Background Briefing

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The Performance of the Electoral Commission

In Uganda, the head of state has exclusive authority to choose and appoint electoral commissioners.  This contrasts unfavorably to the electoral commissions in southern Africa, where in all states except Namibia political parties have a role in nominating or choosing candidates for the commission. 98  Nevertheless, the Ugandan Electoral Commission has so far conducted itself in an impartial manner.

The record of the previous Ugandan Electoral Commission and its subordinate bodies was not good during the 2001 presidential election.  A Supreme Court opinion found that “[t]here was evidence of cheating in a significant number of polling stations,” and that election officials were complicit.99

Since then, steps were taken by the government to reform the Electoral Commission and its operations.  In this effort the government received financial support of €5.3 million (U.S. $ 6.3 million) from donors through the Election Basket Fund managed by the Danish development agency DANIDA.100

The voter register has been significantly overhauled since the 2001 elections.  A new photographic register has been compiled with software to check double registration. Parish tribunals have been formed to check the local registers and remove the names of those who have died, moved away or are registered twice.  Party agents are supposed to nominate agents to witness the work of the tribunals, but in many cases they have not done so, according to the Electoral Commission.101

The Electoral Commission’s main public test of its independence so far was the decision to allow Dr. Besigye to be nominated as a presidential candidate while he was in pre-trial detention in Luzira Prison.  As noted above, the Attorney General contended that Besigye’s nomination would be “tainted with illegalities,”102 but the commission adhered to the law which stated that only persons convicted of certain crimes can be barred from nomination, and not persons who have only been accused.103 It was widely applauded in the Ugandan media and beyond for its decision.

The Commission’s independence is being tested again, in the recruitment of presiding officers and polling officials. DEM Group is concerned that some of those being appointed are known NRM sympathizers.104 DEM Group released a statement urging that “the Electoral Commission should ensure that all proposed presiding officers who have expressed their party affiliation should not be recruited.”105

Not Enough Time to Prepare

Human Rights Watch encountered complaints from voters, opposition parties and NGOs in all of the districts visited about the disorganised, haphazard and at times unprofessional work of the Electoral Commission.  Its independence is so far commendable, together with its decisions to use transparent ballot boxes, and to extend the period of time for the display of the registers. But the Electoral Commission was unable to start its preparations until November 21, 2005, after Parliament had passed the relevant laws.  The extremely tight timeframe is undermining much of the commission’s good work as it rushes to meet deadlines. Commission chairman Prof. Badru Kiggundu rightly noted, “When the enactment of laws is delayed, the smooth planning of the electoral process is hampered leading to poor management of the process, hence insecurity.”106


Voter education, a responsibility of the Electoral Commission, was lagging badly at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit to Uganda, with less than a month to go before polling day.  The Uganda Joint Churches Council, which is carrying out its own voter education in some districts, said, “Voter education is not reaching enough people.”107 The Electoral Commission admits the shortcomings but claims it is powerless to do any more at this stage.108  The effect of the lack of voter education became apparent in a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, published on February 10, which revealed that 47 percent of Ugandans don’t know the date of the Presidential polls, and 79 percent believe that a voter’s card is necessary for voting.109

Voter Registers Not Displayed

The most serious concern is that the voter registers have not effectively been displayed across the country.110  The Electoral Commission acknowledges the problem. It explained to Human Rights Watch that since it had no display boards it was unable to confirm whether the registers had actually been “displayed” at all.111

The Commission told Human Rights Watch that local-level election officials responsible for making the lists publicly accessible (“display officers”) were simply provided with lists of names; whether they actually allowed people to inspect the lists is difficult to test.112 In its interim statement on January 10 on the monitoring of the display exercise, DEM Group reported that in some districts display officers were not present at the polling stations during the specified hours while in others the display officers moved house to house checking people’s names.113 Such a practice is not only illegal, but as DEM Group noted, it leaves open the possibility for electoral manipulation as an officer may decide to only visit certain houses and not all of them.114

DEM Group monitors in Gulu, northern Uganda, interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that display officers were absent from their posts during required hours in Atiak camp and Unyama camp.115 In Ntungamo, southern Uganda, suspicions prompted local FDC officials to request their own copy of the register from FDC colleagues in Kampala. 116 Upon inspection, they reported eighty-five confirmed names in one polling station of persons who were non-residents and a further 141 which they suspect are not genuine, and whom they are investigating.  They are also suspicious of the large number of registered voters (62 percent of residents) in one sub-county (Ngoma) because the census shows that 50.1 percent of the Ugandan population is under fifteen and thus ineligible to vote.117

Voter Verification Software and Voter Card Problems

After the controversy surrounding the 2001 election the Electoral Commission agreed to introduce photo-recognition software for the 2006 elections, and to require that everyone be photographed and their image scanned and included in the actual voter register.  Given the short timeframe, however, this measure will not be fully realized. The software was designed to cross-check photographs against each other to discover people who may have registered more than once.  But due to time constraints, it will not be possible to cross-check all the photographs in the register.  Instead the commission will focus on “hotspots” to identify multiple registered persons.118 So far it has identified 2,000 double-registered people in Kampala and Wakiso districts alone. 

The lack of a comprehensive national scan is a serious shortcoming.  It defeats the purpose of having a register with voters’ photographs, and leaves open the possibility of multiple registration leading to multiple voting.  Nor is it the only problem with the register: in every district visited by Human Rights Watch, residents complained of mixed-up names and photos, missing photos, missing names and spelling mistakes in the register. 

The other voter identity verification safeguard is supposed be voter cards. However, none of the people registered during the last update exercise during October 2005 (approximately two million voters) have yet received their voter cards and may not receive them before the election.119 

Because of the register inaccuracies and the delay in distributing voter cards, the Electoral Commission said in a statement on January 28 that anyone whose particulars and photograph is on the register may vote, and that cards are not needed.120  This poses serious questions about the integrity of the entire voting process.  All the benefits of a computerised and photographic register will be nullified if the decision about who may vote is once again left up to the discretion of polling station officers. As noted above, nearly 80 percent of voters still believe they need a card to vote.  The Electoral Commission has a tough job to get the message out as fast as possible.

Poor communications after the announcement of the creation of new polling stations have left many people struggling to identify and locate their polling station.121  People in Gulu were not familiar with the new places and had sometimes trekked to three or more polling stations before finding their name on the register there.122

Insufficient Election Constables

There are 19,788 polling stations each requiring an “election constable,” normally a policeman, to supervise law and order.123 Existing strength of the police force, who will double as “election constables” at January 30, 2006, is 15,000.  To make up the shortfall more “election constables” are being appointed, but some newly appointed constables have been implicated in human rights abuses. The Arrow Boys, a government militia commanded by a NRM-O parliamentary candidate, are among 4,000 being trained as “Special Constables” to assist with election supervision.124

The Arrow Boys militia were created to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in Teso region in 2003, but have since been accused of lawlessness and terrorising the local population.125 Local residents filed several complaints with the Civil-Military Operations Centre, Soroti, against Opio Egwongu-Redman of that militia, accusing him of extortion, detention without trial and torture of several residents.126 Also implicated is the Arrow Boys’ regional coordinator, the former resident district commissioner and parliamentary candidate for Amuria, Moses Ecweru.127 No investigation of Opio Redman or Moses Ecweru has been made as of the writing of this report.

[98] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill: Will It Improve the Electoral Process?” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, November 25, 2004, [online]

[99] Justice of the Supeme Court Alfred N. Karakora, in Dr. Besigye vs. Yoweri Museveni and Electoral Commission, Supreme Court Judgement Petition No.1 of 2001: “In a limited number of polling stations election officials permitted multiple voting.”

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Simon Osborn, Election Technical Adviser, Kampala, January 25, 2006.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, Kampala, January 27, 2006. 

[102] Attorney General to the Electoral Commission, December 7, 2005. 

[103] Presidential Elections Act, 2005 Section 4, Clause (4)(e,f), states that a person is not qualified for election as an MP [or President] if he has been sentenced to death or to longer than nine months in jail; has been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or moral turpitude in the past seven years; or in the same time period has been convicted for violating election law. 

[104] Human Rights Watch interview, DEM Group official, Kampala, February 5, 2006.

[105] “Statement on the Independence of the Judiciary and Condemnation of Violence,” DEM Group, February 3, 2006.

[106] John Semakula, "Kiggundu blames insecurity on poor laws," Daily Monitor, January 12, 2006. 

[107] Human Rights Watch interview with Clare Okello, UJCC, , Gulu, January 21, 2006. 

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, Kampala, January 27, 2006.

[109] Poll conducted between Jan 20 and 24, 1,200 face to face interviews in urban and rural areas in 46 out of 69 districts, +/- 3% error margin, International Republican Institute, Kampala, February 9, 2006

[110] Electoral Commission Act 2005, Sec. 25,(1), says that for at least 21 days before each election the commission shall display the voters roll for public scrutiny In each parish or ward, and receive objections or complaints to it.

[111] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, January 27, 2006. 

[112] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, January 27, 2006.

[113] “Interim statement on the display of the voter’s register,” DEM Group, January 10, 2006. 

[114] Ibid.

[115] Human Rights Watch interviews with DEM Group officers in Pabbo and Unyama camp, January 21, 2006.  

[116] Human Rights Watch interviews with Residents of Baptist “B” Camp in Soroti, January 15, 2006; Human Rights Watch interview with George Karamira and Barnabas Tuliamusima, FDC, Ntungamo, January 18, 2006. 

[117] Uganda Census 2002, Uganda Bureau of Statistics, [online]

[118] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, Kampala, January 27, 2006. 

[119] Ibid.

[120] Apollo Mubiru and Josephine Maseruka, “Voting without cards allowed,”  New Vision, Kampala, January 29, 2006.

[121] The Electoral Commission says that it issued copies of locations of all the polling stations to the parties and published a list on its website on November 30, 2005. 

[122] Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of Pabbo camp, Gulu, January 21, 2006.

[123] Presidential Election Act 2005, Section 42 (1) states that to maintain order in the polling station throughout polling a presiding officer in a rural area may appoint another person as an election constable in the absence of a police officer, when there is actual or threatened disorder or when it is likely that a large number of voters will seek to vote at the same time.

[124] Human Rights Watch interview with Jabweri Okello, Electoral Commission, January 27, 2006.  See also United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) – Africa, “Uganda: Some Key Names, November 17, 2004, [online]

[125] Testimony collected by NGOs in Teso, on file with Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights Watch interviews with James Enomou and Philip Anyou, January 15, 2006. 

[126] The alleged victims are Okello Lambert, Okiror Lambert and Iputo Sam and his father and wife. Complaints filed with Civil-Military Operations Center, Soroti, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[127] Complaints have been filed against Moses Ecweru for harassment, intimidation, arbitray detention and, according to one witness, the murder of George Pius Obwnagor. Testimony collected by NGOs in Teso, on file with Human Rights Watch.

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