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Rabbi Sizomu Loses Election, Alleges Rigging

Dispatch from Uganda

Matthew Fishbane
February 22, 2011
Campaign posters in Mbale, Uganda.(Photos by the author)
Campaign posters in Mbale, Uganda.(Photos by the author)

NABUGOYE, UGANDA—By 5 pm Friday, voting in Uganda’s general election was coming to a close. In Nabugoye, where voting had taken place on the hillside below Moses Synagogue, some shouting ensued. Agents for MP Yahaya Gudoi Wojje, the incumbent, wanted to know why more voters were being allowed in, while supporters of the main opposition candidate, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, shouted back that electoral commission rules clearly state that people in line on the hour must be permitted to cast their ballots. Nabugoye is Sizomu’s turf, and once all those who wished to vote had done so, the presiding officer ceremoniously dumped the ballots out onto a black plastic tarp that had come with the official kit, in full view of the assembled Abayudayah Jewish community and other local residents who wished to keep watch on the tally. In his home parish, Sizomu won handily, taking 353 votes to Wojje’s 50.

But how had he done in toss-up Bukonde, and more importantly in Wojje’s largely Muslim stronghold on the north side of the district? Reports of intimidation, harassment, and rigging, which had been filtering up to Sizomu’s campaign headquarters all day, had shaken the confidence of the Jewish candidate—likely the first and only native-born black African rabbi—who during the week leading up to the elections had repeatedly made clear his fear of foul play from the ruling party, to which both Wojje and frontrunning President Yoweri Museveni belong.

Counting votes in Nabugoye.

In the morning, a man was driven up to Nabugoye in a car, so that his skinned elbow could be shown to Sizomu as well as to me, and so that he could describe the fight he had been in the night before in Mbale, the provincial center. The worst complaints, though, came from Wojje’s sub-district: There, word had it, a pair of Sizomu’s officially sanctioned election observers had been chased from their posts, beaten, and harassed, in order that ballots could be altered.

Sizomu supporter showing wounds from a pre-election scuffle Thursday night.

Late that night, Sizomu disappeared into the Mbale Town Council building, which was the election counting center for the region; when he emerged Saturday afternoon, he looked distressed. Many of his supporters, as well as those of his opponent, were stationed on the sidewalk opposite a full deployment of riot troops in blue camouflage and a battalion of khaki-clad local police waving clubs. A reporter for the local tabloid showed me an image he had taken of a Ugandan colleague who had been shot in the stomach in nearby Sironko for refusing to hand over his camera to a ruling-party bodyguard. Up the street, the Indian merchants had kept their shops closed and locked down behind grating, wanting nothing to do with what many feared would be a violent reaction if the opposition’s claims of widespread election-rigging were borne out.

By 11 am, national television networks covering the count were reporting the “late arrival” of three Wojje-territory ballot boxes to the commission’s offices. The news anchor went so far as to ask his analyst, “This is probably vote rigging, no? Ballot boxes arriving 24 hours after polls open?” Even providing for “potholes” and “transport breakdowns,” it seemed impossible that such a delivery could be on the up-and-up. “We are not in a free condition!” a woman complained to me as we watched the three black boxes enter the Council building. The crowd of agitated observers were kept at bay by the threat of a water canon. I asked a campaign worker what he felt the rabbi’s prospects were. “With HaShem,” he said, “anything is possible.”

In the late afternoon, Wojje was declared the winner of the contest for Bungokho North’s parliamentary seat: 16,744 votes to Sizomu’s 14,872. Turnout was lower than expected, and Sizomu supporters immediately said that voters had been intimidated. (All of the 50 or so voters I briefly interviewed at a dozen polling stations said they had voted freely, and the electoral commission’s regional supervisor, Eric Wamanga, denied that anything had been abnormal in the voting.) Sizomu said right away that he was going to contest the results, which had Wojje taking 95 percent of the votes in one sub-district, a figure that seemed unnaturally inflated in Wojje’s favor.

Sizomu says that his agents counted 324 votes in one polling station, but the official tally there came to only 21. In another parish, he claimed he got 210 votes and tallied zero. “Votes were stuffed, and our staff were beaten and hospitalized,” he said. Back in Nabugoye that night, one of Sizomu’s campaign workers took off his shirt to display bruising on his back, which he said had been the result of being beaten by Wojje supporters while trying to do his job as an observer in Yewa Trading Center.

Sizomu campaign worker showing bruises he says are the result of a beating at Yewa Trading Center polling station.

When I found Wojje in his sub-district, he, too, insisted there had been foul play and that his supporters had been beaten. Then he pulled his son out of the back seat of their car and had him show me a three-pronged scratch mark on his back that, Wojje said, had been caused by people trying to “send a message from my opponents.” He refused to elaborate further on the cause of the wound, as did his son.

MP Yahaya Gudoi Wojje (right) and son.

Sizomu has since sent his workers to make statements to the Mbale police. That material will join other evidence he is gathering for his lawyer, who will submit the complaint to Uganda’s Constitutional Court. Sizomu says this is his first and last resort in the matter, save for a promise to run again in five years. “My supporters know that I was the winner, and the other guy used force,” he said. “Some of the police and the military were behind ballot-stuffing, to keep Museveni’s party in parliament. We are very disappointed. Many people in this constituency feel like their votes were stolen.”

Mbale, Saturday morning.

Matthew Fishbane is Creative Director at Tablet magazine.