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This Time I Decided to Vote

Here's why it meant so much for one writer in Kampala to vote in Uganda's seriously flawed election.

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Last Thursday, I woke up early and set off to my polling station at Mawanga Mosque in Kampala’s Makindye West Division. This is the first time I was determined to vote in an election, and nothing was going to stop me. Having arrived at 6:50 am, I promptly joined a long queue, saddened to see that the voting materials had not yet been delivered. Voting was supposed to start at 7:00, but the materials were only delivered at 11:30.

Nevertheless, it was an amazing thing to see the growing number of voters that kept coming to wait in line under the scorching sun. Some went and got chairs from their homes and then returned to wait in line some more. Others went off to buy snacks and water, and returned to still wait in line.

I stayed too.

This was the first time I was determined to make my voice count, to take back the power I have always had but had long ago given away. It was the same spirit that many other voters, especially the elites in the line, demonstrated. For too long, we have observed our elections from a distance and sadly regurgitated to whoever cared to listen that Uganda’s fate lies with its rural voters — the ones who actually go to the polls. Meanwhile we, the wealthier urbanites, stay home, celebrate another public holiday and enjoy barbecued meat and loads of alcohol.

This time, we all stayed in line and waited.

It could have been the scenes in the media during the last week of the campaign, showing the state-run violence marring the campaigning. It could have been the blocking of social media on voting day that actually made us leave our homes, stand in line, and wait to cast our votes, though the voting materials were intentionally delayed. Even the military and police patrols in streets did not deter us.

Still we waited.

It was the day we finally got to exercise our power, and we would stay in line and wait. I am glad to say that this time around, I was here to do my civic duty.

We live in the age of ‪Mark Zuckerberg. Nowadays a government can no longer control the flow of information simply by taking over of the national broadcasters. No, we live in a new world, one where citizens have access to alternate forms of media. They can access information independently, discern fact from fiction, and challenge the government’s propaganda with proof.

The government, led by long-time President Yoweri Museveni, instituted a social media blockade to try to stop the flow of free information. But what the architects of this blockade underestimated or forgot is that, in this new time, the flow of information cannot be stopped. Ugandans had figured out how to use VPNs. “A bunch of old men sat and decided to block social media,” tweeted Hashim Wasswa, perfectly capturing the situation. “Since young [people] set this stuff up, they found a way.”

Since then, of course, it’s become clear that the government wasn’t ready to allow for genuine change. Since election day, the Ugandan media have been reporting that the incumbent, President Museveni, won with 60.8 percent of the vote. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye received just 35.4 percent, still a remarkable showing despite the government’s broad array of techniques for influencing the vote. Besigye and his party say that the vote was rigged. The government has responded by arresting him on five separate occasions in the course of the past week — the latest case was earlier today.

Even so, I’m glad that I voted, and I would happily do it again. We have elections; that we should start taking them seriously is long overdue. We wanted to have our voices heard and to follow what was being reported. But even more importantly, we wanted to protect our right to make our own choices.

That’s why I stood in the direct sun for over seven hours (ignoring my rheumatologist’s advice), so I could vote. And at exactly 1:43 pm, I finally made my voice heard.

In the photo, a woman holding her child casts her ballot during Uganda’s national elections in Kampala on February 18, 2016.

Photo credit: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

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