Thursday, 6 March 2014

In Uganda, a Clean and Credible National Voters Register should now be a responsibility of all countrymen and women


In fields such as research, those inclined to disputing given research findings will always latch on to the ‘methodology’. In elections, however, it is overly becoming the question of the integrity of the ‘voters register’.  Since 1996, the question of how clean and credible the voters register in Uganda is has come to the fore not once or twice but several times – both from voices that take active part in the elections as voters or candidates and those that at times stand and look from a distance – the election observers. Despite the semblance of normalcy in the May 9th 1996 Presidential elections in Uganda, hundreds of voters were turned away from the polling stations across the country on account of their names missing from the voters roll – actually, the real complaint was that their names which had originally been on the 1994 Constituency Assembly (CA) voters register had been omitted from the 1996 ‘corrected version’ of the national voters roll.  The grumblings of how this could have affected the election could ostensibly be heard through the sentiments of those who ran as candidates but can also be traced in observer reports of institutions such as the National Organisation for Civic Education and Election Monitoring (NOCEM). Humble as he is, the then Chairperson of the Interim Electoral Commission, Stephen Besweri Akabway admitted the glitches in the register at that time.  

Come 2001 elections, the suspicion around the spike in numbers of voters on the register did not make it easier especially for the election managers. Whereas the 1996 register carried 8.4 million voters, the 2001, roll had over 10.7 million voters – a relatively sharp increase (despite the statistical fact that Uganda’s population growth rate remained the same – 3% in between that electoral cycle). Presidential candidates in the 2001 elections including: Kizza Besigye, and Aggrey Awori spoke in various forums of how the manipulation of the register had skewed election results and disenfranchised legal voters in the election that had handed victory to President Museveni. It also goes without saying that in the 2001 election, over 3 million registered voters did not turn up to vote.

Sentiments from the 2006 and 2011 elections have not been any different from those of the 2001 elections. Of course doubts about the national voters register has become a recital in all subsequent elections with little or no adjustments in both its chorus or verses. In 2006 though, out of the 10.4 million registered voters, over 3.2 million voters still did not appear at their respective polling stations to vote, an occurrence that further reiterated some people’s claims that the roll had a significant number of ‘ghost’ voters.  

On the heels of the 18th February 2011 elections, both candidates and voters raised questions around the comparatively sudden (yet again) increase in the number of registered voters from 10.4 million in 2006 to 13.9 million in 2011.  Over 3.5 million voters had been added on to the register. Political bunter all through that period was nothing less than a debate around Uganda’s voting population. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) had around the same time (in line with its mandate) informed us that about 52% of Ugandans were 15 years and below.  Going by the UBOS statistics, it would therefore mean that the 2011 voters register had 100% or there about (there about in this case means: more or slightly less) of every body above 18 years registered.  How far true, practical and possible this could have been remains a hotly debated issue which election administrators have often shoved to the sidelines of the electoral gutters. 

The challenges around Uganda’s national voters register are (allegedly or realistically) deep and recurrent, extending beyond isolated issues such missing voters’ bio-data on the register and flaring up to having ‘ghost’ voters, multiple entries of a single voter on to the register, underage voting and occasional inaccessibility of the voters register.

This time round, the Electoral Commission has indicated its intentions to leverage from data collected in the on-going citizen registration process to ensure a clean, credible and reliable voters roll ahead of 2016.  Whereas Ugandans may welcome the synergy between EC’s role in the compilation of a national voters register and that of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the framework establishing a national citizen database, there are mixed concerns of both a legal and structural nature – there are pending questions around the legality of EC drawing the national voters register from a citizen repository developed by Ministry of Internal Affairs (yet it is the mandate of the EC to compile the voters register; but also bearing in mind that registration for voting purposes in Uganda is not compulsory but optional).  Alongside the yet unanswered legal questions, there are also structural questions as to whether this long awaited ‘national ID project’ (as commonly known) will by later this year have gathered enough data from which the EC can ‘extract’ clean voters data for the 2016 election.  The road map of the EC has marked September 2014 as the month in which a nation-wide voter register update exercise begins at parish level – this (in my interpretation) inadvertently means that the national repository should by then have solid data for (all) potentially eligible voters across the country.  September is hardly six months away and this leaves more questions than answers as to whether the EC will be in (or on) time to do a good/thorough job with the voters register.

When sections of society speak of their little faith in Ugandan elections, they are not just making clichéd dispositions, they are not just seeking to criticize the election managers, they are probably basing their assertions on real-life experiences that they may have gone through with electoral processes.  Without making sweeping assumptions, these are people who may have previously been turned away from a polling station because their names or bio details did not appear (correctly) on the voters roll (yet they registered); or they witnessed underage or multiple voting occurrences; or they were political party folks who couldn’t access the voters register in time; or they just didn’t get to know about the voter registration and update exercise.

You and I will agree that the register is a key determinant of whether an election is free and fair.  It is therefore critical that as Ugandans we (well in time) resolve to support any process geared towards making our register a tool that genuinely safeguards every eligible voter’s franchise.

And because history so often seems ready to repeat itself, we (ahead of the 2016 elections) must put our feet down to have a clean and credible voters register that we will all believe in. And since there is a possibility of the 2016 voters register being linked to the on-going national ID process, we therefore must closely follow how the national ID project is progressing but also continue pushing for answers and clarity on the pending legal questions. Every right thinking Ugandan would definitely yearn for a clean, reliable register; it is therefore critical that our election administrators keep us informed on the unveiling processes in regard to achieving this aspiration.  It is probably not just enough to pen the process of developing a voters register in documents; it is critical and timely to walk with all Ugandans on this journey of making a credible roll that attracts the confidence of all stakeholders. 

In a nutshell, our election administrators have to (this time round) keep re-assuring Ugandans that the 2016 voters register is going to sail above the previous numerous tests.  Most importantly, the election administrators must come out and allay the fears of those who are being moved to think that the 2016 voters register could (yet again?) be last-minute patch-work that may deeply slant the electoral terrain of Uganda.  

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