Uganda has planned to hold its general election in the early months of 2021 in what President Yoweri Museveni has dubbed “scientific elections”. Like “scientific weddings,” the reference to “scientific elections” refers to proposals to meet the demands of democracy and the constitution by conducting a poll in conditions with minimal interactions between voters and candidates. Under ordinary circumstances, without the COVID-19 virus, the election period would be defined by a countrywide program of meet and greet. Candidates would hop on the stump, prioritizing home visits, even more Church and Mosque appearances as well as funerals, birthdays and virtually every calendar entry that promises a congregation would be filled by candidates or their supporters. The soundtrack of the elections especially at its peak in the countryside is a sort of extended carnival which in the last decade has been conducted under the close watch of the police and army.
The political parties have not surprisingly taken issue with the new guidelines for the “scientific election”. Besides disrupting their political plans and the culture of conducting campaigns, the emphasis on digital outreach for campaigns and mobilization have caused considerable angst. Replacing the contact sport of retail politics during the high political season with a virtual one places new demands on candidates, parties and supporters, creating two tensions worth looking at closely.
The first is whether technology can, within the meaning of democracy and electoralism, deliver a meaningful election or if not, what adjustments need to be made before polling day. The second tension is the political economy of the virtual election – namely, that virtual campaigns regardless are still Ugandan, and because they are Ugandan, are about the political issues of the times. These include Uganda’s severe form of presidentialism (the main prize in the election is Executive power and the holder of that power is running for a sixth term in office) and its thriving market for municipal and legislative posts that draw the most interest and is the dynamo driving the democratic vehicle.
Both, Executive Power and the parliamentary jamboree are dominated by the election winning machine of the National Resistance Movement, the ruling party which is a behemoth of the political culture itself and whose support for the “scientific election” has made it inevitable despite objections from some quarters.
The third factor, which should be the most important – that of the coronavirus itself, which supplied the health logic for the digitally infused election, is in some respect the least relevant. With two deaths so-far and slightly over 1000 official cases, Uganda is not the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, if anything of the sunnier sports on the globe.
After months of a lockdown and a freeze on public transportation and normal trade and commerce, social controls imposed by the government, that have had a high degree of public support, have begun to wane. As the election season begun in earnest, with a scientific poll in the foreground, the health minister, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng supplied the symbolism that best characterizes the portion of “science” that comprises concern for COVID-19 in the context of elections. A technocrat and the face of the Uganda national COVID-19 response, Dr. Aceng announced she would run for the Lira District Woman Member of Parliament. She was on Friday 10th, July 2020 pictured mobbed by crowds in Aromo sub-county without a mask and not maintaining social distance.
In a statement she issued after the incident, Ms Aceng said she was “not holding a political rally” but was actually involved in a mask distribution exercise. The spectre of “Mama Corona”, as she is known, now a candidate for office disregarding the rules on social distancing for political advantage drives home the thin relationship between health science and the logic of digital elections and expounds in dramatic fashion- the political science involved.
This is how the political class and the civil society reacted to the so-called scientific information ( first by ignoring the rules for those who can like Aceng but also others like Ephraim Kamuntu in Sheema who was recorded holding a political meeting in a church); they threw the legal rule book at it. Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa East) in Parliament said the guidelines were impractical and likely to be dis-regarded as they were based on statutory instruments and not a new law designed to take into account the unique situation created by COVID-19.
The justice minister while quoting guidelines passed by the Ministry of Health on Covid-19 remarks; “how can statutory instruments passed under a delegated authority usurp the Acts of Parliament?” He wondered referring to the concern that elections are sanctified in the Constitution and Electoral laws that cannot be set aside by weaker laws. This is a version of the view that the President should have declared a State of Emergency in the first place to run the country under special conditions not just via regulations that emerged at the start of the national lockdown but did not gain traction.
Opposition politicians; including presidential candidates amongst them are concerned that the restrictions around interaction between the candidates and their supporters will ultimately undermine the result – that is the vote declaration process itself. “We have been accompanying our results from polling station to the district to avoid theft, but now that a curfew starts at 7.00pm these elections cannot be followed. Is that a free and fair election?” said Merdard Ssegona (DP, Busiro East).
The curfew has been modified but the concern over stolen elections and election malpractice is widespread and one of the most litigated aspects of the process. The question of how a digital election contributes to the democratic spirit and function without free movement, interaction between candidates and voters (as provided by various laws), in conditions where politicians are likely not to comply extends to practical questions on how these guidelines will be reflected on the political culture.
Who will abide by the rules of meetings of 50 people while indoors (in a space of 100 meters), 200 people outdoors and outreach primarily by digital means? Also, in a country obsessed about the control of crowds for fear of the “vote of the streets” and popular uprisings, is the scientific elections not in reality the digital version of the controversial Public Order and Management Act (which outlaws gatherings and has been the bane of opposition rallies before COVID-19?) How will the large body of candidates especially in the MP race, the prize for most contestants (1300 persons contested in the last election for the 400 or so seats in the House, a number that could well double in 2021) share the available digital space especially radio and TV time?
Opposition voices point out that nearly 80% of radio stations are owned by the NRM party supporters and functionaries with a long history of denying access to their opponents and accuse the Uganda Communications Commission itself of bias (under UCC regulations imposed by the Ministry of ICT while it was run by one time minister for the Presidency Frank Tumwebaze – the president has the nuclear option of legally switching off the internet in an emergency).
If the terrain is unfair and made even more politically more febrile by the COVID-19 conditions, how can an election, scientific or not, ever be considered as free and fair. The answer could be that the political culture has internalized elections as simply not being about fairness but rather competition – where the rules are fungible and where advantage lies in working around the conditions dictated by power. The “scientific election” is a triumph of politics and of politicians over everything else.
Even for the opposition – change under less than ideal conditions is the hope that holds together their participation even as they object the unfairness of the rules. After all, Lazarus rose in Malawi and in Kenya, chief Justice; David Kenani Maraga slew the election. These are two cases were elections were annulled because the rules were successfully challenged in the courts of law leading to the election of Lazurus Chakwera in Malawi and shaking up Kenyan politics permanently with a re-run.
If choosing a general election over the general wellbeing of citizens occasioned by a complex and unpredictable pandemic can be packaged into the law of man versus the law of nature – then nature has lost. The law of man, that man-made constitution, animated by political activity, of loud legislatures, opinions upon opinions, statutes and batons, guns and bayonets, taxes and prisons and often death stood no chance against a global pandemic caused by the SARS-Cov-2 virus also known as the coronavirus.
“Science” cannot explain Uganda’s exceptionalism or that of African countries in general, which outside of South Africa, have had a low casualty rate. There is no solid scientific basis to support a view that there would not be a great reversal of fortunes in the African story with deaths happening later. Just like there has been none to explain why mortuaries are not filling up with the dead now.
Weighing all of this, the choice is stark; dead people cannot vote. There is an ethical as well as practical matter here on whether holding a constitutionally scheduled election, be it under managed conditions as is proposed or postponing it all together until science can offer answers that can protect everyone, makes sense. On a forked path that is the year 2020, Ugandan leaders have opted for elections with a few – mildly scientific caveats. This is possible because such is the appeal of politics to the elite that the political show must go on regardless.
By Angelo Izama – Analyst/Writer/Consultant
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