The runner-up in Uganda’s February 18 poll, Dr. Kizza Besigye still remains under lock-down – 23 days on. Handicapped, he failed to file a Presidential Election Petition to challenge the disputed polls. However, candidate Amama Mbabazi managed to beat the deadline to file his petition. Apparently, we are now set for two battles – one in court and the other, potentially on the street.

One of the battles will last no more than 30 days while the other, may go on for the better part of the next 5 years. The 2016 poll was the 6th general election in Uganda’s 52 years of independence – successfully producing only two leaders – Mr. Milton Obote and Mr. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

None of these elections ever resulted in a peaceful transfer of power. Mr. Museveni himself did not come to power through the ballot.

After claiming that the 1980 election was rigged, Museveni grabbed his gun in February 1981 and took to the bush to launch a guerrilla struggle in protest of the sham election. To end a blood-soaked thrall of Idi Amin, Museveni took the path of yet another blood-soaked thrall.

Besigye on the other hand, is seeking to peacefully challenge a sham election through civic action.

In control of the country, Museveni placed Uganda under firm authoritarian grip for 10 years without an election (1986 – 1996). During this period, the regime restored stability, delivered several progressive developments and became a darling of the West but at the same time, did everything possible to sow the seeds of fusing the state with itself. It is these fruits that we see now.

Today the ghosts of the 1980s still haunt Uganda – a country often described by senior elements of the regime as an National Resistance Movement (Mr. Museveni’s party) ‘animal’ hunted down during the ‘liberation’ war.

In what can arguably be described as anything other than ‘a free and fair’ election, Museveni was declared victorious with 60.8% of the vote – as his closest rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye, was placed under house arrest and blocked from addressing the media or his supporters.

As Ugandans went to the polls on February 18, the government and private telecom companies apparently brazenly machinated to haphazardly and indiscriminately block access to social media services in total violation of freedom of expression of Ugandans.

MTN Uganda and Airtel Uganda casually sent me phone text messages about the blackout. They did not put up a fight to protect the rights of their clients. Never. “As per UCC directive all Airtel money & social media services were disabled. You will be updated once services are restored..,” – Airtel.

After the voting, the Electoral Commission inevitably announced Museveni’s victory. Many Ugandans – at least those that I know – were terrified. There was no ecstasy as witnessed in some of the previous elections. The country went silent. Heavily armed combat security personnel patrolled the noticeably empty streets like they would after a crime has been committed. Images from Kampala streets would pass for images taken in the war-torn Central African Republic.

Majority of the 6.4 million young voters in Uganda – who were voting for the very first time – remained astounded and bitter at the declaration. “Who voted for Museveni? Every one I meet is complaining!” one youth recently asked me. I elected to withhold my response lest I am accused of inciting violence.

Here is why. Uganda’s young folks are simply exhausted of the 1986 story. It’s been an amazing 30-year journey but enough of it already. All they want is change. A change that will – as per their aspirations – open the doors to new opportunities, freedoms, working systems, and accountability.

To enforce the results of the apparently largely flawed election, Besigye was placed under arrest – often at police stations and unknown locations during the day and at his residence during the night.

In 10 days, Besigye was arrested 8 times. The normalization of his arbitrary detention is sickening, disquieting, intolerable and a gross abuse of his civil rights. The trauma he has suffered is appalling.

Dr. Besigye has barely afforded to leave his home since the results were announced. The last time he attempted to do so for church, he was towed away in his car to a police station – with his Bible. And yet, police continues to deny with a straight face that he is not under arrest.

When I joined other human rights Defenders – Ms. Maria Burnett and Dr. Busingye Kabumba – to visit Dr. Besigye at his residence on his invitation to discuss his human rights concerns, the police blocked us; not once, but twice.

Many have argued that this deployment of a partisan brutal security apparatus to enforce Museveni’s controversial victory is worse than President Obote’s move to place Uganda’s Parliament under military duress to pass the 1967 Pigeon-hole Constitution.

Press freedom has also increasingly come under attack. Since February 18, at least 14 journalists have been manhandled and arrested in the course of their work – on most occasions, while reporting on Besigye’s detention. Several have been assaulted and arrested on live TV and one has been pepper sprayed by police. Government has investigated none of these cases.

Today’s autocratic rulers have learnt the art of elections and rule of law. They deliberately and conveniently pursue this route to bestow legitimacy to the unspeakable rape of democracy and fundamental tenets of good governance and freedoms.

They have meticulously turned all these safeguards into a menu where they get to pick what they like and leave what does not aid their stranglehold on power. They flagrantly abuse majority power in legislative bodies to turn people’s representatives into voting machines to pass any restrictive laws. After all, it will be the decision of the people’s representatives! 

How the poll was apparently ‘rigged’

In the run up to the polls, the government deliberately ignored overwhelming evidence of the need to undertake comprehensive electoral reforms – a critical element for a credible, free and fair electoral process.

Instead, they spent time dismissing opposition leaders and investigating civil society groups – for example, GLISS, a local CSO – because of their involvement in the demand for the reforms.

The apparent overt partisan approach adopted by the police in enforcement of laws was disturbing. Besigye and Mbabazi were arrested during national consultation meetings while the incumbent, Museveni, seemingly enjoyed free movement. How do you expect a candidate to confirm his candidature without consulting his constituent?

The menacing heavy military deployment and a montage of rhetoric as widely reported in local media – to kill, deep freeze, and crush any election protestors who dared to put their fingers in the ‘anus of a leopard’ – was arguably calculated to instill fear and scare voters. This harassment and intimidation plausibly had an insidious aim of reminding the voters who was in charge and why maintaining status quo was apparently critical.

Three days to the polls, Chapter Four Uganda, an independent civil rights watchdog released a report detailing rights violations in the run-up to the 2016 polls. This report built on earlier research by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Network for Journalists on related affronts on freedoms. During the launch, gun shots rocked the city as police battled with Besigye supporters on Kampala streets.

During the campaigning period, the incumbent reportedly enjoyed obscene advantage. In terms of campaign financing for instance, Museveni’s expenditure dwarfed all the other 7 candidates combined. Museveni’s NRM spent well over 90% of the 100% funds spent during the campaigns.

The Electoral Commission further arguably adopted an inaccurate voter register by retiring the old voters register and relying on exclusive data from the National ID project – a project shrouded by myriad controversies. This apparently effectively disenfranchised many voters – many of whom had voted in several other previous elections.

On the polling day, though largely peaceful, local media widely reported that the showdown was marred by incidents of vote buying, pre-ticked ballots, ballot stuffing, proxy voting, lack of secrecy to facilitate ‘secret ballot’, acute delays – of up to 7 hours – in delivery of voting materials (these delays were commonplace in opposition stronghold areas such as the capital Kampala despite of proximity to the Electoral Commission headquarters), and arbitrary arrest of party agents.

Little wonder, at the end of the day, votes outnumbered voters in several polling stations. For example, the Observer newspaper reported that Dwaniro Sub-County which has 205 voters according to the Electoral Commission register, registered 605 valid votes.

The EU Election Observer Mission, CEON, and other poll observers’ have largely expressed concern with these reported malpractices in their preliminary reports.

It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules on all these allegations.

Museveni’s victory challenged in court, Besiege weighs options

The legal team of candidate Amama Mbabazi has filed a petition in the Supreme Court to challenge Mr. Yoweri Museveni’s victory.

In a petition that largely backs on non-compliance of the law inevitably affecting the outcome of the polls, Mbabazi outlines several grounds why Museveni’s election should not stand.

Alongside a cocktail of alleged malpractices, Museveni’s threatening and derogatory statements are also listed in the petition. Notably, Mbabazi contends that the incumbent had vowed that he was not ‘prepared to hand over power to wolves “emishega” (while apparently referring to Mbabazi and Besigye), that Besigye’s supporters were “mad,” and that if opposition supporters touched the anus of a leopard,” they would see what would happen to them.

Although Besigye failed to file his petition, he can apply to be added to Mbabazi’s petition as a party.

As much as I had preferred Besigye to challenge the election in court, it is now obvious that it is not a wise move for him given the obtaining circumstances.

And here are a couple of them.

First, Besigye has been severely handicapped and could not possibly prepare his case to the best of his ability.

Secondly, if Besigye goes to court, he would bind himself to the decision of the court. In the event that the court upholds Museveni’s victory, his cards will be done in a matter of 30 days – until 2021. Any attempt to pursue other peaceful means to engage the state as far as the polls are concerned will cast him in bad light – for disregarding a judgment of a court of law.

However, if he does not go to court, he will have the right to continue to peacefully exercise other constitutionally guaranteed freedoms to express discontent with the election in the likely next 5 years of Museveni’s term – a superior political muscle for a protracted challenge.

More critically, Mbabazi has already filed the petition; so, the court will probe the election, one way or another.

On Saturday March 12, the court heard two applications by civil society groups and 9 Makerere University law Dons who are seeking for leave of court to join the head petition as amici curiae. If allowed by the court – ruling has been fixed for today, Monday 14, the ‘friends of the court’ will avail their valuable expertise in their fields to act as key resource persons to the court on contentious points of the law or build a body of information that will assist the court to address certain aspects of the petition that the court may otherwise miss.

What next for Uganda?

The petition will be heard in the next 30 days, a judgment will be passed, and life will go on.

In the 30 days, we are likely to see all cameras focusing on the Supreme Court and increasingly leaving Dr. Besigye in the cold at his residence in Kasangati – his new ‘prison.’

FDC leaders will continue to appeal to their voters, civil society groups, and international community to explore avenues to challenge for power throughout the next 5 years.

Besigye will continue to remind Museveni that he does not have “small hands.” Some of the civil action ideas will he downright ridiculous to many while others, – as empty as they may be – will scare the hell out of the regime.

The State on the other hand will continue to closely monitor Besigye’s activities, brutalise him and other FDC leaders, and arrest him from time to time – if for no reason, simply to send a message.

The space for exercise of freedoms of expression, association and assembly will continue to shrink as the regime takes firm grip on power to fend off any attempts to threaten the establishment. New restrictive bills will be tabled. Arbitrary arrests will continue to rise and we are likely to see the prominence of section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act (offensive communication).

Civil rights groups will continue to push back against this repression and we are likely to witness a rise in criminal cases being brought against individual police officers who perpetrate rights violations.

President Museveni is very likely to press through with a constitutional amendment to scrap the age restriction (75 years) to allow him contest in 2021. The cards are apparently already at play – NRM MPs-elect have already been summoned to Kyankwanzi to plot on who should be the next Speaker of Parliament (the new Speaker will be central to the anticipated major amendments). After this ‘popular’ amendment, we are likely to see Museveni gladly respecting the Constitution. Possibility of appointing a successor does not appear to be one of those popular cards on his hands today.

Should the NRM obliterate this constitutional safeguard, Uganda will have gone over the precipice.

It will mark the apex of tempting fate.

Many Ugandans will continue to ask themselves whether it is relevant for the country to go into yet another election with Museveni as an incumbent – without any meaningful reforms.

Either way, Uganda’s chemical democracy is not about to come to an end.