January 14, 2021, is a historic day. Ugandans will elect the next president and members of parliament.
On this day Uganda stands on the edge of a precipice. Why? Many of the defining principles of democracy seem to hang in balance. Liberty, freedom of expression and association, rule of law are under assault.
There are all signs the Electoral Commission is playing second fiddle! Save for nominating candidates, printing ballot papers, drawing campaign itinerary and updating voter’s registers, the EC has abandoned the candidates.
The EC ought to have done comprehensive civic education, explaining to voters what is expected of them at polling stations, especially how to tick or handle ballot papers.
Absence of civic education could lead to vote invalidation. Voters have not been given ample time to verify and locate their polling stations. Some candidates have not had time to sell their manifestos to the voters. They have spent most of their campaign time navigating the slippery terrain created by security forces.
Two candidates in particular; Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi and Patrick Oboi Amuriat have suffered all manner of indignities and violence. They have been arrested, their rallies disrupted and live bullets fired into their crowds. Some of their supporters have been arrested and are still in detention.
Those arraigned before courts have been charged with frivolous offenses like illegal possession of firearms and committing acts likely to spread a dangerous disease. The EC has not come to the rescue of these candidates. It appears the EC is taking instructions from a higher master!
The greatest fear is that armed security agents who have already shown their bias for the incumbent may harass, obstruct, or otherwise prevent citizens from exercising their right to vote.
Already young people associated with Kyagulanyi have been picked by unidentified security agents and detained in unknown places. If they stay alive they will definitely not vote for a candidate of their choice.
Why should government attack people who decide to run for office or create discriminatory rules about who is allowed to run? Voters cannot freely exercise their right to select their leaders if certain political parties or candidates are unfairly blocked from marketing their ideas.
Therefore these acts prior to Election Day will not only disrupt voting but will also raise questions about the legitimacy of the outcome. President Yoweri Museveni was driven to the bushes of Luwero to contest the legitimacy of 1980 elections, so he claims.
We don’t want a repeat of that because no body’s ambition is worth anyone’s blood. The EC must ensure that polling places are safe. Violence, or the threat of violence, can dissuade people from voting. The essence of a secret ballot is to prevent intimidation.
This is the time for EC Chairman Justice Simon Byabakama to stand out as the first person to ever organize free and fair elections, never to be contested in courts. Past elections won by the incumbent have been contested. The Supreme Court noted that there were irregularities, which included voter intimidation, violence and bribery though they were not substantial enough to nullify the results.
The Observer prays that Ugandans exercise their right to choice in a peaceful manner. We also pray that EC and security forces don’t create an environment that could lead to chaos.