As Uganda was recognizing the Democratic day, my mind was taken back to the 2011 campaign. We had taken a half-term-holiday for the parliamentary and presidential elections. My aunt, with whom I was staying for the break said that she would not waste time casting her vote; the winner was already known and assured. Looking back at her statement then, I can’t help thinking that this doubt has caused the degradation of democracy in our country.
What caused this kind of resignation in Ugandans? A conference at Sheraton yesterday morning was centred on discussing the effect of disinformation and misinformation on democracy. The main discussants argued that the unprofessional transmission of information in the country has killed the faith in our democratic institutions over time. I am inclined to believe that their argument is logical.
It is inarguable that there was a point in the last decade of the twentieth century when Ugandans believed that their voices and choices mattered. There was faith in the democratic institutions and their ability to function without undemocratic influence. Truly, we may blame the loss of faith on the President and the government’s failure to conduct a free and fair election since 2001. However, I think that the change is a result of an entire generation whose train of though has been shaped by a group of individuals that sought political points.
When Col. Besigye lost the 2006 presidential elections, he evinced his dissatisfaction with the result and vowed to use whatever means necessary – even a trip back to the bush – to get just results; or results to his satisfaction. Although his distrust of the results was justified by the circumstances which preceded the election, the same that have persisted all through, there was no proof of actual tampering with the ballots. There were only circumstances that affected the conduction of the election!
Unfortunately, the country did not do much to remedy these unjust circumstances. The Supreme Court has issued reform recommendations to cure the biased environment that exists during electoral periods. However, the government has always ignored these reforms; implementing only a few where it suits the ruling party.
Neither the opposition nor the public are victims! We have collectively failed to follow up on the reform recommendations and demand their implementation. Yet, having them would translate into a healthier electoral period. Why is it that we don’t care about these reforms and yet expect change? Why does the idea persist that the ballot is tampered with despite the court finding otherwise in every presidential election petition over the years? Our failure to focus on the centre of the problem is owed to misinformation and disinformation.
As the opposition reaped political points from the failures of government, they cost the faith in the Ugandan democratic institutions. Col. Besigye, the man that has been the face of the opposition in Uganda for over a decade, focused – thereby leading the public to focus – on an inexistent problem. Meanwhile, the actual problem became evident years later, when he too had started to lose public support owing to his continual failure to measure up to the incumbent.
The public was led into a chant demanding for change, led by an opposition that wasn’t creating strategies for this change. In fact, they misinformed the public into thinking that unseating the incumbent was very simple. The demand should not have focused on change but on electoral and legal reforms. Instead, as we looked at its right hand, the government used its left to enact laws the interpretation of which gave it leeway to legally oppress the freedom of expression which is very vital for healthy democratic institutions.
Further, the failure to revise the laws to cater for the contemporary Uganda left many good laws unenforceable because of semantics. The opposition failed to truly inform Ugandans about the importance of reform – perhaps out of ignorance – and instead directed focus on an agenda that sought something without laying down a strategy for attaining it.
With time, the opposition built and grew, albeit inconsequentially compared to their counterparts in the ruling party. Unfortunately, as the opposition grew, its quality did not improve along; it receded!
The government, for starters, wasn’t positive towards the implementation of the reforms suggested by the Supreme Court. Truly, when one considers the laws that have been enacted ever since 2011, one realizes the laxity of the government towards pursuing effective electoral reforms. Granted, a few have been realized, but without any substantial effect.
The country still has electoral violence as was witnessed in the NRM primaries. It has not been uncommon for there to be a presence of ‘military’ personnel in civilian attire around polling stations. For a country with a history like ours, such a presence has adverse psychological effects on the people who remember the tougher times.
There is still a partisan element in the manner of police operation especially towards leading opposition. In the past elections since 2006, electoral supplies have often been inadequate, especially in opposition strongholds. Some polling stations have reported late delivery of ballot boxes and papers resulting in the voting process being delayed. In the end, many are unable to vote and those that do, feel rushed!
The opposition candidates risk facing deadly force whenever they hold a political gathering; and, with time, any kind of gathering. The country – specifically in the capital, Kampala, which is an opposition hotspot – is continually chaotic during electoral periods; owing to unjustifiable and unnecessary heavy deployment of securityforces. All these factors have been constant throughout previous pre-election and election periods.
The government has not shied away from employing propaganda to damage the opposition’s reputation. It was seen in the 2018 Arua by-election where the now NUP President, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, had one of his colleagues killed and he, thereafter, was charged with illegal possession of firearms. This was frivolous prosecution; Hon. Kyagulanyi was detained and allegedly tortured!
It is one thing to objectively broadcast and report all this information and another to continually host people with personal inclinations to discuss such matters. Such television programs tend to paint a biased picture based on the guest’s point of view. In the end, there is more enabling of misinformation from opposition agents and disinformation from government agents by the most watched and influential broadcasters.
Further, so much discussion is done over the media with little action to match. The speedy evolution of communication technology in the last decade has been a platform for the growth of numerous mediums of information sharing. Unfortunately, these platforms have no means of verifying the information that is shared on them.
The result of this is a few Ugandans sharing their uninformed or ill-informed thoughts so overwhelmingly – making their views seem like a proper representation of the general country – causing the many to forget about those whose lives don’t evolve around modern life-aids. There’s a breed of people who take the information they get off WhatsApp to be factual, provided it is fashioned as such.
Consequently, the government has had to find ways of curbing the mismanagement of such platforms by their users. We have since seen the introduction of the Over The Top (OTT) tax. Recently, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) informed the public of its intention to introduce a tax on any publication that operates as – for lack of a better way to put it – a trader in information. It is likely that there will be great ambiguity regarding the implementation of such a tax.
The general effect of mismanagement of information platforms and selfishly charged informative campaigns is the death of trust in our democratic potential. The incessant wails and cries, from the opposition, of foul play reflect an inability of our democratic institutions to deliver fairness, thereby causing the public to lose faith. Therefore, the citizens, as a result of believing less and less in the possibility of the ballot changing their political circumstances, have refrained from voting.
Hopefully, seeing as Hon. Kyagulanyi has reinvigorated the cry for change accompanied by an outcry for voter participation, there may be a better strategy underhand. One that seeks real effective electoral reforms which, should they be implemented, will be reflected in more acceptable election practices and results. Then, people will trust the democratic institutions again.
So, what is the effect of disinformation and misinformation to democracy in Uganda? Such have been the death of democracy in the country!
- Joel Kenneth Ndawula is a Student of Law at Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi. He is an inspired writer, the editor and author here; a blogger of sorts.
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