The money power and state power that dominated the Soroti City East Member of Parliament by-election, has left many proponents of democracy in Uganda question whether taxpayers’ money should continuously be wasted in electoral processes that are short of freeness, fairness and transparency.
On 28th July 2022, 18,606 voters (51 percent) out of 36,442 registered in Soroti City East lined up in 63 polling stations, to cast their ballots to elect a new member of Parliament after court annulled the result of the 2021 election. This was on the grounds of electoral commission conducting the Soroti City East MP election in non-existent wards of Aloet and Opilyai. The Electoral Commission declared Hon. Herbert Edmund Ariko, flag bearer of the party in power, National Resistance Movement was the winner with 9,407 against the incumbent Member of Parliament Hon. Attan Moses Okia of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) who polled 8,771 votes.
ACFIM observers who were on ground to observe the happenings in this by-election reported that the exercise was marred by voter bribery, voter tourism, voter hospitality, and break-ins to houses of opposition leaders. The entire state apparatus was at play, violence was in abundant supply, arrests and detention of opposition supporters were not uncommon.
How Money power dominated Soroti City East by-election.
ACFIM observers were informed by one of the National Resistance Movement cadres that the Soroti city east by-election cost them more than UGX 5 billion ($1.290 million). This money was given to people in organized groups. For instance, ACFIM observes while at Eneku village having lunch found a meeting taking place between the Vice president and teachers association. After the meeting, the observers heard voices quarrelling in the meeting room. On finding out, some of the disgruntled teachers informed ACFIM observers that their leaders had refused to distribute the UGX 34 million ($8,773) that had been given to them by the Vice President. This group became violent, closed the doors, and demanded for the money to be divided saying “…this is campaign money and not SACCO money, give each person their share…” After the scuffle, the leaders managed to escape from the rowdy group and drove to Akello hotel.
Another place where money was dished out to over 200 group of youth from 13 wards in Soroti City East was at Soroti University. ACFIM observers were informed by some of the youth who attended the meeting with the Prime Minister, State Minister of Education and Sports, and RDCs that each of them was given UGX 30,000 ($7.74).
There are also reported incidences where money was given at different churches. People were also reported to have been given money from neighboring districts to be taken to attend campaign rallies in Soroti City East and were entertained by local musicians.
One of the RDCs from Mbale who was distributing money around Soroti main market in a video that made rounds was asked why he was engaging in acts of voter bribery. He responded by saying that he was not bribing voters but he was giving money for the “Imbalu” (circumcision) ceremony lead team in Soroti. Such officials are becoming a menace to Uganda’s democracy growth.
During the last rally of the National Resistance Movement, ACFIM observers were left in shock when one of the masters of ceremony instructed the DJ to stop the music and made an announcement that all the drivers who had ferried voters from different voters should return them back. The acts of voter tourism and hospitality has become too common during campaigns and elections in Uganda.
State machinery in Soroti City East by-election.
State power was witnessed in Soroti City East by-election where the state apparatus descended on one constituency in the name of canvassing for votes. The President, Vice President, Rt. Hon. Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, ministers of state, Resident District Commissioners, and the top leadership of the NRM party were all on ground in an election that the NRM was determined to win at all costs.
All these top government officials were using state resources such as vehicles, personnel and finances during their stay in Soroti. Some of government officials especially the Resident District Commissioners who feared to be identified as abusing government vehicles removed their vehicle number plates. All these acts are a contribution to the killing of democracy in Uganda and ACFIM highly condemns them.
Securitization of the electoral processes.
The people of Soroti were happy with how the entire nomination and campaign exercise was conducted without security interference. But things all changed on the eve to election day, the security operatives both the police and army swung into action and spearheaded the night break into the home of Soroti District Woman Representative, Hon. Ann Adeke, also arrested and detained opposition top leaders and polling agents. They also allegedly engaged in carrying pre-ticked ballots and ballot stuffing.
The over-deployment and running battles between the security operatives and opposition leaders and supporters are partly to blame for the 17,836 voters (49 percent) not turning out to cast their ballots. The security forces are said to have been called into action after the NRM camp realized that only money will not grant them victory. They needed another force to supplement the money, and security was brought in.
Money and security have become dominant forces that are greatly bastardizing and vulgarizing Uganda’s electoral processes. And if nothing is done to eliminate the influence of the two in Uganda’s elections, then Ugandans will continue participating in a selection and not an election process. If such precedents being witnessed in the by-elections continue, Ugandans are most likely to start boycotting elections which should be a concern to Electoral Commission and other pro-democracy actors.