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How UPC ‘rigged’ the 1980 elections

On December 10 and 11, 1980, Uganda held general elections, the country’s most controversial to date.

While Dr. Apollo Milton Obote’s UPC was declared winner, Dr. Paul K. Ssemogerere’s DP disputed the result, claiming victory. The top leadership of a third political party, Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), decided to take the contest to the bush by starting a guerrilla war in Luwero. Twenty-eight years later, the question regarding whether the elections were rigged still attracts emotional reaction from all sides. JOHN KABAIREHO, 86, a former Prime Minister of the now defunct Ankole Kingdom, was a DP parliamentary candidate in Bushenyi West constituency, which was won by Edward Rurangaranga. He prepared a dossier on the election, excerpts of which we reproduce here:

One-sided Electoral Commission

Before the appointment of members of the Electoral Commission, the Chairman of the Military Commission wrote to the political parties DP and UPC, seeking their comments on the names he proposed. DP put the names into three categories acceptable, unacceptable and totally rejected, for good reasons.
DP’s comments were ignored and surprisingly, the published list of members of the Electoral Commission contained names of persons on whom there had been no consultation at all. They turned out to be predominantly UPC supporters.
The Chairman of the newly appointed Electoral Commission, Mr. Kikira, had played a similar role in 1963 in respect of the election to the Ishengyero (Assembly) of the defunct Ankole Kingdom. That election was disputed as having been rigged and no wonder he was the UPC choice for this general election.

At an inter-Party meeting with the Military Commission on September 19 and 20, 1980, all the political parties, except UPC, asked for the appointment of three additional members so as to be represented because those already appointed were known to be UPC supporters. The Military Commission did not object to the request; but it was never implemented. This was the first step towards rigging in favour of UPC.

Registration of voters

O Most registration centres were supervised by UPC supporters who refused DP agents to compile their own registers against which they would have checked the official registers when they were displayed for examination. This made it difficult to check private registrations which were alleged to have taken place.

O Some Registration centres in some areas were shifted to other places without public notice so as to make it difficult for certain people to be registered; whereas, it was reported, UPC supporters were quietly informed of the changes. In fact, some registration centres became mobile, moving from place to place to make their location difficult to non-UPC supporters.

O Some registration books disappeared during the registration exercise. When and if, they reappeared they were found to have been used for unofficial and private registration of UPC supporters, mainly very young persons. From available reports, for example, 542 persons were thus registered in the Bitooma polling division of Bushenyi West Constituency.

O Names were either added or deleted after closure of the official registration period. This came to light when registers were displayed. For example, 693 holders of registration cards at polling station No.20 in Bushenyi West could not cast their votes because their names were not in the register! And these turned out to be DP supporters only.

O In some areas registers were displayed in places away from registration centres so as to make it difficult to raise objections.

O In other areas registers were not displayed so as to make it difficult to raise objections. For example in Kabale, registers had not been displayed by November 20, 1980, when display was to expire on November 22, 1980. In Bushenyi West, registers were displayed for one day only, November 28, 1980, long after the display period had ended!

O In yet other areas, Bushenyi South being a case in point, citizens were refused registration simply because, it was alleged, they were either suspected or known to be non-UPC supporters. The Electoral Commission examined the DP candidate’s complaint in respect of this matter and directed that those people should be registered but the returning offices stubbornly refused to do so.

O Some citizens’ names, it was reported, were incorrectly spelt in the registers so that they might be denied casting their votes on polling day.

O It was reported that in some cases series of registration numbers were either duplicated or mismatched so as to confuse non-UPC supporters on polling day.

O Registration in the West Nile districts of Arua, Nebbi and Moyo was incomplete due to the so-called invasion from Zaire and Sudan followed by UNLA reaction. This was, according to The Scotsman, a British newspaper, stage-managed to frustrate election in the area which is about 90% DP and where UPC did not expect any seat. It was reported that the limited registration was extended to non-citizens, Zaireans, believed to be UPC sympathisers.

Electoral boundaries

An inter-party meeting agreed on 140 constituencies each of a population quota of 90,000, taking into account means of communication, geographical features and population density. Later, there was pressure for 126 constituencies on the grounds that 140 Members of Parliament would be too many and expensive to maintain; but surprisingly, after the fraudulent victory UPC nominated 20 members; 10 nominees of the President “and 10 representing the army”!  It became common knowledge that UPC had discovered that 140 constituencies would give DP an advantage.
In actual fact, it would appear, for no other purpose than gerrymandering, an arbitrary figure of a population quota of about 95,000 was adopted with an allowance of 25,000 either above or below this. This gave the Electoral Commission an allowance of 50,000 people to play about with in demarcating the constituencies. It made it possible to carry out a high degree of gerrymandering.
Consequently, illogical arrangement of constituencies became rampant so as to give UPC an advantage over other political parties.

UPC objection

At an inter-party meeting with the Military Commission, it was agreed to use only one ballot box at each polling station so as to prevent rigging. Later, UPC supported by the Military Commission backed out of the agreement because it would have deprived them of the fraudulent victory they could only achieve through rigging.
The Military Commission implemented the agreement regarding counting of votes on the spot after polling, at the last moment after DP had threatened to boycott the election and after pressure had been exerted by the Observer Group. The Military Commission Chairman refused to implement the other safeguards proposed by DP and agreed to by him in Dar-es-salaam.

Government jobs

Prior to the general election, chiefs suspected of having DP sympathies were dismissed and replaced by UPC supporters. The Government made sure that registration officers, polling assistants and returning officers and their assistants were UPC supporters. Those who had been appointed by the Electoral Commission and were suspected of having DP sympathies or being independent or non-partisan were replaced by UPC supporters. The 14 District Commissioners who were suspended and replaced by well-known UPC supporters are a case in point. Pricked by a guilty conscience, the Chairman of the Military Commission, on his own initiative, raised the question of the suspension of the District Commissioners at his first meeting with the Observer Group. He informed them that the suspension had been rendered necessary by the incompetence and dilatoriness of the officers concerned and their refusal to conduct the registration process in accordance with the law.
Later in the course of their travels, the Observers spoke to staff who had served under some of these DCs as well as to some of the DCs themselves. The Observers found that the DCs in question had enjoyed the confidence and respect of their staff and the public. The motive for their suspension was therefore to disengage them from the registration exercise and from acting as Returning Officers for the poll.

Rigging nomination
November 25 was nomination day. Four seats in Lango, 4 in Karamoja, 5 in Arua, 1 in Toro and 1 in Soroti were declared won by UPC, unopposed, because DP candidates could not present their nomination papers. They were arrested at road-blocks or scared away. Because of the security situation in the West Wile districts coupled with the absence of registers, the registration exercise had been brought to an abrupt halt within a day or two of its commencement, it was widely understood that there would be no election in the region on December 10, 1980. However, on November 20, 1980 five days before nomination, a radio announcement was made to the effect that there would in fact be an election.
There was thus not enough time to organise tax clearance and other legal requirements. Because of the short notice, the Electoral Commission agreed that production of tax clearance would be deferred and the Returning Officers were informed accordingly. Surprisingly, the Returning Officer refused to accept the DP candidates’ nomination papers because of the absence of tax clearance certificates! In the face of the electoral provision regarding registration, all the political parties would have been taken unawares by the radio announcement on November 20, but not UPC! All their candidates were nominated unopposed! This raises serious doubt as to whether, in fact, the UPC candidates fulfilled all the legal requirements. In any case there were no registers, an essential requirement before nomination and election can take place.

The Moyo DP candidate was arrested at a roadblock after his escort had been disarmed. He was released after the nomination period had expired! These tricks gave UPC 15 unopposed seats on nomination day!
In order to ensure that these malpractices were not frustrated, the Chairman of the Military Commission issued a decree on the December 9, 1980 making the nomination process in Arua and Moyo unchallengeable in court! By so doing, he delivered 6 seats to UPC for which it had not laboured.

In Kasese, a traditional DP stronghold, the three DP candidates’ papers were processed after all the UPC papers had been processed. Nevertheless nominations were accepted and were later fully gazetted.  However, on December 8, only 36 hours before polling, Radio Uganda announced that the Electoral Commission Chairman had declared nominations of all the three DP candidates null and void! This troubled the Observers deeply and on examining the papers, they noticed a clumsy attempt to alter the time in respect of the last DP candidate to be nominated from 11.58 a.m. to 10.05p.m.!
Nomination rigging in Kasese went to the extent of kidnapping and murdering. A DP candidate, Victor Muhindo, was kidnapped on the eve of nomination day. His body was later found in a shallow grave. After this murderous act, a DP replacement was presented and duly nominated.
By this type of rigging UPC got a total of 17 seats unopposed. Rejection of nominations was confined to DP, except in Masaka North West constituency where a UPC candidate was disqualified for lack of a tax clearance certificate. Nevertheless, a replacement who had not been nominated was allowed by the Electoral Commission to stand, 36 hours before election! He lost miserably.

Mass media

According to both inside and outside observers, The Uganda Times, a government newspaper, went flat out to campaign for UPC. It failed in its duty to provide impartial coverage of the campaigns. It went as far as distorting news to advance the cause of UPC. It suppressed the views of other parties and thus failed in its duty to provide the electorate with fair assessment of the issues facing them. The same observers noticed that Radio Uganda and Uganda Television Service did the same. They gave a disproportionate amount of time to the UPC almost to the complete exclusion of its opponents whose complaints fell on deaf ears.

D-day rigging
Polling was to start promptly at 8.00 a.m. on December 10, 1980 but at most polling stations it did not start until late in the morning, or even late in the afternoon. This was a deliberate move to bar DP supporters from casting their votes and to give UPC an advantage over the other political parties. This was possible because of the rigging tricks which had been devised and because of the UPC officials who would see that the tricks were effected.
From reports received, the following came to light:

(a) On polling day UPC supporters   were given priority.

(b) In some areas DP supporters   found on polling day that their   names were not in the register!

(c) In other areas polling officials   called out names of people in the  queues to go forward and cast   their votes and obviously these   were UPC supporters, which   means that with the late opening   of polling stations a number of   DP supporters went away with  out casting their votes.

(d) Some UPC officials were given   extra ballot papers which they   passed on to their supporters who  thus cast more than one vote into  the UPC ballot boxes.

(e) Polling officials, themselves UPC  supporters, cast extra ballot   papers into UPC boxes as they   were observed going into polling  booths from time to time, alone.

(f) A good number of polling stations  had insufficient ballot papers and  yet others found themselves with  more ballot papers than they   required. This was interpreted as  a plan to deprive DP areas of the  vote.

(g) There was a shortage of party   symbols for ballot boxes in some  areas, mainly DP.

(h) The administration of the election exercise was in many   cases poor as there was lack of   transport facilities to transport   election materials and lack of   secrecy in some of the polling   booths. With regard to the former,  UPC owners of motor vehicles   appeared to have been alerted as  they were seen to be providing   transport. This, it was deduced,   enabled UPC party functionaries  to perpetrate election malpractices.  As to the latter, reports indicated  that voters were forced by either  chiefs or gunmen to cast their   vote into UPC ballot boxes.

(i)  DP polling agents in many areas   were barred from playing the   role expected of them as they   were not allowed to be close to   the polling tables.

Role of UNLA

During the election campaigns, Dr. Obote was heard boasting about the liberation war. He claimed it was UPC which had liberated Uganda from Idi Amin’s reign of terror. 

He also claimed that such men as General Tito Okello and Colonel Bazilio Okello were his commanders. He challenged Paul Ssemogerere to produce his own commanders, if he had any. This was interpreted to mean that if he didn’t win the election through the ballot, he would take over power by force.
Speaking about the heavy gunfire in Kampala during the night of December 11, 1980, people said – Ah you see! What would have happened if DP had been declared the winner! Reports revealed that during the campaigns, soldiers in many areas harassed DP supporters and that during the election soldiers were posted at polling stations in some districts like Bushenyi, Gulu, Kitgum and Kapchorwa where they intimidated voters and in some instances forced them to vote for UPC.

The count, results

By 8.00 p.m. on December 11, 1980, the count had gone on smoothly and from reliable sources DP victory had been ensured. In panic, a proclamation was issued over Radio Uganda followed by a retroactive decree prohibiting Returning Officers from announcing results but instead to send them direct to the Military Commission Chairman and not to the Electoral Commission. He alone was to decide whether the poll in each constituency had been fair and free. He could declare results null and void and order the holding of fresh polls. He thus, for obvious reasons, usurped the powers of the Electoral Commission.
His move was unconstitutional and illegal. For the next 18 hours until 2.00 p.m. on December 12, 1980, the Chairman of the Military Commission, it is alleged with prominent UPC politicians, was sequestered with the results as they came in from returning officers around the country. During that period, it was believed that election results were switched and changed to put UPC in power.
The Observer Group tried in vain to contact the Chairman of the Military Commission and only managed to do so 12 hours after the Decree had been in effect.

By the time the Chairman handed back to the Electoral Commission the power to announce election results only, retaining the other powers, on the afternoon of December 12, three of the seven Electoral Commissioners had disappeared from their offices, leaving behind four who were strong UPC supporters. Mr. Vincent Ssekkono, the Electoral Commission’s Administrative Secretary, disappeared during the polling process, it was alleged after he had refused to succumb to rigging directives and after his life had been threatened. It should also be noted that his personal secretary had been shot dead at his home by armed men 10 days before Election Day.

Officially announced results:
UPC            72
DP              51
UPM            1
CP              -
undeclared   2
Scotsman Newspaper and Africa Now Magazine results
DP       72
UPC     52
UPM      2
CP     -
A close look at the rigging episodes during the election process reveals the following situation or picture with regard to the DP election results.

Officially announced results 51
Unopposed seats known to be sure  DP seats 9  (Kasese 3; Arua 5; Moyo 1)
Results altered in favour of UPC 4 (Kigezi Central; Mubende North East; Iganga North East; Iganga East). Sub-total 64

Note that a party needed 60 seats in order to form a government.
Add seats allocated to UPC by the Chairman of the Military Commission during the 18 hours of sequesteration with the election results after his notorious proclamation (according to the findings of The New Scotsman and Africa Now, 15 to 20 seats were switched from DP to UPC).
The results shown above leave no one in doubt as to the DP’s victory in the 1980 general election. In this connection the killing of the Personal Secretary to the Electoral Commission and the fleeing of the Administrative Secretary to the Electoral Commission, before the final result was out must be viewed as very significant. Besides, it became common knowledge that a Shadow Electoral Commission to the Official Commission operated in Nile Mansions for rigging purposes.

This was the reason for a member of the Electoral Commission walking out in protest because, firstly whereas the Electoral Commission had proceeded to demarcate 140 constituencies, a decision from somewhere ordered that they should demarcate 126. Secondly, another decision deprived the Central Region of about two constituencies and gave them to the Northern Region. The protesting member was persuaded back lest the country and the world would be alarmed that the election was being rigged. He was advised to make a minority report which unfortunately was never published.

Post-poll rigging

Rigging continued even after the election was completed. For example, in Mubende North East, the winner was announced as the DP candidate. Two weeks later, the results were reversed to the effect that the UPC had won the seat! So Dr. Sebuliba, the DP candidate, was deprived of his seat which was allocated to Mr. Mugwisa, who became Minister of Agriculture.

The DP candidate for Iganga North East fled to Kenya on December 11, 1980 after seven soldiers had tried to arrest him. At that time he was leading with 28,000 votes to the UPC’s 11,000. These were results from 38 polling stations out of 40. The result was declared in mid-January on Radio Uganda! Kirunda of UPC was given 23,144 votes and Wangola of DP 18,345! This despite the fact that having visited the area, the Commission had verified that Wangola had won!
To show a concrete case of rigging, at Kashenyi polling station [in Kabale West], counting showed:
DP        25
UPC      79
UPM      02
Total   106
But at the DC’s office the UPC ballot box was found to contain 330 ballot papers; 251 extra ballot papers had been added. Nevertheless after DP had lodged a complaint with the Electoral Commission, the Commission visited the area and found that Robert Kitariko the DP candidate had won and the Returning Officer was directed to so declare. But the Chairman intervened and said that this should be done after consulting the Attorney General’s Chambers! Later, Katama the UPC candidate was declared the winner!

Mbarara West

While leaking his electoral wounds at a lodge in Mbarara, after the poll and count, the UPC candidate for Mbarara West Abaas Balinda was heard lamenting that it had been a close fight because he had lost to the DP candidate Francis Mwebesa by about 3,000 votes. The next day he, the UPC candidate, was announced the winner!

Observer report

The Commonwealth Observer Group itself was not happy with the conduct of the election as can be evidenced from their report. In the light of the grave concern they expressed in respect of the various aspects of the election process, their conclusion that the people of Uganda carried the electoral process to a “worthy and valid conclusion”, is amazing! In their conclusion, they expressed reservations about nominations and unopposed returns which they said could be redressed by the courts, although they knew this would be difficult and had expressed concern at the removal of the Chief Justice only days before the poll. The group remained silent on the disastrous effect of Muwanga’s proclamation on the election results. All in all, the Observers’ conclusion was not in tune with their anxiety and concern expressed in respect of various stages of the electoral process. In fact, they concluded like a doctor who diagnoses cancer and pronounces malaria as the ailment!


The Observer Group states that it was convinced that in some cases the law on nominations was applied incorrectly. This cost DP 9 sure seats. They further state that with regard to Kasese, they had no option but to conclude that the action taken by the Electoral Commission in declaring the nominations to be null and void was contrary to the law and had no basis in fact. The Group Chairman had to write to the Military Commission Chairman pointing out this serious irregularity and urging him to have the matter put right.
In concluding his letter, he had this to say: “I can only urge in the interest of the credibility of the entire election process that the position regarding these candidates be reconsidered as a matter of the utmost urgency”.
This request was not heeded and yet the Group having seen it as putting the credibility of the entire electoral process in doubt concluded in their report that the electoral process was carried to a worthy and valid conclusion!

Results proclamation

 In reacting to the Chairman’s proclamation on the announcement of election results, the Observer Group Chairman had this to say to him:
“We cannot hide our dismay at the possibility that this entire noble enterprise may now miscarry”.
“In view of last night’s proclamation and the fact that we have now been denied access to the Electoral Commission, we are now considering whether we can serve any useful purpose by remaining here. By our mandate we must work within the laws of Uganda, and these have now been altered so as to make continuation of our task impossible”.

“Even at this late stage it is our urgent plea that for the good of Uganda, the position be reconsidered and the verdict of the people be believed, the final stages of the count must be carried out in an open manner, and the normal channels of the courts kept open”. 
“We urge you, with all the conviction at our command and with the best interests of the people of Uganda at heart, to permit us to resume our task and to ensure that the incoming Government will be accorded an honoured place amongst nations committed to the democratic process”.
E. M. Debrah, Chairman,

Observers Group With such misgivings, concerns and protests by the Observer Group, one is led to conclude that their endorsement of the election result was made for convenience’s sake.

Following the rigged election there ensued harassment of DP and other non-UPC leaders and supporters. Arrests and unlawful detentions in all sorts of places became the order of the day.  Beatings and torture were not uncommon. Houses and properties of DP leaders and supporters became targets of destruction and looting. DP offices were closed and reallocated, party flags were hauled down and torn to pieces or burnt. DP meetings and rallies became taboo. Many DP supporters were denied trading licences and sometimes threatened out of trading centres. Many DP leaders lost their lives.

Paulo Muwanga’s post-election proclamation

“WHEREAS one hundred and twenty-six write under the National Assembly (Elections) Act were issued for general elections as members of the National Assembly;
AND WHEREAS seventeen such write were returned with an endorsement that candidates in respect thereof had been returned unopposed;
AND WHEREAS elections were scheduled to be held on 10th day of December, 1980 in the remaining one-hundred-and-nine of the Parliamentary Constituencies for such elections where more than one candidate was duly nominated;
AND WHEREAS the Electoral  Commission advised late on the  mid-day of December 10, 1980 that  the  said elections could not  be held as  scheduled for reasons, inter alia, of the  breakdown in the machinery of the Electoral  Commission;
AND WHEREAS The Electoral Commission requested that day and time for polling be generally extended to the llth of December, 1980 in all the constituencies;
AND WHEREAS  some Returning Officers ignorant of the extension of the  polling time  and day, commenced counting of the votes cast on the 10th December, 1980 on the close of the poll on that day and such counting of votes was completed in some constituencies and partially completed in others;
AND WHEREAS on such complete or partial count of votes, the Returning Officers and/or  the presiding officers permitted votes to  be further cast at such polling stations on the llth of December, 1980 also;
NOW THEREFORE in exercise of the powers vested in the Military Commission, we do hereby proclaim as follows:
1. Notwithstanding the Provision of   Section  21 (2) (a) of  the National  Assembly (Elections) Act and the  notice of the day and time of poll  already published, the poll at all   constituencies shall  also be held   on the llth day of December, 1980  between the hours of  7:00 a.m.   and 2.00 p.m.
2. Notwithstanding the provisions   of sections 44 and 45 of the   National Assembly   (Elections) Act,
(a) counting of votes on close of  poll  on 10th December,1980 and sub-  sequent  further poll at such   polling  stations on llth    December,1980 shall not invali-  date the poll or results duly   declared in respect thereof;
(b) Where  a Returning Officer   and/or presiding officer completed  count of poll on close of poll on   10th December, 1980 and duly    ascertained result in respect   therefore, such ascertaining of   the result, subject to Article 3   hereof, shall be valid and binding; and
(c) The counting of votes at the     various polling stations in a con  stituency instead of at a single   central point in such constituency  shall be valid.
3. For the purpose of the 1980             elections to the National    Assembly, Section 4-7 of the   National Assembly (Elections)   Act shall be substituted by the   following: “47A (a) when the   result of the poll of a constituency  has been ascertained the    Returning Officer shall make no   public declaration of the finding   but forthwith communicate it to   the Chairman of the Military   Commission with a confidential   report on various aspects of the   conduct of the election;
(b)  On receipt of the said result and   the report and information other-  wise, the Chairman of the    Military Commission shall ascer-  tain whether the election has   been fair and free of any irregu-  larity or violence and therefore   either
(i) declare elected the candidate to   whom the majority of votes have  been given and so endorse the   writ; or
(ii) declare the election void, which   declaration shall not be open to   challenge at a Court of Law, and   order a fresh election to be held   at a date to be notified in due   course.
(c) Any result declared otherwise   than in compliance with the pro  visions herein shall not be valid   or binding and any publication of  such purported result by any   means of whatsoever whether in  writing, print, communication or  by word of mouth howsoever   shall be a penal offence punish  able by a fine of up to shillings   half a million and or imprison-  ment of up to five years”.
4. This proclamation shall be   deemed to have come into force   on the l0th day of December, 1980.

Paulo Muwanga, Chairman,
Military Commission.

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