look at it here. A young journalist, @qataharraymond, familiar to most Ugandans who watch prime-time news and who incidentally covered the Kasese region during the recently concluded elections posted a series of tweets on his timeline giving voice to the befuddlement many of us find hard to express. What were the seven armed policemen doing there? What prompted them to discharge their weapons in so fatal a fashion? Reports indicate that at least 6 civilians were killed and two officers injured in this and similar incidents that day, which begs the question; what exactly is going on in this region?
The region has had a troubled past: In July of 2014 attacks in Bundibugyo left at least 90 people dead; ethnic tensions between the majority Bakonzo and other minorities especially the Basongora and the Bamba were blamed for these attacks. The government was accused of not doing enough to understand and address the issues and in some cases it is believed to have been complicit in the violence. A Human Rights Watch report authored in November 2014 (https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/05/uganda-violence-reprisals-western-region) tells a grim story of torture and mass murder in which the police and security forces were complicit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpKCQm288bs). According to the report, in the wake of the initial July 2014 attacks by the Bakonzo, reprisal attacks were carried out with the complicity of regional security officers, police and military personnel. There was a deliberate attempt to cover up the incidents and to this day no official report has ever been made. Furthermore, beginning in the late 90s, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a rebel outfit based in Eastern Congo carried out a series of attacks in the area which prompted military operations against the group and their being pushed out of the mountains deep into Eastern Congo. It’s not hard to speculate that these too have a bearing on the current tensions in the region, not to mention the distrust and dislike of the government officials, especially the security forces.
Unsurprisingly in the just concluded elections the district overwhelmingly voted for the main opposition party, and even less so was the fact that it took three full days before the results were announced by the returning officer, with the police and military playing a significant role in the chaos that resulted from the inexplicable delay. During his coverage of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Kasese, @qataharraymond filed this report (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baqLdj7DUNI) which included the death of 13 year old Muzamiru Kule from gunshot wounds following police and military firing live ammunition into crowds that had gathered outside the tally centre demanding the announcement of the results.
Fast forward several weeks, in a packed courtroom in the leafy Kampala suburb of Kololo, the chief of the “Independent Electoral Commission” felt the mercury go up a notch and could not help but imbibe several bottles of water as he answered questions put to him by lawyers representing Mr. Amama Mbabazi, one of the presidential candidates, in a suit brought against the “Independent Electoral Commission” and the president elect on charges of vote rigging, incompetence and voter bribery and intimidation among others. The patronising, exasperating and often dispiriting Mr. Badru Kiggundu fidgeted, perspired, stammered, and threatened to lose his head as he was put to task to explain how he had arrived at the figures he announced on February 20th. How many voters were on the register? How many people voted according to the BVVK? Why had the old register been abandoned and whose decision was it to do that? Did he use the original declaration of results (DR) forms when announcing the results and if so where are these documents?
The February 18th elections will not be forgotten soon. The mood following the declaration of the results by Mr. Kiggundu has been one of disappointment, betrayal and despondency laced with a latent anger at the obvious slap and spit in the face. It’s interesting to note that despite all the indications prior to the day, there was a strange sense of optimism that going to the polls this time round was actually going to make a difference. What followed instead was the confirmation that the ruling party apparatchiks and government stooges had lost all shame and dispensed with the notion of decency and were more than willing to abuse our sense of self worth and respect. How else do you explain someone telling me that they had the presence of mind to organise logistics to transport voting materials to a polling station 200 kilometers away but overlooked one that was only 10 kilometers from their headquarters? This person must think I’m an imbecile otherwise he wouldn’t even dare tell me that. But no, this person further has the gall to imagine that saying “oops, sorry about that” fixes everything and somehow makes it okay. Hmmph!
The Electoral Commission (EC) is meant to be one of the most independent institutions in the country. It should be one of the most stalwart guardians of democracy whose conduct is as transparent as air. However consider that like most (all?) public institutions in Uganda, the chairperson is appointed by the president and Mr. Kiggundu has been in this post since 2002. This doesn’t seem to present much of an issue as long as he executes his duties with the highest level of professionalism; but consider again that the constitution gives the president mandate to appoint the heads of almost all public offices in the country and add to this the fact that the current president has been in office for the past twenty years, not counting the ones before we rewrote the constitution and re-instituted periodic elections. It is therefore obvious that any head of a public institution is answerable first and foremost to the appointing authority and if the avatar of this authority becomes a permanent fixture, then this person and by virtue of hierarchy the institution he or she heads is going to kowtow to the appointing authority and not the public interest.
No shocker then that the EC was partial to candidate Museveni during the campaigns and elections: For example, it pushed the nominations deadline back by a month after it became obvious the NRM was not going to beat the October 3rd deadline; it also branded candidate Mbabazi’s attempts to garner support for his bid to be the party flag bearer “illegal campaign activities” yet the law provided for aspirants to carry out consultations with their party members. Perhaps as a sign of what was on the cards, the EC went ahead to decree that no one was allowed to run an independent tally centre during the vote counting process and further added that cameras and other recording devices were not allowed at the polling stations. The legality of these decrees is questionable and illustrates an institution that has grown too close to the government that it blatantly exceeds its mandate while neglecting its duties. When the army was deployed on the streets before election day, the one institution that actually had the power to compel the ‘generals’ to order it back to the barracks was conspicuously silent. Ditto on the regular arrest of the main opposition candidate and harassment of his supporters. The EC however was saving its trump card for last.
When the counting started, Mr. Kiggundu, sequestered in some nook at the tally center with his magic abacus, emerged every so often to regale the nation with his arithmetic acumen. The setup of the tally centre was glitzy if not glamourous; a big screen displayed the results as they rolled off the abacus and each group of observers had access to workstations where they could access a user interface that allowed them to drill down and look at individual polling stations. It was a thing of beauty and the data flow logic behind it was sound, the chief technical expert of the EC had spent a good chunk of prime time television explaining the ins and outs to the journalists so expectations were high. Cue the amazing Kiggundu and his counting machine. When the first couple of sets of results were announced, journalists and observers stared at the screen, logged onto the terminals provided and queried any official they could access, all in a bid to understand where the numbers they were seeing were coming from. It wasn’t until after the fourth set of results was announced that they were given printouts of figures that allegedly made up the numbers they were reading on the big screen. Ideally, verification of the announced results should be straightforward. If you have someone at the polling station, all this person has to do is send you a copy of the results as tallied at the station because counting is done right there in front of everyone, the results declared and a copy posted at the polling station. This is why running a parallel tally center is a necessity for the candidates and any media establishment worth its salt. The idea that doing so constitutes a crime is preposterous and the EC’s questionable (and probably illegal) decision to declare it an offence is at the very least suspicious more so when you consider that the government saw fit to block access to social media networks like twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp that could have been used to transmit this data from candidates’ agents to their tally centers. What numbers was the EC churning out? Where are the original DR forms? According to the Presidential Elections Act (PEA), these documents are supposed to be at the EC headquarters but as revealed a few days ago in the supreme court, this is not the case. So the EC delivers materials late to polling stations within opposition strongholds, declares illegal the running of parallel tally centers, releases results without any accountability, announces the winner without results from more than 1700 polling stations (the majority within opposition strongholds) and the government blocks access to a primary means of communication that would have enabled the real-time tracking of the results. Questions linger.
A petition to the supreme court is the only legal (as in provided for by law) resort for any candidate wishing to challenge the outcome of the presidential elections. In the 2006 elections, the country witnessed outright voter intimidation and harassment mainly against supporters of the opposition candidate Kizza Besigye who was additionally imprisoned and tried under trumped up charges of treason and rape; all this before and during the campaigns. In the second petition of its kind (the first being in 2001) filed in the supreme court by candidate Kizza Besigye, the court ruled, by a vote of 4 to 3, that there had been irregularities in the electoral process in addition to the atmosphere of violence and intimidation but that these had not had a “substantial” impact on the results of the elections to warrant their annulment. The legal fraternity is still struggling to find a definition for what the court considers “substantial” impact. This could probably explain why this time round, the @FDCOfficial1 candidate didn’t file a petition in the supreme court, the last two attempts having gone against him.
Since the 2006 elections, Dr. Kizza Besigye has been arrested no less than 50 times and during the week of the elections was arrested four times in eight days including on election day itself. How? Remember the POMB? Well, it became the Public Order Management Act (POMA), one of the most insidious pieces of legislation that has been made by parliament in recent years, second only to the amendment of Article 105 of the constitution in 2005 and it is this act that has been used by the police time and again to abuse our rights. In contravention of the fundamental right of free assembly guaranteed under the constitution in article 29, section 1(d): “Every person shall have the right to freedom to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition;“, the act requires that anyone intending to hold a public demonstration, protest or to petition a public office first REQUEST and RECEIVE permission from the IGP or an authorised officer! The absurdity! Section 8 of the act goes on to give the IGP or an authorised officer the right to stop or prevent the holding of a public meeting, to order the meeting to disperse and also issue other orders in carrying out this duty; it goes further to state that “anyone who neglects or refuses to obey an order issued under this section commits the offence of disobedience of lawful orders and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for two years.” In July 2015, Dr. Besigye and his supporters were arrested and charged with ‘disobeying lawful orders’ after he attempted to leave his home on his way to address a rally of supporters as he campaigned for the nomination as party flag bearer. A similar scene was played out in October as police arrested Besigye once again and Semujju Nganda in addition to attacking journalists. You might be tempted to think the police is just doing its job but consider this: on February 15th the police once again arrested Dr. Besigye as he attempted to address his supporters in Kampala and make his way to Makerere University where he was scheduled to address students; one of the officers who effected his arrest, a one Aaron Baguma, was in December 2015 accused by the DPP of complicity in the kidnap and murder of Betty Katushabe by Muhammed Ssebuwufu the proprietor of Pine car depot. The DPP instructed the police to produce Mr. Baguma in court but to this day the police has refused to comply with the directive which according to section 117 of the Penal Code Act constitutes ‘disobeying lawful orders’. In fact, Mr. Baguma was promoted by president Museveni on February 4th along with 495 other fellow officers, an exercise that has been controversial and prompted a petition to the IGG by members of the police force who accused officers in the Police Directorate of Human Resources of editing the list of recommendations for promotions. The IGG indicated that her office would investigate the claims so we wait to see what comes of these investigations but I’m not holding my breath.
On February 19th, the day after the presidential elections, police raided FDC headquarters in Najjanankumbi and arrested the party president and volunteers who were entering data into their systems. On February 23rd, police raided FDC offices in Mbarara arresting 15 FDC officials and supporters accusing them of being ‘terrorists’ and additionally Dr. Kizza Besigye was put under house arrest and couldn’t interact with party officials. There were reports of arrests of other FDC officials and supporters countrywide. It is difficult to see how the candidate could have, if so inclined, filed a petition in the supreme court in the stipulated 10 days in this atmosphere.
Today, the supreme court will deliver its verdict on the petition by Mr. Amama Mbabazi but I’m not holding my breath for that one either. The case has not been short of drama, beginning with the break-in at the petitioner’s lawyers’ offices the night before court begun hearing the case and accusations and counter accusations between the petitioner’s lawyers and the police of complicity in the crime. The question is whether this process has been enough to temper the anger of those who feel the elections were stolen but considering the outcome of the last two petitions and the precedents set, it’s difficult to see how Ugandans will benefit from this process, aside from the newspapers and television networks.
The really BIG question is what next? The discontent that’s bubbling under the seemingly calm surface is real. Ugandans are tired of being taken for granted. We are tired of seeing public servants break the law and walk away scot-free. Take the case of Mr. Byandala who recently assaulted a journalist and had the nerve to say the video showing him do this was fabricated. This is the same person who’s on trial for causing a loss of UGX 24 billion in the Katosi road scandal. This person is still a minister! We are tired of the politics of patronage, the lack of accountability, of opportunity, of a fair shake. We want a country that works for all of us; a country where the institutions don’t depend on the whims of one person; where the law applies to all equally.
If we are to build the nation we want, we must find a way around our government. We must never forget that all it is is a group of people who have, at our pleasure, organised themselves to assume the mantle of leadership over us; and if we so choose, we can tell them to go home. We must show them that they are answerable to us and not the other way around. We must let them know that we are displeased with their conduct and we will not stand for it. We must push back at every attempt they make to ridicule and silence us, to paint us enemies of the state. We must show them that we the people are the state. The government will not stop at anything to brand any opposition as illegitimate. It will label us lawbreakers, criminals and malcontents but we must never forget that it is our “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
So what are the practical steps forward? There are as many as you can think up.
- Start a public campaign (e.g. to reinstate term limits, repeal the POMA…)
- Start a political party
- Start a Civil Society Organisation
- Join or support an opposition political party.
- Petition your representatives; privately and publicly.
- Hold your representatives accountable. Keep a scorecard.
- Teach others about their rights and duties.
- Stand and speak up against injustice.
- Join the public service and uphold the ideals of integrity, honesty and trust.
- PROTEST & DEMONSTRATE peacefully
- Et Cetera
“Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop…”