A Steady Hand Guiding Uganda’s Elections

Ugandans go to the polls on Thursday, February 18, but the moment Dr. Badru Kiggundhu, Chairman of the Ugandan Electoral Commission, is waiting for is two days later when resplendent in his dark grey officiating robe decorated with a band in Uganda’s colors of  black, gold and red, he proclaims the result of the elections. With this pronouncement, three long years of hard work planning and executing presidential and parliamentary elections come to an end.

An engineer, mathematician, and former Dean of Faculty of Technology at Makerere University, Dr. Kiggundhu is a man who likes precision, rules, facts and figures. Rattling off the number of polling stations or the clauses in the Ugandan Constitution, he is clearly in his element.  As a geotechnical expert and chair of several conferences on Earthquake disaster preparedness, one assumes his unflappable demeanor runs deep. One thing is clear: Dr. Kiggundhu takes very seriously his mandate to “organize and conduct regular free and fair elections and referenda professionally, impartially, and efficiently.”

Dr. Kiggundhu firmly asserts the independence of his Commission. Paraphrasing Article 62 of the Ugandan Constitution, he says, “No-one is permitted to give instructions to the Electoral Commission.” He stresses that his final report will go to Parliament, not the President, and at no time does he report to the President.

uganda-voterThe work for this year’s election began in 2013, with the reorganization of Uganda’s polling stations. It was a massive undertaking as they expanded about nearly 24,000 polling stations to the current 28,010. Next, they embarked on a mass voter enrollment program, registering anyone who would be 18 years old by the date of elections. By the end of 2014, they had more than 16 million registered voters, already far exceeding the number registered at the time of the previous presidential elections in 2011. Several polls have shown voter registration to be well over 90%, and Research World International’s poll showed 96% knew the location of their polling station.

The Electoral Commission compiled voter lists using biometric system to register voters. With this, they are able for the first time to introduce biometric voter identification machines at every polling station, as well as back-up machines in case of malfunction. The machine will identify each voter and his or her voting status based on a thumbprint or barcode on the person’s national ID. Aimed at further strengthening election credibility, the machines make sure one person, one vote can be verified.

In November 2015, the Electoral Commission began accepting nominations. Eight presidential candidates were nominated, with four coming from political parties: President Yoweri Museveni from the National Resistance Movement, Dr. Kizza Besigye from the Forum for Democratic Change, Amama Mbabazi from Go Forward, and Abed Bwanika from the People’s Development Party. There are also four candidates running as independents: Maureen Kyalya, Venansius Baryamureeba, Joseph Mabirizi, and Benon Biraaro. For parliamentary elections, more than 2000 candidates were nominated, but only about 400 qualified.

Each of the candidates must agree with the Electoral Commission rules for engagement, including times and places for rallies. In addition, there are election laws laid out in the Ugandan Constitution that must be obeyed by each candidate. “So far, it has been a relatively peaceful campaign,” notes Dr. Kiggundhu. He has had to warn one candidate, Dr. Besigye, who declared from the beginning he would run a campaign of defiance, but Dr. Kiggundhu reports there have been no other issues with the candidates.

With candidates known, printing ballots begins. The security measures that go into ballot printing is every bit as complex as what goes into printing currency. The total number of ballots printed is 15,987,800, which is slightly over the number of registered voters in order to provide for ballots that must be discarded due to spoilage. Ballots were divided between three printing sites: Dubai, United Kingdom, and South Africa, and a team of technical experts were deployed to each printing site to verify names as well as all security features and serial numbers being put into place. Presidential candidates were invited to witness the printing process. Once printed, the ballots were transported to Entebbe Airport, where the Electoral Commission was present to accept shipments. Candidates, accredited observers and media were allowed to witness the ballots’ arrival in Entebbe.

Throughout the process, from design and printing, to packing, delivering, storage, and dispatching to districts, all follow strict quality controls. Dr. Kiggundhu notes any variance can cause questions to arise. One recent incident involved a slight delay in the shipment of ballots from South Africa due to weather. The plane was delayed from strong headwinds, but suddenly there were accusations that the Ethiopian Airways plane detoured to Rwanda. “The accusation is utterly baseless,” said Dr. Kiggundhu at a recent press conference. His assertion was soon verified by flight data from the Air Traffic Control Unit at Kigali International Airport and the airway bill issued by Ethiopian Airlines, both of which confirmed the flight did not make a stopover. “The ballots were delayed due to weather,” Dr. Kiggundhu explains, noting he was present in Entebbe to accept the ballots.

“Anything can start innuendos,” adds Dr. Kiggundhu, and certainly competitive elections can be a breeding ground for rumors and innuendo. This is why Dr. Kiggundhu and the Electoral Commission take all election procedures very seriously and any variances or grievances are investigated thoroughly.

Heading into the homestretch of this election cycle, Dr. Kiggundhu is looking forward to the moment that by regulation must happen with 48 hours of the closing of the last poll. It’s when he is in the hot seat, dressed in his judicial robes, the data has all come through and he reads out the final results. Until then, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the elections are free, fair, transparent, and credible. “If I get 3 to 4 hours sleep a night I will be happy,” he says with a chuckle.