Sunday, June 7, 2015

Presidential Elections Day 2001

Election day March 2001
No one likes a loser.  
Kizza Besigye’s home at Luzira was always crowded with people during the 2001 presidential election campaign period with campaign agents mingling easily with his family, friends and even complete strangers.  The living room area had become too small to accommodate them all and so a tent with a capacity of more than 200 guests was erected outside in the garden and that too was always full.  Once the results started trickling in people started trickling out of Kizza Besigye’s compound.  

I was in the living room where Kizza Besigye sat exhausted wearing a dark red robe with his wife Winnie by his side.  We were listening to the election results coming in over the radio.  We had limited resources and even less sophistication at managing election results data.  Our tallying center headed by Joseph Tumushabe simply was not equipped to receive results from all the remote polling stations.   We were listening to the results being read by the Electoral Commissioners sitting at the International Conference Center where the Task Force had two agents watching the tallying process.  It seemed to me that neither Kizza Besigye nor Winnie were willing to even think that this government, which had gone to war for five years over a rigged election could now engage in massive rigging of an election.  They appeared to have retained some respect for the Movement organization in spite of the trauma it had put them through over the preceding months.  

We listened quietly at the numbers being read out until Kizza Besigye broke the silence; "these are not the results," he said.  Then we retreated back into silence.  They announced the results at a polling station outside his house in Luzira and here too Kizza Besigye had lost.  It was not as though we expected a landslide victory considering the ground was heavily tipped in favor of the incumbent but  we did not expect a humiliating defeat either and the results coming in were preparing us for humiliation.  We had followed the campaign closely and knew the areas we could expect to lose, the battle grounds and the easy wins.  The results coming in conflicted with all our assessments. 

Winnie Babihuga, the woman MP from Rukungiri was the only other guest sitting quietly in the living room in Luzira otherwise the home had been abandoned to its owners.  At some point she decided to get up and leave and I followed her cue, but when we got outside she turned to me and said it was wrong for us to leave them alone.  She asked me to stay with the candidate and his wife as the rest of the results came in.  A strange sense of obligation made me turn round and I walked back to the quiet living room and we kept each other company in silence.  Later in the night, I got into my car and drove to my apartment.  I was so tired, dog tired!  I could not remember when I had last had eight hours of sleep, but I lay down on my bed that night wide awake, my mind churning, refusing to switch off for the night.  It was a quiet night and I could hear my thoughts clearly and they were not good thoughts.  How could such a calm night follow such an outrageous injustice?  The events of the day called for a night of thunder and lightning but the storm was in my head and all else was calm.

Earlier in the day I had walked to my polling station on Wampewo Avenue in Kololo.  I cast my ballot for Kizza Besigye, dipped my thumb in the indelible ink that was provided to prevent double voting, and walked away quickly to start receiving news that was coming in from other polling station.  At my polling station the process was deceptively easy and straight forward.  An election observer stationed at a polling station like mine would go away saying the election was free and fair.  The news I started receiving when I got home was different.  In Western Uganda an Anglican Bishop went to cast his vote and he was informed that according to the records, he had already voted.  In Eastern Uganda the night before polling day was filled with the forgotten and frightening sound of gun fire.  A day before polling, the government had sponsored radio announcements in which top military officers directed the electorate to vote for the incumbent President.  The message was clear; the army would accept only one outcome from this election.  Reports of intimidation and violence had been expected but the scale at which they would be carried out to ensure a vote for the incumbent was not clear to us until after the election.  Several election observers had warned of violence and intimidation.  Human Rights Watch had released a report detailing incidents of abuse and it included their verdict on the upcoming elections:

'Serious human rights concerns in the lead-up to Uganda's March 12 presidential elections shed doubt on whether the election will be free and fair…Five candidates are competing against President Museveni for the presidency, but under Uganda's "no-party" or "movement" system, they do not have a party base to help organize or campaign for public support. "The Museveni government is trying to win this election by bullying the opposition," said Binaifer Nowrojee, counsel for Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "The electoral playing field is definitely not level. Since the start of the campaign in January, the opposition have been threatened by violence, arrests, and intimidation, from soldiers and police." …"It is more clear than ever that Museveni's movement system is in fact a means to perpetuate his power, through a system that does not allow free and fair democratic elections," said Nowrojee.   While all the opposition candidates have reported cases of government-sponsored violence, the largest number of incidents are directed towards supporters of Kizza Besigye, who has emerged as the strongest challenger to incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. The government has not taken steps to investigate or stop the violence and harassment suffered by him or other opposition candidates.   The harassment of journalists and editors, self-censorship, and inequality in media access has intensified as the date for the polls nears. In addition, the electoral process has been marked by irregularities in the registration of voters, concerns over the tendering process for the ballot papers, and failures on the part of the Electoral Commission to act on these irregularities.'

The morning after elections I was still tired from lack of sleep.  My life during the campaigns had followed a set routine, which included calling on the candidate each morning for updates.  When he was out of town, I called him on the phone and when he was in Kampala, I drove to his home.  March 13th was no different.  I woke up early and headed to KB's home.  The place was abandoned.  Results from upcountry polling stations were still trickling in but by morning the picture was clear that President Museveni was headed for a tumultuous victory and Besigye would take second place in a field of five opposing candidates.  No one is happy with second place in any election, but especially not in an election that was so blatantly rigged.  In spite of the gloomy picture the scenario presented, I was not depressed, instead I was filled with a fierce need for justice and a determination to strip this injustice bare before the world and expose the deceit.  I was ready for the press briefing and started making calls to journalists to come to KB’s house.  
I recall making a mad dash to the Electoral Commission in the evening with Daudi Mpanga, an up and coming lawyer cum activist who moonlighted from his law chambers to contribute to the campaign’s communication team.  I wonder today what we thought we were going to do at the Commission’s office in the late evening.  Our outrage was so intense and we felt as though there was still time to file another of our numerous complaints at their offices.  At the very least we might get an answer as to why Charles Owor, one of our election observers at the tallying center; had been thrown out during the counting and tallying of votes.  It was just the two of us but we felt enraged enough and ready to take on the whole fraudulent system.  Our determination fizzled when we reached outside the Electoral Commission’s office where a host of military guards stood ready to rebuff any intruder.  The Commission that night was guarded like some endangered national treasure – which I guess it was.  The Electoral Commission had been raped by the ruling party and had little control over the outcome of the elections.  All the guidelines on non-partisan media coverage, financing of elections, non-involvement of the army had been either ignored or blatantly broken.  Now the office looked like a barracks.  We drove past slowly as our defeat started to sink in and become clear in our minds.

A few senior members of the Task Force gathered at KB’s home to make sense of the hopeless predicament that we were in.  They included grey-haired and jovial Sam Njuba whose face had lost its amiable smile.   Prince Vincent Kimera, always stern faced now looked like he was about to commit a violent crime.  Zedriga looked resigned and composed and could still summon a smile and crack a joke.  Winnie Byanyima was taking notes, already drafting a response to the events, all the political turbulence around her did not make her lose focus.  They shared stories of agents that had betrayed us, the ones that were paid off and those chased away from polling stations by gun-weilding men.  They spoke of intimidation of voters and how election observers had been thrown out of the tallying center at the Conference Center while tallying was proceeding.  The stories seemed surreal and the powerlessness to stop the outrage was infuriating.  Okello Okello a veteran politician aligned to the Uganda People Congress Party and Zedriga a civil society stalwart had monitored elections in Northern Uganda and felt rather betrayed.  The people of northern Uganda had resisted the intimidation and secured their ballot boxes delivering an overwhelming win for our candidate in the north.  Why couldn’t the other regions of the country do the same they wondered.

The meeting was held in Besigye’s living room and his young son Anselm who was about 5 years old was walking around unconcerned by the day’s events.  After the malicious announcement that Anselm had died and been stored away in a freezer until the election was over, Anselm became a star in the local media and was often photographed sitting by his mother’s side, listening attentively during press briefings.  He appeared to vaguely understand what was happening even though he was unconcerned.  I often wondered how all the craziness around him would impact his life.

In the early afternoon President Museveni was declared winner of the election.  The Task Force gathered to discuss the election outcome and decide on our official reaction.  Everyone agreed that we would not accept the results.  We would pursue a legal process, petition the Supreme Court seeking to nullify the election results and a call for fresh elections.  The press started to arrive shortly after the meeting and quickly took their seats in the now empty tent in the garden.  A BBC reporter tried to sneak his way into the house to get an exclusive interview but other journalists complained and he returned to the tent to wait with the rest.  Kizza Besigye, Winnie Byanyima, Grace Kavuya, little Anselm and I were the only ones who sat in front of the cameras at that press briefing.  The tent was filled with journalists but everyone else had disappeared.  The atmosphere during the interview was solemn and quiet.  Kizza Besigye stated the official reaction of the Task Force and answered some questions and that was it.  

At 50 I know that with the end of the 2001 elections a chapter had ended and a new one opened in my life as an activist.

— feeling tired.

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