Uganda: Observers Contradict Themselves on 1980 Poll

By Faustin Mugabe

Election Observers are not court prosecutors. But are witnesses of an electoral exercise.

They first came to Uganda to witnesses the 1980 elections. The team arrived in the last week of November 1980 to observe the infamous December 10, 1980, general election.

The nine observers and 50 supporting staff were all from Commonwealth countries. The team was headed by a retired West African diplomat who had last been Ghana's High Commissioner to India.

UPC opposes observers' presence

There has been the question, who invited the election observers in 1980? And some mistakenly thought that it was the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC).

In fact, owing to the political turmoil that prevailed in the country at the time, there was an attempt to have a peace keeping force come to Uganda before the elections were held. This was so because there was fear that the country was headed for a ruin because of extra judicial killings and political persecution happening in the country. But the National Consultative Council (NCC), the interim Parliament, opposed that.

When it was decided that the elections would be held, NCC accepted the presence of the international election observers from the Commonwealth after a request was made by members of political parties in the NCC.

But while the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), Conservative Party (CP) and Democratic Party (DP) welcomed the presence of the observers in the country, UPC, then led by party president Milton Obote, did not want the observers to come.

During a press conference on December 4, 1980, in Kampala, Obote said: "The presence of the Commonwealth observers to the December 10 national elections is not a source of pride to Uganda which is a sovereign State.

The Uganda Peoples Congress has reservations on the observer group which arrived in the country last week to observe next Wednesday's national elections."

He went on to say: "We shall cooperative with them. But it is a humiliating situation, because our country has been brutalised for many years.

The coming of the Commonwealth group to decide whether the elections have been free and fair is not our pride. Before the group came, their terms of reference were not clear. Do they have executive powers? Or are they coming to observe as journalist would?"

"There are nine observers with a supporting staff numbering 50. But supposing one of the nine reports back to the Commonwealth secretariat in London that the elections were not free and fair, would this not bring problems?"

The next day, Dr David Anyoti, then minister of Information and Broadcasting in the Military Commission (transitional government led by Paulo Muwanga), held a press conference in Kampala and joined Obote in questioning the role of the observers.

He wondered why they had come to Uganda and not gone to observe elections in Jamaica or India.

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The interim report by the Commonwealth observers was authored on December 11, 1980. The preamble read: "It is unique in the annals of democracy for a sovereign nation to invite an international group to observe its national elections and report where they were free and fair. Our role, which was endorsed by all political parties [UPM, UPC, DP and CP], is without precedent. The response of the people of Uganda to our presence has been heart-warming."

During the polling exercise, the observers witnessed a numbers of irregularities and in their Interim report, they mentioned the following as some of them:

"In the capital Kampala, however, polling arrangements have been seriously marred by inordinate and inexcusable delays. In a number of stations polling had not commenced till late in the afternoon, and in some not even at the scheduled hour of closure."

"It would be difficult to believe that this has been wholly the result of mere incompetence. The period fixed for the poll ended in confusion. In the afternoon, a radio announcement by the Electoral Commission extended the poll till 2pm on December 11 and officials were instructed to sleep overnight with their ballot boxes even where polling was complete and without being offered adequate security."

"We were besieged by telephone calls from fearful polling staff, party agents and irate and suspicious electorate, but our observations so far this morning suggests that the evening may have passed without major problems.

In many parts of the country, counting had already commenced on December 10 in ignorance of the Electoral Commissions announcement."

The last paragraph of the report reads: "The group as a whole is continuing to monitor the count and our final view must be contingent on how it is conducted and how the ballot boxes were store overnight."

"At this stage, however, despite the imperfection and deficiencies to which we have drawn attention, and subject to the concern expressed on the question of nominations and unopposed returns [MPs], we believe this has been a valid electoral exercise which should broadly reflect the freely expressed choice of the people of Uganda."

Truth told after 17 years

Seventeen years after the elections, the truth was revealed. On March 14, 1997, during the Benedicto Kiwanuka memorial seminar hosted at the International Conference Centre (now Serena Conference Centre) in Kampala, Jeremy Pope, who was one of the observers said DP had won the elections but UPC changed the results.

"Right from the start, we knew that [Paulo] Muwanga, chairman of the Military Commission, could not accept any results which did not favour him.

In fact, the massive rigging was a disgrace to African democracy and I am writing a book about soon," Pope was quoted as having said by local newspapers on March 20, 1997.

Pope, who was now working with Transparency International, an anti-corruption NGO, further revealed that at a certain time during the counting of the votes, they rang the Commonwealth secretary general and he told them to do whatever they thought would not put the lives of Ugandans at a bigger risk.

"That is when the group [observers] decided to go by whatever the Electoral Commission announced. There was no better option," he narrated.

Speaking to the defunct Crusader newspaper on March 19, 1997, during the good governance seminar hosted at Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe, Pope said: "The observers group deliberately left out the clause 'free and fair' in their report. There was no way we could say the elections were free and fair while candidates and their supporters were being killed."

"The democratic party had actually won about 99 per cent in many constituencies where UPC candidates were declared winners."

Pope also narrated that the observers flew out some of their members for safety when Muwanga started doctoring the results.

Source: All Africa