If the 2001 Movement election victory was beaten out of the electorate, the 2011 Movement victory was bought. I experienced the 2001 presidential election from the seclusion of my apartment leaving only occasionally for a media interview or a Kampala campaign event. The parliamentary elections that followed in which I was a candidate for the Kampala Central seat; happened after the storm of the presidential elections had passed by and they were mostly a low-key affair in Kampala.
In 2011 I experienced the rough and tumble of grassroots campaigning in Mbarara district and saw for myself how elections are stolen. The frontline Movement cadres know that this is the time to cash in for their loyalty and they line up for their piece of the action demanding ‘facilitation’ for their ‘patriotic’ activities, which include many tricks. When FDC’s Kizza Besigye and his wife Winnie Byanyima came to campaign in Mbarara the ‘patriotic cadres’ slaughtered bulls at a stadium near the rally grounds so that the urban poor would rush there to eat meat instead of building up the crowd at an FDC rally. Poverty is a real incentive and some argued that it was in fact a strategy for those in power to ensure that there is always a large pool of poor people for purchase during elections.
I learnt that the most devious operator in a grassroots campaign is also the most indispensible – the ‘campaign agent.’ These are usually young men and women who line up to assist in your door-to-door search for votes. They will sing your praises and assure you of certain victory as long as you ‘facilitate’ them with transport and a daily meal for the duration of the campaign. These ‘volunteers’ promise heaven and earth yet should you skip a single day of facilitation they will quickly disappear but can easily be found lining up to help your opponent search for votes! Moreover, they will now have added to their credentials knowledge of all your campaign strategies, which they will promise to reveal to your opponent for a small fee of course. Agents also have a peculiar tendency to lose nearly all their relatives during campaigns and will regularly come weeping and asking for financial help to bury their aunt, uncle, sister, cousin or grandparent. An election candidate will quickly find that they are held captive and are at the mercy of these unscrupulous agents. This would be somewhat tolerable if they did their work but agents also have the uncanny ability to go missing on polling day – bought to stay away by the highest bidder. I left political campaigning without deciphering how exactly a candidate might manage their agents rather than being managed by them.
The most reliable campaign agents are those who understand your mission and vision and are committed to it regardless of whether or not they are paid. In a district like Mbarara, a Movement constituency, these are few and hard to come by but my experiences with some committed FDC campaigners left me with some hope for the future. These young ladies and gentlemen, some of whom came with me from Nakawa worked long days and nights knocking door to door, taking the message of change to places where it had not reached before. One young woman Phiona Busingye was so committed and recounted her experience on 18 February 2011, polling day in Rwampara; which further enlightened me on how elections are stolen in villages.
She was up bright and early to monitor elections in her cluster of polling stations and could not believe what she was witnessing. A village chief was stationed at the exit of the polling area dispensing cash to voters as they left the polls. At the entrance was a young cadre who declared which voters needed assistance as they arrived. “This one is illiterate please assist them.” Another cadre would lead the ‘illiterate’ voter to a table where they would ‘assist’ to tick their ballot paper and then accompany them to the spot where the village chief was carrying out his ATM duties. She observed long enough to believe that nearly all the voters at the polling station were illiterate and when she could take it no more she marched over to the Electoral Officer in charge at the polling station to complain. When she raised her voice in complaint a police constable stepped forward to arrest her for disturbing the peace and her complaints quickly turned into pleas for ‘forgiveness’ in order to avoid arbitrary arrest. She returned to report what had happened and was certain of our impending defeat for both the parliamentary seat and the presidency.
At Simba Barracks in Mbarara town where soldiers voted there was some last minute gerrymandering as polling stations that were traditionally in Kashari County were added to the Municipality where Maj. John Kazoora the FDC candidate needed to be taught a lesson. It did not matter for me either way as both Kashari and the Municipality were part of my district constituency. In the barracks too, vote stealing was not too subtle – they simply used their guns to chase away agents of opposition candidates and then ensured that soldiers gave their commander-in-chief an overwhelming majority. Simple really.
When the results came in I was surprised that after only three months of campaigning in Mbarara where I had not lived since my childhood; and after the shameless stealing on polling day, the Electoral Commission counted over 27,000 ballots cast in my favor. I came in second after the Movement candidate and did better than an independent candidate who has lived and campaigned in Mbarara for many years. Speaking to a freelance international journalist Ann Garisson in an interview that was published by the San Francisco Bay View on 19 February 2011, I stated:
“We knew exactly what was going to happen in this election. We complained about the registers, we complained about the inflated numbers of people on the registers, we complained about the use of state resources in the election, but we still agreed to go in and participate. So that’s like walking into a casino, knowing that the guy who owns it has to make a profit. Sometimes a few lucky people make some money. But most of the time people lose. So this time around I lost. A few of our opposition people did scrape through, but the casino is owned by the ruling party and President Museveni and they would definitely be looking to make a profit. So that’s how I see this election – like a trip to the casino.”
At 50 am nearly convinced that whoever coined the adage that people get the leaders that they deserve had a point.
— feeling disgusted