Saturday May 10 2014

The Electoral Commission must be reconstituted

Since the overthrow of President Idi Amin in 1979, Uganda has gone through five major elections. The 1980 elections produced a contested outcome and triggered a five-year rebellion that undermined both the legitimacy and operations of the Uganda People’s Congress government and disrupted the economy. The aggrieved led by Yoweri Museveni formed the National Resistance Army rebel group with the National Resistance Movement as its political wing. They said they were fighting a government which had assumed State power through an illegitimate election. They could have gone to court or organised public protests. But they chose a violent alternative.

I, therefore, found Mr Obed Katurebe of the Media Centre rather patronising in his remarks in the Saturday Monitor of May 3 about Opposition members and their call for disbandment of the current Electoral Commission.
At a basic level, the same judgment Katurebe passes against the Opposition as being “driven by emotion and fury fuelled largely by misinformation and lack of information” can also be passed against him. Courts have on many occasions, particularly on the 2001 and 2006 presidential election petitions, found that the current EC headed by Badru Kiggundu failed to conduct free and fair elections. The number of parliamentary and local council election petitions validates the general consensus that the current EC is incapable of ensuring transparent elections.

Secondly, Katurebe’s characterisation of the campaign for free and fair elections and the demand for disbanding the EC as a call just by the Opposition is another example of his misinformation. He ignores the general consensus among Ugandans that the current EC needs to be reconstituted.
The Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi has talked of government’s interest in reforming the electoral system. Mr Ofwono Opondo, the Executive Director of the Media Centre, has been fairly articulate on why the electoral system needs to be overhauled. Similar messages have been echoed by the Inter-Religious Council and other organisations. The opposition’s current campaign for electoral reforms is a joint action by civil society and political leaders because having a credible EC is a critical issue that goes beyond partisan politics.

One point where I agree with Mr Katureebe is that “the idea of bringing into the EC people representing different political parties is defective.” These parties (the ruling and opposition) virtually disagree on everything. I agree that a national electoral body should not be subjected to unprincipled partisan disagreements. But a position where members of the EC are chosen by the chairman of one of the political parties contesting in the election is more defective.

It is wrong whether that party is in power or in the opposition. Public servants who are paid by Ugandan taxpayers, should be able to see these simple points.

I do not agree that the institutions to engage for electoral reforms are only Parliament and the Executive. If that were the case, MP Gerald Karuhanga’s motion to restore presidential term limits, would have been debated and passed or rejected by now. It was presented close to a year ago.
Katureebe is wrong to think that “civil society and other members of the public can be engaged at a secondary level.” I find him contemptuous and patronising. Under our Constitution, power belongs to the people. Exercising that power does not just mean surrendering it to the organs of the State. True democracy will arrive when the public officials start speaking on behalf of all citizens regardless of their political affiliations.

It is deceptive to think that our Parliament with its crop of legislators will undertake the necessary reforms needed to ensure a peaceful transition from the current governance system of corruption, deception, patronage and pre-bendalism.

True, Uganda has led in many things on the Continent and also deployed in conflict areas like South Sudan to contain the turmoil there. But the current Parliament dominated by the ruling party members going around the country distributing money to citizens and donning dry banana leaves will not deliver the required reforms to bring democracy.

Mr Tumushabe is a civil society activist and former executive director of ACODE, a public policy think tank.