February 10, 2016
KAMPALA, UGANDA — When Uganda’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, held its primaries in October 2015, Namuga Sarah Kasule hoped to win a candidacy for parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.
But Kasule, a local council representative who hoped to represent Busiiro County North, a constituency in Wakiso District that surrounds the capital, Kampala, lost the contest. She blames voter bribery.
“I never won because I never gave money to voters,” she says.
Some voters demanded money while she campaigned, she says, but she didn’t give them any.
“Some were honest enough to tell me that I had great ideas for the constituency, but they were voting for someone giving them something that I wasn’t,” she says.
Ugandans go to the polls to elect a president and parliamentary representatives on Feb. 18. That’s when, experts say, candidates who have bribed voters expect to be paid back, in the form of electoral victory. Civil society organizations are monitoring candidates’ spending and educating the public about the value of their votes, but widespread poverty in the country makes some voters easy prey for bribery.
Buying and selling votes is illegal in Uganda, and punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine, according to the Parliamentary Elections Act, 2005. Candidates who are convicted of buying votes can be disqualified from future elections, and if those candidates are in office, their elections can be nullified in court, says Paul Bukenya, the deputy public relations officer of the Electoral Commission.
Even so, voter bribery is common in Uganda, where politicians ply citizens with money and gifts including food, drinks, salt, soap, mattresses, plates and cooking pans, according to a 2011 report by DEMGroup, a consortium of civil society organizations.
During the ruling party primaries in which Kasule ran, many candidates in 74 constituencies that were studied claimed to have spent a minimum of 200 million Ugandan shillings ($57,588) each in their campaigns, according to a report by the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM), a coalition of civil society organizations and activists who advocate for transparency and accountability in the elections.
Some of the money was used on campaign expenses including transportation,but huge sums were also donated to churches, mosques, schools, youth and women’s groups, and offered as cash and gifts to individual voters, the report says.
Some politicians bribed voters secretly, but others were brazen, even giving voters cash as they entered polling stations, according to the report.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Money determined the outcomes of these polls, the report says. In 70 of the 74 constituencies studied, candidates who gave the most money to voters won their elections, the report says.
Despite widespread allegations of voter bribery, the electoral commission says it’s not aware of any such cases.
“It’s easy for people to allege that they’ve witnessed vote buying without providing evidence,” says Bukenya, the deputy public relations officer of the commission. “We act on the basis of official reporting, where we involve the police and carry out investigations.”
Poverty creates an environment in which vote buying and selling thrives, says Henry Muguzi Aliwaali, the national coordinator for ACFIM.
“Some people are poor, and can only have 500 shillings (14 cents) in their pockets, so when someone offers them 500,000 shillings ($144) during campaigns, they are more than happy to receive it,” he says.
About 20 percent of Uganda’s population lived below the poverty line in 2012-2013, according to the Uganda Poverty Status Report.
Many Ugandans readily exchange their votes for money or gifts because it’s the only way they’ll benefit from the electoral process, Aliwaali says.
“People consider this as a business transaction, because they know that when these politicians make it to Parliament, they will sell themselves to the executive and get paid to pass laws that only benefit those in power,” Aliwaali says.
Politicians say they offer money and gifts to voters because it is the only way to win their support.
Johnson Nkuuhe, a former parliamentarian, says voters demand cash.
“Sometimes vote buying can’t be defined as bribery, because here voters are demanding for money, while with a bribe, someone offers it,” he says.
Victoria Kagere, a student at Makerere University, agrees. Ugandans always demand money when they see political candidates, she says.
“It’s the evil culture we have,” Kagere adds.
She says she’s seen crowds of voters shouting at a politician, “Give us money and we will vote for you!”
Tanga Odoi, the chairman of the National Resistance Movement’s electoral commission, says bribery doesn’t always determine an election’s outcome.
“Some politicians think that when they give out money to the voter, they would win the elections, but sometimes people will vote a candidate on individual merit, and performance,” he says. “Many parliamentary candidates used money in the primaries thinking it would buy them votes, but over 100 of them lost.”
“Money sometimes does influence the results, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says.
And some voters say receiving a cash handout doesn’t guarantee their vote.
“I am an NRM supporter and will vote for President (Yoweri) Museveni with or without his money,” says Courtney, a Kampala resident who asked that only part of her name be used.
Courtney says National Resistance Movement agents gave her 20,000 shillings ($5.76) as a transportation refund after she attended Museveni’s campaign rally in November 2015 at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala.
Party officials could not be reached to comment on whether they paid people to attend campaign rallies.
Voter bribery will wane if unemployment is addressed, Odoi says.
“When we have proper functioning systems, corruption will be eliminated, institutions will be built, services will come closer to the people, and people will find jobs,” he says.
But politicians who oppose Museveni’s regime say bribery will only end when he’s out of office.
Nathan Nandala Mafabi, a parliamentarian and former opposition leader, says Museveni promotes the culture of voter bribery by giving out money and gifts.
Between May and August 2015, Museveni gave away at least 9.7 billion shillings ($2.8 million) in cash donationsto voters, according to a report by ACFIM.
“Museveni has been president for 30 years, kept Ugandans poor, thinking that with money, he can buy them off during elections,” Mafabi says.
Kasule says voters need to be sensitized about their rights and the pricelessness of their votes.
“Citizens should be told that what they should expect from their leaders is good governance and service delivery, not campaign tokens,” Kasule says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated one interview from Luganda.