“Some people I am told were asking; where has this man been?” Mulekwah Leonard says that was the reaction from some people after his appointment as acting Electoral Commission-EC Secretary in July 2020 following the forced resignation of then substantive secretary, Sam Rwakojo.
Those asking didn’t know that Mulekwah has been engaged in electoral work since 1993 and has been a permanent EC staff since 1999. He was last month confirmed as the substantive EC secretary.
Mulekwah’s first electoral task in 1993 wasn’t an easy one: he was an electoral documentation officer for Pallisa district and his key assignment was coordination of compilation of a handwritten register for the constituent assembly elections. It was a part time job handed to him by the district returning officer. Mulekwah at that time was serving as Pallisa district planner.
The key task, he reminisces, was finding people with good handwriting who were best suited for the job of compiling a register. “I remember I invited people for the job, gave them paper and asked them to write applications for the job,” he says. “The purpose was to focus on handwriting. We needed to look at the handwriting not their level of education because someone could be a senior six leaver without good handwriting,” he says.
The commission that organized constituent assembly elections was interim and headed by Stephen Besweri Akabway. It was the same commission that organized 1996 presidential and parliamentary elections. A permanent Electoral Commission was established in 1999 following enactment of the 1997 Electoral Commission Act.
Early 1999, the new commission was on a hiring spree and Mulekwah applied for the Pallisa district returning officer job. In May 1999, he was given the job.
In 2002, he was transferred to Election Commission headquarters and appointed deputy head of the election management department. This was a big promotion that he hadn’t applied for. Why did he get promoted?
“I don’t know,” Mulekwah said. “I received a letter transferring me here and when I reached here as I was assigned work. I imagine, from the way I used to work, that is what contributed to it.”
He was also assigned a role of supervising far-east (Teso and Karamoja) districts.
Another promotion was in the offing: in 2004, Mulekwah was appointed to head the voter education and training department. Activities for the 2005 referendum and 2006 general election were awaiting him. In 2007 when the director of operations retired, the position was advertised. Mulekwah applied and got the job. He was director operations until his appointment as acting EC secretary.
Mulekwah says his main achievement as director of operation was writing a strategic plan that influenced the commission to look at the election activities “as a process and a project.” His strategic plan proposed a three-year time frame for the electoral activities.
With the three-year road map, he says departments have sufficient time to draw road maps and aim to accomplish all that they are meant to accomplish.
“You find your work plan is the main supervisor,” he says. “You say I am going to do this in this month or period, have you done it? You don’t need me as director or secretary to remind you because you have written it yourself. There isn’t much whipping because officers are whipped by plans which they craft.”
It was easy to transition from operations to the secretary’s office, Mulekwah says, because he had been at the commission for two decades and was coming from a directorate which drives the commission activities. What he didn’t have, he says, was accounting finesse.
However the timing was challenging, he says, because the elections were held during the pandemic. As the commission announced that the election timeline wouldn’t change, he says people accused it of being heartless. The process required consensus between political players and the election commission as well as following standard operating procedures.
For instance, the commission had discouraged large gatherings and encouraged candidates to address supporters through the media. But many opposition candidates were blocked from accessing radios across the country. It was a lack of consensus that resulted in the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, the leading opposition candidate in Luuka district on November 18th 2020, triggering riots in Kampala and several other districts. More than 50 people were shot dead as security agencies tried to quell the riots. There were also subsequent abductions and arrests of hundreds of Bobi Wine supporters.
But Mulekwah says the commission did its part diligently despite the pandemic challenges. “However efficient the commission is, if the other stakeholders don’t fulfil their part, we can never have free and fair elections,” he argues.
And when political players cause chaos that results in violence, he says, “It is the Electoral Commission, it is the police that get blamed yet we need political players to do their part.”
Mulekwah argues that the commission has always been a soft target of election losers who fail to produce evidence in court. For instance, in the recent parliamentary election, the commission received more than 90 petitions. Only four petitions were successful. And it is only in one petition, he says, where the commission was faulted.
Election rigging allegations are always pointed at in the presidential election more than at parliamentary level election. This argument, Mulekwah says also doesn’t hold water because in many constituencies won by opposition at parliamentary level and incumbent at presidential level, the opposition only claims rigging at presidential level yet voting happens on the same day, at the same time in the same vicinity.
His permanent appointment was confirmed in a letter dated 21st October, 2021.
“I am pleased to inform you that during the 73rd Commission Meeting held on Tuesday 12th October,2021, under Min.CM259/2021 the Commission approved that you be appointed to the post of Secretary to the Electoral Commission,” the appointment letter signed by EC chairperson, Justice Simon Byabakama reads in part. The appointment will be for a contract period of five years and renewable once. Mulekwah is entitled to a monthly salary of Shs 25 Million, housing allowance, Annual gratuity, Chauffeur driven vehicle, and guards (body and home).
In a letter dated 22nd October 2021, Mulekwah thanked Byabakama and his team for trusting him with the job and promised to do his best to ensure EC delivers on all its mandates.
“Sir, this is to inform you that, it is with great enthusiasm that I accept the appointment. I do express my appreciation to you and the Commission for this offer to serve as Secretary, Electoral Commission Uganda. I pledge to whole heartedly continue serving to the best of my abilities,” Mulekwah stressed in his job acceptance letter to Byabakama.
FATE OF OTHER STAFF
The fate of other staff who have been acting in capacity since July 2020 remains unclear. However, there are hopes now that their boss has been confirmed, they too will soon follow suit given they successfully delivered the 2021 elections.
WHERE IS MULEKWAH TAKING THE COMMISSION?
The immediate question on Mulekwah’s mind is finding a new home for the commission because its current headquarters will be occupied by the Kampala Flyover Road Project. For four times that the commission has advertised, looking for premises to buy, they have failed to find a place that fits their requirements.
Having spent more than a decade as director of operations at EC, Mulekwah appreciates how vital it is for employees, especially those in districts to have functioning offices. Thus, he says the commission has been buying furniture, computers, curtains and will ensure that all offices have internet.
Mulekwah also says he found “a big mess in the procurement of cars.” He says he didn’t want to blame anyone but looked for an opportunity to better the situation.
“We agreed as a commission that we train all our drivers in a defensive driving course with Uganda Police training school,” he also says.
Mulekwah adds that more than 50 drivers have been trained and the commission won’t allow those who haven’t undergone training to drive new cars.
Indeed, several new cars are still parked at the commission headquarters. The reason is those supposed to take them must first undergo the training, he says.