Uganda: NRM Violence Points to a Volatile 2021 General Election

(file photo).
7 September 2020

State minister for Labour Mwesigwa Rukutana was at the weekend captured on video picking a gun from his bodyguard and shooting at a vehicle of his rival.

Mr Dan Rweiburingi was shot in the head and rushed to hospital in critical condition.

Mr Rukutana is currently being detained alongside his bodyguards.

But without reading the postscript, one would have a hazy context of this incident, which is tied to past events in Ntungamo District whose politics is steeped in violence.

Rukutana, who can't escape from the shadow of his real or perceived adversaries appears to be hostage to the gun, a tool of choice.

"I have lawfully possessed that gun since there was an attempt on my life during the [Constituent Assembly] campaigns [in 1994]. In that attempt, one driver of a minibus called Lutwa was mistakenly killed, the killers thinking it was me," Rukutana revealed in an interview he conducted with Daily Monitor in November 2018 barely after a photo of his surfaced on cyberspace carrying an AK-47 rifle at his farm.

Beyond the violence in Ntungamo, voting was suspended in two constituencies in Sembabule, a flashpoint district, after the deputy Inspector General of Police, Muzeeyi Sabiiti, rushed to the area to restore sanity.

In one of the constituencies, the race is pitting the President Museveni's brother Aine Kaguta against the daughter of Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa.

Kutesa's other daughter is married to the First son, Lt Gen Kainerugaba Muhoozi, who is the senior presidential adviser on special operations.

"We shall not accept any form of intimidation, any beating and I have instructed the police here to review all the cases that have been reported that are related to any form of intimidation here or any form of beating and we shall get all those involved in such illegal activities," a stoic Sabiiti said as he tried to confront those fanning the flames of violence.

But it's the brutal candour of the two 'First Family' adversaries accusing each other of orchestrating violence that captures public imagination.

"Our campaign has been peaceful until a week or two ago that we started to notice intimidation amongst our voters, some people outside of Mawogola North started camping around hotels in this area, driving in large convoys. Closer to the day of the election, which was supposed to be today, we have had our people attacked, our voters sleep out of their homes for fear of being attacked," revealed Shartis Musherure, a daughter of Kutesa, who is standing against Aine.

Mr Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer, believes the violence could go a notch higher as fault-lines emerge.

"When you have two members of the First Family contesting for an election position, you have Sam Kutesa whose son marries Museveni's daughter contesting against a relative of the President in a constituency away from their district, I think of the internal realisation of that need for change." Opiyo argues that the NRM primaries are hinged upon transition politics.

"There is no doubt that President Museveni and his lot are in the last days of their political life. People see an opportunity to cease the moment and be a part of the process of reform within the NRM. That is why you see a lot of young people challenging established NRM candidates. You see msinisters losing, NRM Historicals struggling. Young people have seen the opportunity for change," Mr Opiyo said.

Election observers have often said that the partisan role of security agencies to use intimidation and violence against regime opponents, affects the efficacy of elections.

Like a curtain-raiser, the violence usually plays out within the ruling party as aspirants in the high echelons of power rely on close ties to security personnel to intimidate their rivals.

"Across the country, there are some giants that have lost as well. They are not going to take this lying down onto especially those whom they see are junior and young in politics. We are going to see a lot of mudslinging during the 2021 elections even within movement, (NRM)," Mr Nixon Ogwal, the director of programmes and policy at Action Aid Uganda, says.

"Why then would you want to use excessive force on somebody you have already subdued? When we see this type of violence meted on citizens, it causes anger. Because the person you are beating, the person you are mishandling is somebody's daughter, son, husband, brother, sister or mother," Ms Rita Aciro, the executive director, Uganda Women's Network, an non-governmental organisation working to advance public policy, argued.

Mr Ogwal borrows a metaphor to reveal what awaits the country in the general election barely months away.

"There have been a lot of human rights violations, beatings, use of the government apparatus to subdue the opponents, yet within the same party. This is a very bad thing. But this is telling you already that when brothers can fight at home and use clubs on each other's heads, what about when a neighbour is now on the other side?" Mr Ogwal argued.

Covid-19 guidelines flouted

The Friday polls did not follow conventional guidelines. The ruling party relied on lining up behind candidates, a method used in the RC polls in the late 1980s.

With queuing, there was disregard for standard operating procedures (SOPs) to control the spread of coronavirus disease.

"With the increasing community infections, if those figures are to be believed, we are heading for what is not good for this country. We are seeing how the voting is in crowds. That alone already shows that we talked about 'scientific' elections but only by word of mouth, not critical technical preparations. The system is lacking, the response when anybody flouts. Then where is the science?" Mr Ogwal says.

As suspicion swirls around the 'scientific' electoral process championed by the Electoral Commission, legal jurists have warned that a virtual and mass media campaign could fall short of the basic tenets of a free, fair and credible election.

Other jurists warned that the legitimacy of the election could be challenged leading to a constitutional crisis.

Mr Opiyo says if the coronavirus situation in Uganda is as bad as portrayed by the Health ministry updates indicating increased community transmission cases of the virus and deaths, the Constitution allows for a state of emergency so that elections are not "a do or die."

"I think that perhaps it is important to explore the possibility of declaring a state of national emergency as is provided for in the Constitution to allow this situation to resolve itself first. We might have a vaccine for the virus; scientists are working around the clock. We might also have other natural circumstances that the virus will be defeated or we will learn how to live with it. Then we can have a peaceful election without the fear of the virus," Mr Opiyo suggests.

Going by the evidence during the NRM primaries, election observers argue that the health regulations meant to contain the spread of Covid-19 were superfluous. Fears abound that as a result of the non-conventional methods during campaigns and voting tallying, there will be a lot of disputes resulting into violence. "I think it is going to be a very high cost election. We are going to see a lot of violence in that election because there is no pretence that the security services in this country have taken a side.

There is no pretence that the Local Defence Units were not recruited to keep the peace in neighbourhoods like their predecessors, the crime preventers," Mr Opiyo says.

Uganda has more than 17 million registered voters ahead of the 2021 general elections.

On January 23, the NRM Central Executive Committee (CEC) met and changed the party constitution to accommodate voting by lining up contrary to voting by secret ballot.

By the party deciding to hold an election by lining up instead of a secret ballot, fears emerged that a method, which falls short of the tenets of a transparent election was introduced.

Prior to the election, the NRM party chairperson instructed the electoral body to allow those on its voter register to participate in the primaries.

"Where there are no registers, the branch (village) executive committee shall verify and register all members eligible to vote," Mr Museveni's letter reads in part.

"This activity can be handled transparently, either prior or on the voting day by the branch and should not be a source of conflict. Copies of registers used should immediately after this exercise be forwarded to the secretary general of the NRM," Mr Museveni said in the letter addressed to Mr Tanga Odoi, the NRM electoral commission chairperson.

Article 68 (1) of the Constitution provides for a secret ballot system as the mode for voting at all public elections or referenda. However, Article 68(6) empowers Parliament to exempt any public election, other than a presidential or parliamentary election, from the requirements of Article 68(1).

However, there are concerns that many aspirants relied on the lack of the voter register safety net to bring 'strangers' into the lines and tilt the result in their favour.

There are concerns that the spike in violence witnessed during campaigns and after the elections could be as a result of voters lining up. In exchange for money, aspirants expected voters to return the favour.

"Because if I have money, it is the money that brings me into office, not that I can serve my people or I have a clear agenda for the people. So the type of leaders we are going to have is questionable," says Aciro.

Mr Opiyo says the Electoral Commission guidelines for elections in Uganda are impractical given the nature of election campaigns and issues brought before voters. He says this has pushed those with substance to the backburners and brought to the fore aspirants who can't articulate ideas and policy and rely on broad brushstrokes.

"Campaigns are no longer about issues. Campaigns are now a matter of deceit, insults, violence and bribery. So those who have the money, those who have control over violence and rig elections are the ones that are likely to win elections."

Mr Opiyo says the elite in Uganda have stayed away from toxic politics to safeguard their families from insults and abuses, while others don't want to legitimise Uganda's veneer of democracy.

"The elite do not see themselves playing in muddy politics that we are now witnessing. It is not what many of us know as politics. Also when you get elected to Parliament in a crowd of nearly 600 people, each time you rise to speak you have less than two minutes. It becomes exceedingly difficult to become an effective legislator.

Those who go there are just for the purpose of the position and not to really do anything meaningful for the people," Mr Opiyo argues.

General Comment 25 by the UN Human Rights Committee emphasises that elections must be conducted freely and fairly on a periodic basis, within a framework of laws guaranteeing the effective exercise of voting rights.

Voter privacy is a key safeguard but lining up behind a candidate could compromise the credibility of an election.

It is barely five months before Ugandans go the polls to elect the President and other leaders. Pundits have raised a concern that the seeds of violence continue to sprout after the NRM primaries and the shoots could creep into the general election.

THE LAW

Elections

Article 68 (1) of the Constitution provides for a secret ballot system as the mode for voting at all public elections or referenda. However, Article 68(6) empowers Parliament to exempt any public election, other than a presidential or parliamentary election, from the requirements of Article 68(1).

acknowledges that a paradigm shift is happening, giving intermarriages and marrying across the religious divide as some of the factors that are fuelling this trend.

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