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Election rigging and Besigye’s choice



Museveni (left) and Besigye. Will there be a fifth round?


How legitimate claims of electoral malpractice have blinded the opposition to its strategic weaknesses

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda  | Leading opposition figure, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has said he will not participate in the coming presidential elections because it will not be free and fair. According to Besigye, he has won all the last four presidential elections he has contested against President Yoweri Museveni. He claims the official results that are always announced by the Electoral Commission are false. Indeed, on two occasions (2001 and 2006) the Supreme Court of Uganda has said there were significant irregularities in the electoral process. On both occasions and with a majority of one vote it has refused to annul the election on the grounds that these irregularities were not sufficient to alter the final outcome of the election.

There is a lot of evidence that elections in Uganda are not free and fair. Museveni enjoys all the advantages of incumbency and uses the state to limit the space within which his opponents can campaign. Before official election campaigns begin, he uses the police to block their mobilisation while at the same time using the resources of the state to campaign under the guise of poverty alleviation or wealth creation programs. He dominates the mass state and private media. By the time of official campaigns, he has a big head start over his rivals.

So the opposition have always faced a tough dilemma from which they have had to make a trade-off. Should they participate in a clearly rigged electoral process and thereby legitimise it? Or should they, on principle, boycott the elections and therefore stifle their own voice? Remember elections are the only time when the opposition are offered some degree of freedom to articulate their grievances to the electorate. I think that they have always chosen the freedom to articulate their grievances to the public clearly knowing that doing so legitimises a rigged electoral process.

But many incumbents in Africa have used all tricks Museveni uses and lost. It follows therefore that the opposition in Uganda cannot wait for a free and fair election, which would be a pipedream. Their strategy therefore has to be to win an election that is neither free nor fair. How? This means that they have to turn their apparent weaknesses into strength. But it also requires that they look for opportunities for victory in spite of, or even because of, all the roadblocks that are thrown in their way.

Indeed, the idea that Museveni steals their votes is so deeply entrenched in the mind of leading opposition figures that it has blinded them to the strategic weaknesses in their camp. For instance, after the 2016 elections, a leading opposition activist wrote a long explanation of how there were many polling stations where voter turnout was 100%, a clear proxy for election rigging. He also showed that in all of them Museveni got 90% of the votes and more. He said this is evidence of rigging. I agree with him.

If you cannot count what is important, you make what you count important. While 100% voter turnout is clearly evidence of electoral malpractice – how can it be possible that in a given electoral area not a single person died, travelled, fell ill or was busy or disinterested in showing up to vote. But how significant are such polling stations to the final outcome of the election? Besides, 100% voter turnout is evidence of overwhelming support for a given candidate, a factor that shows even without rigging such turnout would have been high and the candidate gotten a huge majority.

But let us look at what is statistically important. There were 28,010 polling stations in the 2016 presidential elections. Of these, 127 reported 100% voter turnout. Total votes cast on these polling stations were 42,627. Museveni got 5,971,872 votes against Besigye who got 3,508,687 votes in that election. So even if we cancelled all votes in these polling stations it would make almost no statistical difference in the outcome. But the opposition have made 100% voter turnout in 127 polling stations important even though its contribution to Museveni’s victory is statistically insignificant.

Ugandans line to vote. The lower you go on the local councils the more miserable is the number of candidates the opposition is able to field.

The real weakness of the opposition can be seen in the number of candidates they field for MPs, LC5, LC3 chairpersons and other local councillors during elections. In 2016, out of 289 directly elected MP slots, FDC fielded only 201. Out of 112 district women MP, FDC fielded only 61. Out of 112 LCV posts, FDC fielded 43. Out of nearly 1,400 directly elected city and district councillors, FDC fielded only 520. Out of 950 city and district female councillors, FDC fielded only 269. Out of 7,000 sub country, municipal and town councillors, FDC fielded only 1,123.

Thus the lower you go on the local councils the more miserable is the number of candidates the opposition is able to field. Yet this is an important indicator of presence on the ground and predicts the chances of electoral success. The inability to find leaders at the lowest level reveals a weakness of the opposition to have presence in villages to rally their supporters to turnout and vote and most critically to have agents at polling stations to stop NRM stuffing ballot boxes. To ignore this reality and instead focus on electoral malpractices by the NRM, both real and imagined, as the critical factor causing electoral defeat is to bury one’s head in the sand.

In regard to polling, let us use 90% plus voter turnout at polling stations as a proxy for vote rigging. In 2001, Uganda had 17,269 polling stations. Of these 155 (or 0.8%) had 100% turnout, 90%-plus voter turnout were 2,731 (15.8%). In 2006, we had 19,786 polling stations. Polling stations reporting 100% voter turnout were 128 (or 0.6%); 90%-plus voter turnout were 713 (3.6%). In 2011, Uganda had 23,968 polling stations. Those with 100% voter turnout were 123 (0.5%) and 559 polling stations (2.3%) reported 90%-plus voter turnout. In 2016, Uganda had 28,010 polling stations 127 (0.4%) reported 100% voter turnout. Only in 540 (1.9%) polling stations did we have 90% voter turnout. Clearly Museveni’s ability to steal votes has been consistently declining.

But there is more to learn from election trends. In 2001, 100% voter turnout was in 52 counties, with Nyabushozi and Kazo counties (both in Museveni’s home district of Kiruhura) contributing 18%. In 2006, it was in 42 counties, Kiruhura contributed 33%. In 2011, it was in 31 counties with Kiruhura contributing 37%.

In 2016, polling stations reporting 100% voter turnout were in only 22 counties with Kiruhura making 47%. Again these figures show that Museveni‘s ability to rig is shrinking to a narrow area of his Bahima ethnic kin in his district plus Nakaseke, which is a part of the cattle corridor. Meanwhile, Besigye’s votes became more generalised across the country. And that is after he lost his northern Uganda base.





  1. These are theories and mere sideline pontificating. Sounds nice on paper assuming that Museveni is not stuffing ballot boxes, arresting poll monitors and manipulating final figures at EC headquarters, rendering all so called “presence” at polling stations useless. I think Besigye and Muntu already know this and you are not providing any new ideas here a Andrew; That is why they do not waste resources and time on your line of action. While I do not condone force and violence it seems that is the only language Museveni understands.

  2. Andrew

    The assumption seems to be that rigging is only where 100% turn up is recorded as in Kiruhura and a few other places. If you take the average national voter turn out at for example 60%, the figures over 75% and more could be greater centres of rigging as the NRM functionaries in these areas fall over themselves to show how their areas have delivered (of course in the hope of reaping in the next round of appointments). The issue of having persons in all elective positions is laughable because if they are not allowed by the state machinery to even appear and speak on urban radio stations, how will the opposition be allowed to build the structures up to the local level which then can facilitate having credible people to stand or ‘guard’ the vote. The other aspect is basically resources, with one side using all the resources of state and the other barely getting by, what contest is there really?

  3. Why voters vote they way they do in Uganda.
    1.The likelihood of economic growth is real; there is relative economic growth because of the good government economic policies and the various sources of business funding.
    2. During campaigns;the opposition rarely provides alternative economic polices;hence missing votes from the business fraternity.
    3.M7 has decisively handled new world threats like terrosim and gay rights which is quite a touchy issues that the opposition can not dare discuss because most of their funding is from the nations that support gay rights.
    4.Trump’s campaign slogan was about how to make USA great again,Boris Johnson was a Brexit die hard;what does this mean;other nations yarn for the past but for Uganda;there is nothing good about the past leadership.
    5.Ugandans are still too young to be sacred of the future especially that government has projects that are meant to benefit the youth.
    6.Vote rigging is just an imagination by the opposition.(Most opposition supports are so redundant in that they wouldn’t mind sleeping at a polling station to witness tallying of votes)
    7.M7 has a very good report card especially in the International arena;All the spies that the first world has sent to carry out a background check on M7’s alleged crimes leave wondering what the hell is wrong with Ugandans.
    8.The political environment seem heated in Buganda Region simply because the Baganda are naturally unserious people they joke alot and are not good at raising children;How does a 7 year old Muganda child know that tribe x is bad if their parents dont instill it in them?they also mix Christianity with witchcraft and local herbs hence affecting their mental status.(Just look at NUP supporters)
    9.The opposition lacks clarity on the plan they have for Uganda.(They fear that the world may accuse them of pargalism especially if they borrow ideas from M7’s brilliant economic ideas)

  4. Thanks Mr Mwenda for this wonderful balanced political analysis for the first time in recent years! I agree with you entirely especially when you point out that there is enough evidence to show that the electoral process in Uganda has never been free and fair. Stifling of freedom of space for the uganda’s opposition to organize and mobilize, not allowing them to articulate their ideas before the electorate either on both state and private media (courtesy of stupid RDCs!) etc. etc., 100% correct!
    Now coming back to you mr Andrew Mwenda, not long ago you told all and sundry of how you’ve registered your membership with NUP/People Power in order to join the struggle, in your own words, to defeat M7’s incompetent, corrupt, nepotistic rule. Now that you come with all your knowledge of the weaknesses of the current opposition and with all your strength of sijui international connections in the academia, business, security amongst others, I humbly wish to inform you that, to borrow the words of our former Kampala city council (KCC), Mayor al hajj Nasser Ntege Ssebaggala, I will be “on your behind” should you be picked as presidential candidate in 2021, presidential election on NUP
    Party ticket, coz I’ve clearly seen that you can be the only opposition presidential candidate to surmount all the M7’s roadblocks! All the best comrade Mwenda.
    Alta continua!

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