Besigye-Museveni 2016 showdown marred by cases of pre-ticked ballots, acute delay of voting materials, ballot stuffing, betrayal by agents
COINCIDENCE: Turnout very high where Museveni won overwhelmingly and low in Besigye strongholds
Opposition stalwart Kizza Besigye has said that the February 18 general election was the worst in Uganda's history. But how was the election rigged? Collating anecdotal evidence, SADAB KITATTA KAAYA attempts to explain how the alleged rigging happened.
When the presidential and parliamentary elections ended on February 18, a fierce public debate over alleged vote rigging began and hasn’t relented since.
The opposition set the tone and the European Union Election Observer Mission (EU EOM) offered the much-needed supporting arguments in its preliminary assessment of the entire electoral process.
In the aftermath of the election, EU EOM sharply criticized what it called the Electoral Commission’s “lack of independence, transparency and the trust of stakeholders.”
The EU EOM statement also listed several incidents of widespread electoral malpractices which, according to the mission, compromised the credibility of the February 18 elections.
“In one out of five polling stations observed, ballot boxes were unsealed or not properly sealed, in 12 percent of polling stations EU EOM observers witnessed proxy voting and in 11 percent of observed polling stations, the layout compromised secrecy…The EU EOM observers reported isolated cases of electoral malpractices, including vote buying, ballot stuffing and influencing of polling staff and voters by party agents.”
As polling stations opened on February 18, Robert Muhwezi (not real name), a resident of Lwebitakuli in the central Sembabule district, set out to accomplish an assignment.
The assignment was to stuff pre-ticked ballots at selected polling stations in Lwebitakuli sub-County. The ballots, according to Muhwezi, were pre-ticked in favour of two NRM candidates; the presidential candidate and Anifa Kawooya (Woman MP).
Muhwezi, however, was intercepted by agents of Joy Kafura Kabatsi, President Museveni’s former legal aide, who was also a candidate for the Sembabule Woman MP seat. She confiscated all the pre-ticked ballots found with Muhwezi.
When Muhwezi reported back to his party leaders that the mission had failed, he was instead beaten up by his NRM colleagues who accused him of betrayal. Angered by the beating, Muhwezi volunteered more information to journalists and Kabatsi, leading to the interception of two other NRM functionaries who were found with pre-ticked ballots.
Armed with enough evidence, Kabatsi called a press conference on February 20 at Maria Flo hotel in Masaka. At the hotel, she displayed more than 30 booklets of ballot papers she claimed had been used to rig the February 18 elections.
The booklets had also been pre-ticked in favour of the NRM presidential candidate and the party woman parliamentary candidate. In a separate interview with The Observer on February 24, Kabatsi claimed she had more ballots, also pre-ticked in favour of the two NRM candidates, which she handed to police.
“The bundles [of pre-ticked ballots] were handed to various police posts especially in Lwebitakuli and Lugusuulu sub -counties but one of them had 284 ballots that had been stuffed for the president and another had 84 ballots stuffed for Anifah Kawooya,” Kabatsi said.
However, there is no suggestion that the candidates who would have benefitted from this fraud were aware of what was going on. It is likely that overzealous agents were acting without the knowledge of the candidates.
Another set of 10 pre-ticked ballot booklets was confiscated by Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo and handed to Kabatsi who is planning to challenge the outcome of the Woman MP vote in the district. She also claimed that a one Benon, an NRM official in the district, moved around in a car filled with pre-ticked ballots.
“[The NRM official] was travelling with four armed men in a UPDF uniform and whenever they got to a polling station, two soldiers stood on either side of the ballot box, removed the lid, did the stuffing before driving away,” Kabatsi said.
It was this very group, she claimed, that beat up people at Nsambya-Kidandali polling station in Lugusuulu sub-county. (See: Where votes outnumbered voters, The Observer February 22-24).
Each booklet had 50 ballot papers. And for each booklet successfully stuffed, the assignee got paid about Shs 30,000, according to one man caught by Kabatsi’s group.
This particular man had 400 pre-ticked ballot papers in total, 150 of which were in favour of Kawooya and the rest in favour of the president.
“Our instructions were that if we got to a polling station and the people resisted, we would tell them that it is the president’s assignment that we were executing,” the man who declined to be named told a group of journalists.
Interviewed on Saturday for this story, Rogers Mulindwa, the NRM secretariat communications specialist, said losers are trying to win public sympathy.
“Any dissatisfaction should be addressed in the right forum – they should go to court because what is being said now are just rumours; they are trying to win sympathy by creating these stories,” Mulindwa said.
On Friday, one polling official in Sembabule told Al Jazeera, an international broadcaster, that election results were altered in full view of security forces.
“We got them changing the declaration form in the presence of the [district police commander]. The police were there, soldiers were there. In fact, they were protecting those ones who were changing the declaration [of results forms]. So, we entered there by force; they decided to cock the gun on us,” a polling official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Charles Ssebyala, the LC III chairman for Luweero town council, told The Observer on Saturday that he witnessed soldiers participating in electoral malpractices at various polling stations in Nakaseke district where he was deployed as a supervisor.
“At all polling stations inside Kaweweta army barracks, there was literally no voting. The soldiers stood in a line and picked an already-ticked ballot from an officer dressed in plain clothes,” Ssebyala said.
In the nearby Kinyogoga trading centre, Ssebyala said, gun-wielding soldiers threatened voters at four polling stations.
In some areas like at Kyamusisi polling station in Mityana district, pre-ticked ballots in favour of the NRM candidate for the Mityana Woman parliamentary seat were retrieved from a ballot box for presidential candidates while at another station in Ssekanyonyi, a bundle of ballots pre-ticked in favour of the NRM presidential candidate was stuffed in the box for Parliamentary candidates.
“Such cases were widespread but I wouldn’t want to expose everything in the media because it is part of the evidence I intend to use in court to challenge Nabakooba’s election,” Joyce Bagala, a losing DP parliamentary candidate, told us on Thursday.
Bagala also said policemen and soldiers beat up locals at Buwalula and Nakibanga as a presiding officer at one of the polling stations in Kakindu voted multiple times.
In Lwengo, outgoing Bukoto South MP Mathias Nsubuga told The Observer that the rigging was superintended by a government minister.
“She hired about 10 cars from Nyendo [in Masaka municipality] in which she transported the pre-ticked ballots to various polling stations. But this is evidence I intend to use in court to challenge the outcome of the Bukoto South Parliamentary elections,” Nsubuga said.
Nsubuga alleges that the minister connived with the Electoral Commission staff to smuggle out the ballots that were used in the rigging.
“The returning officer invited all of us to witness the arrival and storage of the voting materials on the eve of election day; that would mean that when dispatching them, we had to be present but [EC staff] stealthily opened the store and gave the materials to the minister,” Nsubuga said.
In Rakai district, the returning officer, Daniel Baguma, cancelled results from several polling stations that reported discrepancies in the number of ballots cast against the number of registered voters.
He, in fact, said that one of his presiding officers had reported a case of armed men who stormed a polling station in Lwamaggwa sub-County, fired in the air before they stuffed the ballot boxes at Kibuuka polling station.
In some places, opposition candidates were betrayed by their own agents. Though the opposition claimed it deployed agents at all polling stations across the country, a significant number of polling stations had no such agents.
For instance, at 2pm when this writer visited Kyotera Central polling station, only Museveni’s agents were present. The case was not any different in Butambala and Gomba districts, where opposition presidential candidates relied on agents of opposition parliamentary candidates.
For most of the time at the Masaka district tally centre, only Museveni agents and security agents followed the tallying of presidential results. The district FDC chairman, Masaka municipality mayor Godfrey Kayemba, showed up the following day to receive the final declaration of results.
In Mukono, opposition leaders claim that some of the polling agents allegedly received bribes to surrender declaration of results (DR) forms to operatives of NRM candidates.
Betty Nambooze has pointed an accusing finger at police.
“The police arrested 154 of my agents, impounded seven of my cars and 45 motorcycles that I had assembled to monitor the elections. Two of the cars were vandalized and the police have since put machetes [in the cars] to claim that I was planning violence,” Nambooze told The Observer on Thursday.
She claims that by arresting her agents, the police weakened her capacity to guard against rigging in her municipality because the police were working for NRM candidates.
Nambooze said the DP leadership in Mukono is planning to challenge the results because there were no tallies for both the Woman MP and Mukono North where DP’s Abdallah Kiwanuka lost to the state minister for Water, Ronald Kibuule.
Most elections in Africa and other parts of the developing world are routinely characterized by delayed arrival of voting materials. But what happened in the Greater Kampala areas of Kampala Wakiso as well as some municipalities like Jinja has left many urban voters feeling suspecting foul play.
In some polling stations in areas like Namuwongo, Kyengera, Kamwokya, Nsambya, voting started as late as 2pm. Interestingly, while at some polling stations voters groaned and cursed, other nearby stations had already started voting. For instance, a polling station at Kololo was voting by 9am, while at Kamwokya there was no voting by 11am. At one end of Namugongo people were voting by 8am, but at the other end they started after 1pm.
The Electoral Commission has blamed “logistical challenges” for the delay but it has not unpacked these “challenges”.
The widespread suspicion – strongly denied – is that the NRM conspired with sections of the Electoral Commission to ensure that in these opposition strongholds, materials did not arrive until a good number of voters had lost patience and left.
Kampala and Wakiso have at least 13 per cent of the registered voters. Opinion polls – which were vindicated by the actual voting figures – had showed that Museveni was performing worst in Kampala, while Besigye was leading in Kampala. By ensuring a low turnout in the affected districts, the “logistical challenges” worked to the opposition’s disadvantage – and to Museveni’s advantage.