Background Briefing

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On February 23, 2006, the Ugandan people will elect a president and members of parliament. Local council elections will be held on February 28 and March 6 and 9. These elections are the first since Ugandans voted for the return to a multiparty system in the referendum of July 28, 2005.  As the presidential and parliamentary election day nears, the playing field for the candidates and their parties is not level. The conditions for a free and fair election have not been met.   Ugandans are gripped alternately by excitement with multiparty elections and fear that the government is not committed to upholding fundamental human rights.

The Ugandan constitution charges the Ugandan Electoral Commission with “ensuring regular, free and fair elections.” The principles of a free and fair election are derived from the fundamental human rights protected by the Constitution and international and African human rights conventions, as well as by the procedural provisions of the Presidential Elections and Parliamentary Elections Acts of 2005. Further, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to which Uganda has applied for membership, has issued Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which include full participation of citizens in the political process, freedom of association, political tolerance, equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media, independence of the judiciary, independence of the media, impartiality of the electoral institutions, and voter education.1

In the campaign so far only two of these principles have fully been met:  the judiciary and the Electoral Commission have maintained their independence and impartiality.  But in all other areas, the electoral process in Uganda is lacking.

There is considerable uncertainty in Uganda as to whether incumbent President Yoweri Museveni and his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement Organisation (NRM-O), will respect the will of the people.  He hinted during an address to a January 8 rally in the Kasese district, which was widely reported, that a vote against him might not be respected, saying, “You don't just tell the freedom fighter to go like you are chasing a chicken thief out of the house.”2

He also reportedly appeared to suggest, at a rally in Entebbe on January 14, that only the NRM-O government could control the army: “All the past governments collapsed because they failed to control the army. . .  . [W]e have managed to tame it.”3 Claims that the current government has “tamed” the military, when many active military officers have been appointed to senior civilian positions and the army routinely commits unlawful arrests, torture and other serious abuses, can only intimidate opposition supporters. 

The government is selectively interpreting and applying the laws of sedition, libel, and incitement to violence to harass opposition candidates and disrupt their campaigning.  Police are summoning opposition politicians and requiring them to report to police stations on a regular basis. Other opposition politicians are being tried on apparently politically motivated charges, sometimes in inappropriate tribunals, while yet others have been detained illegally. 

The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party is the leading challenger to the NRM-O. The most prominent of the apparently politically motivated criminal cases are against three senior FDC members: the main opposition presidential candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, who has been charged with treason, terrorism and rape, and his wife Winnie Byanyima and FDC treasurer Jack Sabiiti, charged with criminal libel. All are currently on trial, and their election campaigning is impeded while they attend court hearings in Kampala.

By its own admission, the Electoral Commission is inadequately prepared. Voters have complained of inaccuracies and deficiencies in the voter register, missing voter cards and poor voter education. The Electoral Commission told Human Rights Watch that it does not yet have sufficient police to guard polling stations and is in the middle of a crash recruitment campaign. To boost numbers it is even training members of a pro-government militia known as the Arrow Boys as “special constables” to assist with the elections. Aside from the fact that the Arrow Boys have previously been accused of abusive behavior towards civilians, this is a serious conflict of interest as the Arrow Boys are commanded by a candidate for office, the State Minister for Health, Mike Mukula, member of parliament.

State and private media do not accord equal coverage to all parties, despite statutory and constitutional obligations to do so. Freedom of the press is also under threat from new restrictions on foreign journalists and from government attempts to curb the freedom of local journalists through ministerial gagging orders, arrests, and prosecutions.

The “Movement” national political system still dominates Ugandan political institutions.  The Movement Act of 1997, which has not been repealed, created a national political structure funded by parliament alongside the state. The NRM-O uses the same facilities and has practically the same personnel as the “Movement” national political system that preceded it.  The amended constitution does not dismantle the Movement system or close its offices until after the elections on February 23, and currently these offices are used by the NRM-O.  Thus, the ruling party enjoys privileged access to state resources for partisan purposes. 

In the districts visited by Human Rights Watch, reports of intimidation and violence against the opposition are rife. The police Electoral Offences Squad is investigating cases of intimidation and assault in twenty-two (of sixty nine) districts.

This report focuses on human rights violations by the government and the ruling party, which have broad obligations under international human rights law.  The majority of allegations about election-related violence and intimidation heard by Human Rights Watch were leveled against the ruling party and state officials.  However, opposition supporters have also caused problems. Therefore, the opposition political parties must do their part to restrain their supporters and to promote a peaceful campaign.  Opposition parties should denounce violence whenever it occurs and call on their members to act with restraint, and to make complaints through the appropriate channels.

Research was carried out for this report during three weeks in January 2006.  Human Rights Watch researchers visited districts in the north, south, east and west of Uganda—Kampala, Mbarara, Rukungiri, Kanungu, Ntungamo, Soroti, Gulu, Adjumani, and Nebbi, and interviewed some 110 persons, including candidates from the ruling and opposition parties, diplomats, Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF, Uganda’s army) soldiers, prison officers, police, Election Commission officials, international and local nongovernment organization (NGO) representatives, journalists, and many ordinary voters.

[1] SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, adopted by the SADC Summit, Mauritius, August 2004, [online]

[2] Richard Mutumba and Solomon Muyita, “I will not go easily, says President Museveni,” Monitor, January 9, 2006, [online]; Timothy Murunga, “Museveni Intimidating Voters to Remain In Power”, East African Standard, January 15, 2006, [online]

[3] Grace Matsiko and Rogers Mulindwa, “Only Mvmt Can Control The Army – Museveni,” Monitor, January 16, 2006, [online]

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