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Ugandans continue to queue to cast their votes at sunset in the capital Kampala, Uganda Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. © (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

(Nairobi, December 22, 2020) –Thousands of people in the village of Apaa in Northern Uganda may be unable to vote in the January 14, 2021 elections if authorities do not take urgent steps to update the voters’ register, Human Rights Watch said today. Against the backdrop of a decade-long land dispute with the government, the Apaa community members have been denied many of their rights.

Between November 2019 and March 2020, Uganda’s Electoral Commission sought to update the national voters’ register, including by verifying existing voters and registering newly eligible ones across the country, but it excluded Apaa. Consequently, residents of the area who became eligible or wanted to register to vote since the last elections, in 2016, will not be able to do so in the forthcoming elections. How, and if, Apaa residents already on the register will be able to vote is also uncertain. For at least 10 years, security forces have carried out violent evictions in Apaa, which the government claims is part of the East Madi Wildlife Reserve.

“Excluding the people of Apaa village from participating in elections would be the Ugandan government’s most recent violation of their rights,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should take urgent steps to ensure that people in Apaa are able to exercise their right to vote, while also making every effort to resolve the decade-long forced displacement of residents from the disputed land.”

The Ugandan army and wildlife and forestry officers have violently evicted residents of the disputed area, burning their homes, beating them, and looting their property. Officials have blocked access to the area to outsiders and closed a health center and a market serving the area. In July 2018, 234 residents of Apaa traveled 100 kilometers to the offices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Gulu to seek safety and to appeal for humanitarian support after soldiers allegedly torched their homes. They left 30 days later after the Parliament Speaker and officials at the embassies of Denmark, Norway, and the EU assured them that they would work to resolve the issue. In August, President Museveni formed a committee led by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda to resolve the dispute, but it made no progress on an agreement. In March 2019, the Speaker of Parliament set up a separate committee to examine the issues and, in February 2020, it recommended that the government suspend plans to relocate or evict people. The government has continued to push people to leave Apaa, however.

In April and May 2019, local media reported that the authorities ordered the Apaa market to close and relocate to Zoka, 40 kilometers away. On May 9, 2019, Rugunda announced a plan to relocate all Apaa residents and to compensate each of up to 340 households with 10 million Uganda Shillings (about $US 2,700), 20 bags of cement, and 20 iron sheets. The community declined the offer, which would have compensated a small percentage of residents of Apaa for only a fraction of their loss and harm. President Yoweri Museveni then set up a new committee to look into the matter.

On July 9, 2018, the Electoral Commission removed Apaa as an electoral area, which put the status of the three polling stations there – Apaa Primary School, Apaa Health Center, and Apaa Market – in question. The electoral body cited a communication from the Ministry of Local Government that placed Apaa within forestry and wildlife reserves, meaning it was “not open to human settlement.” The Electoral Commission has, however, since listed 2,166 voters as registered under the three polling stations for the 2021 elections.

In November 2019, the Electoral Commission updated the voters’ register across the country, and in February 2020 displayed the register at polling stations to enable registered voters to verify their data, however it did neither in Apaa. Lawyers representing 2,210 voters registered at the three polling stations in 2016 said in a letter to the Electoral Commission in August 2020 that over 1,000 people have become eligible to vote since 2016 and would miss out on the vote.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that based on Apaa’s population size, there is likely a significant number of other unregistered voters who have not been given the chance to join the register. While the Uganda Bureau of Statistics records the population of Apaa village as approximately 11,000, a recent unofficial door-to-door census carried out by community members puts it at 26,000.

Some registered voters also told Human Rights Watch that the Electoral Commission reassigned them to other polling stations, in some cases in an apparently arbitrary manner that would require voters to travel many kilometers to exercise their voting rights. Ferdinal Ojera, 31, one of those interviewed, said that he had been assigned to a station 50 kilometers from his home.

Apaa residents told Human Rights Watch that the Electoral Commission has not conducted any of the electoral activities in the area that the law requires, including voter education. Party primary elections to select representatives for explicitly designated constituencies – youth, people with disabilities, workers, and older people – that took place in October in other parts of the country were not conducted in Apaa.

On December 10, 2020, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Electoral Commission to request more information about these concerns. The Electoral Commission has not responded. Ugandan authorities are obligated to ensure that all Ugandans, including Apaa residents, have a fair opportunity to vote for their representatives in the coming elections, Human Rights Watch said. Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights protects the right to participate in public affairs through chosen representatives. Uganda’s constitution requires the government to ensure that all citizens age 18 and older register and exercise their right to vote, and the Electoral Commission Act requires the Electoral Commission to conduct voter registration and education.

The Ugandan government should also immediately commit to end forced evictions and establish an effective consultative process to resolve the property dispute. The resolution should fully respect human rights, including the right to property under article 14 of the African Charter, and international legal norms regarding fair procedures for compulsory acquisition of land and equitable compensation.

“The Electoral Commission should take urgent steps to include all eligible residents from Apaa in the updated voters’ register and ensure that they can participate in the elections on an equal basis with other Ugandans,” Namwaya said. “Anything short of the full restoration of the rights of Apaa residents to exercise their right to vote would mar the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections."

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