At about 1:40am on the morning of Tuesday, the returning officer of Kaabong district, Sarah Iyolu, declared Rose Lilly Akello winner of the hotly contested by-election for the district’s Woman MP, stretching NRM’s victory in by-elections thus far to six.
The other four of the 10 parliamentary by-elections held since the February 18, 2016 elections, have been won by two NRM-leaning independents; Hood Katuramu and William Wilson Nokrach (People with disabilities) and opposition-leaning independents; Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine, DP) in Kyadondo East and Lucy Achiro Otim, FDC, in Aruu North.
This string of losses by the opposition is in sharp contrast with its show of might during the 2011-2016 cycle, when opposition candidates won most of the by-elections.
In Kaabong, the opposition fielded one candidate, FDC’s Judith Adyaka Nalibe, who finished last with 593 votes. A difference of only 256 votes is what NRM’s Akello needed to defeat Christine Tubo Nakwang, an NRM-leaning independent candidate.
Akello garnered 21,814 votes against Nakwang’s 21,558 votes. The seat fell vacant after the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier ruling by the High court in Soroti that nullified Nakwang’s election on grounds of voter bribery.
Nakwang slaughtered a ram for a feast and bought drinks for over 100 voters on the eve of the February 18, 2016 elections, contrary to Section 68 of the Parliamentary Elections Act 2007.
Unlike in areas with noticeable opposition support where security deployment was heavy, in Kaabong there was little visible security deployment. According to Crispin Kaheru, the head of Citizens’ Coalition on Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), the only visible security personnel were polling constables deployed at polling stations.
“Polling officials including polling constables appeared knowledgeable about polling procedures [although] in some instances, they assisted voters to cast their vote, which is against the electoral laws,” Kaheru said.
A heavy downpour disrupted counting of votes and the poor road network delayed the transmission of results from across the 19 sub-counties in the district to the tally centre at Kaabong Magistrate’s court hall.
According to Kaheru, by 8:30pm, full results from only four sub-counties had been received at the tally centre. Several people gathered outside the tally centre till the wee hours of Tuesday morning when election results were announced.
There was an 80 per cent voter turnout. Polling in Monday’s by-election, which has been described by observers as generally peaceful and calm, started late in some areas due to the late arrival of polling officials.
There were also issues with the biometric voter verification kits especially in the rural parts of the district where a number of voters were turned away after the machines failed to read their fingerprints.
At Meus polling station in Kapalata sub-county, several voters were asked to wash their hands with soap after the presiding officer, Walter Lokiru Ngole, suspected that the machine failed to read their fingerprints because of dirt.
In other cases, some polling officials forgot the pin codes for the biometric voter verification kits.
At the tally centre in Kaabong, NRM electoral commission chief Tanga Odoi was at hand to receive his party’s sixth by-election victory. He told The Observer that the victory had further proved NRM’s strength.
“This was a tight race between two NRM ladies and the number of votes that separated them today is what [has separated them] in the previous elections, including the party primaries,” Odoi said yesterday.
There is no opposition here [Kaabong] and what the NRM needs to do is to sit with them [Akello and Nakwang] and reconcile them,” he added.
According to the senior presidential press secretary, Don Wanyama, the NRM by-election victory had disproved the opposition’s claim that 2016 elections were rigged.
“It is a testament of how hollow the opposition’s claims are of NRM rigging elections. The by-elections are testament that NRM is still a strong and popular party across the country,” Wanyama said.
The NRM Secretariat’s communications officer, Rogers Mulindwa, said that as the party celebrates the recent achievements, it needs to work towards minimising instances that bring up independents. At least 32 of the 66 independent MPs had lost the 2015 NRM primary elections.
Internal bickering within the parties and the failure to create strong structures in the countryside is one of the factors working against the opposition.
Party structures are crucial in mobilisation for a candidate as well as assembling machinery for protection of the vote on polling day. NRM boasts of structures at the village level across the country, which is not the case with opposition parties.
“The by-elections have exposed a lot of internal disorganisation in the opposition; they are not on ground, they don’t have any structures and are indeed very far from taking state power,” Wanyama said.
The president general of the Democratic Party (DP), Norbert Mao, said the opposition has in some instances gone into the by-elections ill-prepared.
“The calibre of candidates we take to the elections is very important. Sometimes we have fielded people who are not well known, people with no connection to the community. That is what we [DP] suffered in Aruu North; we took a Kampala- based candidate who had no connection with the community,” Mao said.
This could be the same case with Nalibe, the FDC candidate in Kaabong.
“In some areas, it is not easy to raise a candidate. Areas like Karamoja, which are state-run areas, having a candidate there is a great achievement,” said FDC spokesman Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda.
According to Ssemujju, it would be unfair to judge the opposition based on areas known to be NRM strongholds. The Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Winfred Kiiza, however, argues that sometimes, the opposition sees no reason of fielding candidates in an election whose outcome is predetermined.
“Ugandans are seeing no reason why they should continue voting in an election that they know are already rigged. Credibility of our elections is a big issue that has demoralised voters,” Kiiza said.
But Mao thinks opposition parties need to address the issues that have kept them disunited.
“To a larger extent, the opposition was united [during the 2011-2016 cycle] unlike now when opposition forces are in disarray and playing into the hands of NRM,” Mao said.