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How to ensure free, fair election

The interventions police, the EC, and President Museveni must make to ensure democratic elections

COMMENT | MICHAEL ABONEKA | It is barely two months to the general elections day of January 14, 2021, and we are still wondering whether we shall make it alive. In order to achieve free fair and democratic elections, the process is as important as the event and most importantly the field for all players must be levelled.

In all the past elections, the issue of unlevelled ground has persisted as incumbents in the Presidential, parliamentary and local government races have always had unfair advantage over their challengers.

The Supreme Court in the Election Petition No.1 of 2016 emphasised the need for a levelled ground if we are to achieve fair and democratic elections. This plea has since been ignored and we are likely to get worse results in 2021 and the Court will narrate the same thing.

The African Charter on Democracy Elections and Good Governance, to which Uganda is signatory too, emphasizes equality and fairness in elections.  If we must have free, fair and democratic elections in 2021, we must address the following issues:

Equal access to media: The Supreme Court in the Elections Petition No.1 of 2016 emphasised the need for all presidential candidates to have equal access to state owned media. In response, an amendment to the electoral laws created an offence for a state media house or individual who denies a presidential candidate space on any state-owned media.

The glaring question is the private media, where many candidates are being denied space or even when they are on air, the radio is switched off as it has been the case with Patrick Amuriat Oboi of FDC. NUP’s Robert Kyagulanyi has on several occasions been whisked out of radio stations.

Meanwhile, the NRM enjoys all the media space to continue campaigning. As we stand, the incumbent has unfair access to media as opposed to the other opposition candidates and this scenario is likely to continue. This ground is not levelled and will not deliver free fair and democratic elections.

Wanton arrest of opposition candidates: While the NRM candidates continue to enjoy their campaigns even when they are breaking COVID-19 rules, the opposition candidates have been arrested on the other hand. We have seen mass rallies and processions by the NRM group at the guard and watch of Police in Acholi, Lango and other places violating the COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs), and nothing has happened to them.

There were even NRM ministers who violated COVID-19 regulations during their campaigns and were never arrested and charged while the opposition are facing it rough with police.

NUP Presidential flag bearer Robert Kyagulanyi was arrested on Nov.18 in Luuka for allegedly violating COVID-19 rules while campaigning. The FDC candidate, Patrick Amuriat Oboi, too was arrested in Gulu. The arrests are taking place while the incumbent enjoys smooth campaigns with processions of his henchmen violating COVID-19 regulations. We have seen arrests of MP candidates in Masaka again for allegedly violating COVID-19 regulations with NRM going scot free. The wanton arrests are uncalled for and indicate that there is space for opposition candidates to campaign alongside the incumbent. The campaigns have turned into war zones orchestrated by state militia. This cannot deliver free, fair and democratic elections.

Continued brutality against Ugandans: There has been continuous clamp down on citizens by police and militia especially during the political season. The police continue to fire live bullets into the crowds and have led to some deaths. The freedom to assemble and associate has since been suspended by the state militia. Only ruling party cadres are being guarded and given a green pass to processions, rallies and the like while opposition candidates and their supporters continue to suffer the wrath.

We have lost Ugandan lives and many more have been injured due to the brutality of the police and security agents. The Inspector General of Police, Martin Okoth Ochola, the Electoral Commission Chairman Simon Byabakama, and President Yoweri Museveni should come out and condemn these acts, order police brutality to stop and act against the perpetrators. If this is not done, they would have taken sides with the brutality and hence influenced the election negatively. The State must ensure there is an enabling environment for all to engage in Political activities regardless of their political affiliations.

Excesses of incumbents: Most incumbents; especially ministers and those in high placed offices, continue to abuse their offices to disadvantage their political opponents. Section 25 of the Parliamentary Elections Act prohibits use of public resources for the purposes of campaigning and only limits such use to an office bearer to the extent of “ordinary use” which means that a minister or a public servant should only use what has been ordinarily assigned to that office. I have seen many ministers and other incumbents abuse office by having more than what they have ordinarily been assigned; this is to the disadvantage of the opponents.

If we are to achieve meaningful free, fair and democratic elections in Uganda, we need to address the issues above and ensure there is a well levelled political field for every candidate otherwise the outcomes will be meaningless and highly contestable.

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Michael Aboneka is a partner: Thomas & Michael Advocates

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