The October 2015 primaries made many Ugandans uneasy. Observers reported ballots going missing, voting materials being delivered late to polling places, and other election irregularities. More troubling still were outbreaks of violence in a number of locations and the alleged formation of citizen militias.
Like many others, Cyrus Kawalya feared what this meant for the general election in February. “If we didn’t do something, we expected [the violence] to escalate after the general election,” he said. Kawalya undertook a campaign to convince Ugandans that even if they disagreed on which candidates should win and how the election was administered, they should commit to avoiding violence.
With financial assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Kawalya launched a six-week civic education and awareness campaign with the hashtag #IPledgePeaceUg. Kawalya, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow, enlisted the help of other fellows in Uganda and established a social media presence for the campaign before taking to the road. The team prepared for their roadshow visits with community leaders at their destinations who arranged for local publicity in advance.
“We had been watching different parts of the country,” said Kawalya, “and we decided to go to specific regions that had had violence before.”
Kawalya and his colleagues arrived in towns in the central, eastern and western regions of Uganda in an enormous two-story bus, driving around town and drumming up interest. Their presentation included singers and comedians in local language on the bus’s pop-out stage, blending entertainment with messages of nonviolence. Along with giveaways of T-shirts and wristbands, local police officers and other officials spoke, encouraging peaceful voting. Comic skits with serious underpinnings illustrated how to peacefully resolve political conflict, what to do when people in the same family supported different parties, and how to encourage voter participation.
Kawalya summarized the #IPledgePeace message this way: “Look, we can’t all belong to the same party, okay? We don’t have to try to kill each other, we don’t have to attack each other. It’s okay to be in the same family and affiliated with different political parties.”
Following each roadshow presentation, Kawalya collected email addresses, and his team picked 20 people to act as ambassadors. The #IPledgePeaceUg team followed up with these ambassadors by phone before and after the election to evaluate the effectiveness of their outreach and to monitor election procedures.
The social-media campaign of #IPledgePeaceUg grew to 1 million Facebook followers, and the hashtag prompted a national dialogue about election violence on Twitter. Kawalya, who owns a video-production company, produced a promotional video with a dozen Ugandan celebrities delivering the #IPledgePeaceUg message. The video ran almost hourly on NBS, a Ugandan TV network, in the weeks leading up to and just after the election.
Although there were a number of irregularities during the election and a high level of dissatisfaction among voters, incidents of violence were relatively few. Kawalya believes the national dialogue about election violence spurred by #IPledgePeaceUg played an important role. He said he has been contacted by young people in a number of other countries seeking to replicate #IPledgePeaceUg for their own elections.
“It made us realize one thing,” said Kawalya. “Most people in Uganda are not interested in violence.“
Learn more about grass-roots organizing in the YALI Network Online Course Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility.