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By Badru Walusansa

In February next year, Ugandans will go to the polls, to exercise their right to vote as per Article 59 (1) of the Constitution. The political temperature is rising as we gear towards 2021 general elections. World over, management of electoral processes has proved not to be a simple task hence requiring adequate preparations prior, during and after the elections. In that respect, there have been ongoing engagements at the national level to check the readiness of the different electoral actors in delivering free, fair and credible elections. Whereas that is the case, we have seemingly left out the voters, who for all purposes and intents are the major stakeholders in the electoral process.

The readiness of the voters in the electoral process ought to be as equally important as the other actors such as the Electoral Management Bodies and Political parties. In Uganda, the role of civic education which entails voter education is vested in the Uganda Human Rights Commission and Electoral Commission. In addition, early last year, the President launched the National Initiative for Civic Education to further strengthen civic education across the country. With all the above players, the assumption is that by now voter education programmes would have already been rolled out in pursuit of preparing the voters ahead of the 2021 general elections.

Studies have shown that there is a correlation between voter education and outcomes of an election. For instance, in 2002, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) coordinated a comprehensive voter education campaign in Kenya which in hindsight reduced on the potential post-election violence perhaps which would have erupted. Drawing from the Ugandan experience, out of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU’s) “Topowa” campaign in 2015 and 2016, the voter turnout soared from 58% in 2011 to 67.6% in 2016. The campaign was hinged on enlisting citizens’ participation in the electoral process. Given CCEDU’s grassroot mobilization capacity and structure we expect to see more of such similar campaigns ahead of 2021.

Besides reducing on voter apathy, voter education programmes help in awakening the civic conscious of vulnerable groups such as women and youth to actively engage in political activities such as voting. Needless to say, in absence of voter education, the gullible voters are often exploited by political aspirants in exchange for their votes. Previous election observation reports have indicated that voting patterns especially in rural areas are still influenced by money and other household items such as sugar, soap and salt. Therefore, in order to reverse such trends, we need rigorous voter education programmes to change the mindsets of the voters so that they vote issues rather than material gains from candidates.

Early voter education programmes can as well help to minimize on the number of invalid votes as well as electoral related conflicts. Although it’s inevitable to deal away with electoral violence and conflict, it could be worse, if voters lack the basic voter education. For instance, we still have a large section of our population who perceive elections as a matter of “do or die.” To further put this into context, this population mainly consists of the youth who are often relied on by politicians to fuel electoral violence.

By and large, we need to plan better and move away from ad hoc voter education programmes which are rolled out just a few months to an election. This is because the electoral process is a cycle deserving thorough and effective planning. If the resource envelop is limited to sustain continuous voter education programmes, then we need to rethink our priorities as a country, of which an enlightened and empowered citizenry should be one of them. Most importantly, in the event that the Electoral Commission is not well facilitated to conduct early countrywide voter education programmes, then it could initiate conversations with accredited Civil Society Organizations to support in popularizing key voter education messages. Furthermore, the EC needs to liaise with other stakeholders such as opinion, religious and cultural leaders to popularize the voter education drive for 2021 general elections. This is because such stakeholders are respectable members of society and key in promoting peace and stability.

The writer is a Commonwealth Correspondent in Uganda

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