Vital lessons in the art of stealing an election in Africa

Like everything else, election rigging requires skill and talent to do well.

Thursday February 25 2016

Volunteers check to make sure ballot boxes are intact on February 15, 2016 in Kampala in a warehouse of the Uganda Electoral Commission ahead of the presidential election. PHOTO | AFP

Volunteers check to make sure ballot boxes are intact on February 15, 2016 in Kampala in a warehouse of the Uganda Electoral Commission ahead of the presidential election. PHOTO | AFP 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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Uganda had presidential and parliamentary elections last week that have become a joke around Africa and the world.

I saw that even South African comedian brother Trevor Noah had a laugh with it on his programme on the American cable channel Comedy Central.

And social media had a feast. Facebook and Twitter were blocked, opponents were beaten, arrested (the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, Kizza Besigye, was arrested five times in a week, including on election week), ballot boxes were stuffed, voting was delayed for 24 hours in some areas, there was over-voting galore, over-counting, and under-counting (in some places less than two per cent of the votes were counted).

Africans are given to stealing elections, yes, but at least let us do it well and with class.

COMPETENT RIGGING

We cannot have stolen elections all these years, and yet we have not mastered it. We need to refine the art of election theft and end this embarrassment.

Fortunately, around Africa, there are examples of competent election rigging.

First, you cannot steal elections successfully without philosophical clarity.

A lot of election cheats spend a lot of time trying not to get caught — and that is the reason they get caught in the end. For example, in the Ugandan case this time, ballot papers were ticked before they were brought to some polling stations.

No one saw who had ticked them. But then at one station there was a riot because an inept election official gave voters ballot papers that had already been ticked in favour of the Big Man.

That was downright stupid.

Where there were cleverer election officials, they left the pre-ticked ballots in the box and gave voters fresh ones.

The problem is that when the votes were counted, in some instances they were several times more than the people who had voted.

That was the work of amateurs who were overzealous and tried too hard not to get caught.

So, the goal of vote rigging should be to seek “credible deniability”, not to avoid being caught, as such.

FRELIMO DIRTY TRICKS

A good example comes from a story I was told by an election observer in the first free vote in Mozambique. The ruling Frelimo played dirty in some places.

Ahead of the election in a vote-rich area, it spread word that rebels had been seen in the hills beyond.

There was tight security on the day of the vote and the ballot boxes were collected at central places in the region.

The counting was to be done in the morning. The agents of the various candidates slept in the big tent in the open where ballot boxes were stacked to ensure that no one played funny games.

In the area where this observer was, late in the night, soldiers went into the hills, fired a few shots in the air, and spread word that the rebels were attacking.

When breathless soldiers ran into the compound announcing the advance of the rebels, everyone took off.

The Frelimo people were thus left alone for the rest of the night to rearrange the ballots. No one was beaten, no one was hurt.

SKILL AND TALENT

Some years ago in the western Uganda town of Kabale, a candidate sent his men with sacks of money to his popular opponent’s strongholds and they bought for the voters there all the booze they could get.

By the morning, many had either passed out or were too drunk or hang over to go to the polling stations. He won the seat.

In the 1996 elections, it was a two-horse race between Museveni and veteran opposition politician Paul Ssemwogerere.

In parts of the south and west, there were lorries filled with bicycles and mopeds driving near the polling stations.

They put the word out that all Ssemwogerere’s agents at the polling stations had to do was leave their stations, go to the roadside, get their bicycles, and go home.

Only a handful of Ssemwogerere’s agents were left to keep an eye on their man’s votes. That is how it is done.

The decline in rigging standards and lack of finesse seen in last week’s election, therefore, should be worrying.

That is because, in Africa, we have seen that governments and parties that are adept at stealing elections generally govern their countries better than the incompetent thieves.

A good example is the contrast between SWAPO in Namibia and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe.

Like everything else, election rigging requires skill and talent to do well.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]

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