Finding Uganda’s 5 Million Lost voters


I woke up on Election Day 2016 early and dejected. I was 300KM away from my polling station. I was to have travelled the previous day with a group of clients from Europe who despite my advice had been unable to push their flight by a week. The plan had been to pick them and travel straight to Fort Portal from Entebbe. At the last minute, they had become piqued by the prospect of election violence and had decided to stay near to the airport. As their only contact person in the country, I was obliged to stay near to them. As the days went by, despite the strong voter turnout, I realized I was not the only one who did not cast my ballot.

According to the Ugandan Electoral Commission, only 10,329,131 out of Uganda’s registered15,277,198 voters cast their ballot on election day 2016 . 4,948,067 Ugandans did not cast their ballot. That is about 5 million Ugandans who did not vote. This number was significantly down from the 5,681,369 voters who did not go to the polls in 2011. In 1996 and 2001 voter turnout was 72.6% and 70.3% respectively. In 2006, it dropped to 69.7%, and in 2011 it fell to 59.3%. The number of eligible voters (those aged 18 and above) has been growing, and now stands at 15 million, up from 13 million in 2011. In 2016 , Voter turnout was 67.6% .

In 2016 , the declared winner won with 5,971, 872 of the votes cast against 3,508,687 who voted for the runner up . In 2011 , the declared winner won with 5,428,369 votes cast against 2,064,963 for the runner up.

In both elections , the voters who did not turn up could have turned the tide either way . I am a firm believer in letting your voice being heard through casting your vote and had been openly berating people who were saying they were not going to vote. By using both persuasion and insults (yap I am guilty ) , I had tried to get people around me to vote regardless of who they were voting for. Suddenly I found myself on the other side of the divide: the one who did not vote. And I decided to find out why some wouldn’t vote.

I found that generally those who did not vote could fit into five different categories.

The first person I came across was Louise . She had wanted to vote . She had decided to vote.  “A few days before election day , I decided to check my eligibility to vote on the online Electoral commission database. I went to the website and did not find my name. So I searched using my resgitration number and behold , I existed under another bloody name. My number was registered to someone called Susan N. My name is not Susan. It is Louise.  ”

When Louise contacted the electoral commission, she was told that the voter register had been up for months waiting such corrections and had now been finalized. She was told to correct her details after the election since the time had passed for editing the voter register.

“I spent election day watching movies and drinking wine,  ” Louise talks of her Election Day experience. She was not the only one. A number of people got their details messed up when the electoral commission decided to retire the voters register it had been using since 1996 and start afresh.

On April 1, 2015, the EC abandoned the process it used in 2001, 2005 and 2010 of updating the register. That process is required by both the Constitution and the EC Act. Instead, it issued a press release in which it announced it was in the process of “compiling” a new national voters’ register for purposes of the 2016 general elections. The “compiling” was by way of extracting data containing the particulars of registered and verified Ugandans from the national ID Register. The register was not in existence at the time. The information itself was in fact compiled by the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. The Uganda Citizenship and Immigration Act in Section 31, says registration will be done by the Citizens and Immigration Board.

Information from the national ID register is what the EC displayed during the update period instead of displaying the national voters’ register in its possession. According to WanderaOgalo,anadvocate, that is not updating the national voters’ register on a “continuous basis” as required by law. It disregarded Article 61 of the Constitution, which commands it to update a register it has compiled.

This gave rise to the second category of people who did not vote. The process of using national ID’s to register voters resulted in numerous mishaps with some voters having to travel from the polling stations they had been using in previous elections to newly assigned one. One voter Stella had to use a bodaboda (public transport motorcycle) to three different polling stations before finding where she had been re-assigned.

Others were not so persistent .Jamil , went to his polling station that morning to find that he was at the wrong polling station. “The EC people were clueless. Try the next polling station is what they told me. I went to the next polling station and they told me the same thing. I just went home. I didn’t have the energy and money to spend. ”

A third category of people who didn’t vote seems to throw the blame on the electoral commission inefficiency . Delays to the opening of polls in the Feb. 18 vote was the main complaint received by the Women’s Situation Room, and most of those reports were in and around the capital, Kampala, said Jessica Nkuuhe, the centre’s national coordinator.

“The delays turned off most women from exercising their rights to vote,” Nkuuhe told Thomson Reuters Foundation after the election.”As the delays continued, more women left the voting queues to return home and attend to their domestic duties.”

Voters complained of delays in delivery of ballot materials on Election Day, especially in areas seen as opposition strongholds.Five hours after voting was scheduled to start, some polling stations in the capital, Kampala,had still not received any voting papers. People had formed long lines and ballot boxes had arrived by mid-morning, but by noon there were still no ballots. Whereas most voters who had showed up braved the hot sun, a number gave up and went home. Other areas that were affected by voting delays included Wakiso , some stations in Busoga and the Rwenzori region. In some areas like Ggaba and Wakiso , elections were held the day after election day . In the places where the voting stated late, the Electoral Commission was forced to extend the voting deadline to 7pm instead of the 4pm as required by law. In both cases the EC had the mandate to make these decisions.


My own personal case was also an example of a factor that contributed to some people not voting. A number of voters are registered to vote in different areas of the country where they might have been living or working at the time they registered for their national ID’s . Two days before Election Day, transport fares increased for people travelling from Kampala to upcountry. This came on the heels of commodity prices raising ahead of the elections as a number of Ugandans stocked food in fear of post election violence. Coupled with the unexpected blockage of Mobile money and limits on ATM bank withdrawals , Ugandans were left with a liquidity issue. It is estimated that Ugandans were unable to access over 100 billion UGX that was on their mobile money accounts held by various telcos when the platform was shutdown. Nearly 20 million mobile money users were unable to access the service for at leasttwo-and-half days.It was confirmed by Mr Godfrey Mutabazi, the executive director Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), that the mobile money service was taken down due to “national security reasons.”


“The commission in exercise of its mandate, under Section 5 (1) (b) and (x) of the Uganda Communications Act 2013 and other laws issued a directive to telecommunications operators and internet service providers to curb further proliferation of harmful content on the internet and social media,” MrMutabazi said in a statement.

As such , people decided to hold onto the money they had as contingency funds. Travel to upcountry to vote became a luxury .

The fifth category of people who did not vote is there in every election. Sarah last voted in 2006.

“Back then I believed my vote mattered,” She said , “Right now , I don’t see my vote contributing to sustainable change. My area voted an opposition MP and the situation on the ground remained the same. All politicians are the same. They are in it for themselves. They always increase their own salaries as soon as they get into office. ”

Eunice Namara, a social worker in Kampala talking to the Guardian, did not vote in the previous election and won’t do so this time. “There is no need,” she says. “Ugandans remain poor, and every time we vote nothing changes.”

Miriam Ahumuza, an MBA student at Makerere University, says: “Even if you vote, they will rig [the elections] and the same people will return.”

Dr Livingstone Sewanyana, a citizen’s coalition member and director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, stresses that some Ugandans think elections “have not had an impact on the quality of life they need”.

“There is still no adequate healthcare, people’s incomes have not improved and unemployment is still problematic, but then elections always retain the same old leadership and this has made some Ugandans see voting as a waste of time,” said Sewanyana as quoted by the Guardian.

My search for the reasons why nearly five million people did not vote did not give me the answers I craved. How could these people be made to vote ? The main reason turned out to be voter apathy. After the public lost confidence in the EC with the way they handled they general elections , most did not bother to show up to participate in the council elections which were held a week later. The figures are not yet in but the turnout was way lower. Until people feel that the institutions handling the voting process are fair and efficient, voter apathy will remain. Politicians too need to enact development that addresses voter needs when they are in power so as to encourage voter participation . As long as that is not addressed, I fear that voter apathy is only going to increase.

Written by Businge Abid Weere


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