As Dr Badru Kiggundu took his bow as chairman of the Electoral Commission and his prospective replacement was revealed this past week, questions still lingered around the legacy of the man who has presided over the highest number of general elections (three) in Uganda’s history.
There are even bigger questions to pose regarding whether Uganda’s electoral democracy has made progress going by the sole act of replacing Dr Kiggundu.
If one wants to argue in Dr Kiggundu’s favour, they may say he served as EC chairman at a time when the country was so polarised between the camps of President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye that the job of the electoral body was bound to be difficult no matter who was in charge.
Dr Kiggundu and his Commission either added to the polarisation or were caught in the middle. The electoral cycles of 2011 and 2016, for example, were each preceded by attempts to replace what came to be known as “the Kiggundu Commission”, which had been heavily criticised by the Supreme Court when Dr Besigye challenged the 2006 election.
The court had recommended reforms to the electoral framework, which President Museveni largely ignored.
For the 2011 and 2016 elections, therefore, the Commission, which was the referee, was only trusted by candidate Museveni, who as President rejected calls to have it reconstituted. The other candidates, chiefly Dr Besigye, openly rebuked the Commission, saying it was captured and could in no way deliver an acceptable electoral process.
Immediately after being nominated to run for this year’s election, Dr Besigye, at the nomination venue, made his distrust for the Commission known and declared he would win “by defiance and not compliance”. He vowed to defy even the Electoral Commission itself.
And defy it he did in some instances, like in his continued use of the word “defiance” despite repeated verbal warnings by Dr Kiggundu to desist from using it. With the clout of Dr Kiggundu’s Commission heavily eroded, the electoral exercise increasingly looked like a security and not a civic activity.
The police took centre stage with IGP Kale Kayihura spending a lot of time at the EC offices during the campaign period. On a number of occasions the police seemed to make pronouncements that should have been made by the EC, leading commentators to conclude that the police had taken over the electoral process.
Hope for electoral reforms shattered?
And this was in keeping with the tradition of security forces playing a much bigger role in the electoral process than would be desired.
The deployment of security forces and their role in the electoral process had formed part of the grounds for the 2001 and 2006 electoral petitions, leading to calls for reforms to safeguard the civic nature of the electoral process.
Numerous demands for reforming the electoral laws have come in different forms over the years.
In the lead up to the 2011 elections, for instance, a group of women clad in black T-shirts repeatedly stormed the offices of the Electoral Commission to demand for the disbandment of the electoral body.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, a joint effort by civil society organisations, religious leaders and politicians carried out a country-wide effort that culminated in what they called the Citizens Compact on Free and Fair Elections.
It included proposals for reforms which mirrored what had been proposed before. None of them materialised and the country was treated to yet another controversial election.
Shortly after the election, there were attempts for the Opposition parties to discuss with President Museveni and the National Resistance Movement on how to effect reforms to the electoral system. This was under the auspices of the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod).
Democratic Party secretary general Mathias Nsubuga, the chairperson of Ipod, took the lead and organised a meeting between some Opposition politicians and President Museveni.
Some Opposition politicians, particularly those from FDC, skipped the meeting with Mr Museveni, saying it was unlikely to amount to much.
Mr Nsubuga chose hope and led a small team. He is now bitterly disappointed.
Asked for his take on Mr Museveni naming a team to replace Dr Kiggundu’s team, Mr Nsubuga said: “He has showed that he is not trustworthy.”
During the June meeting with the President, Mr Nsubuga says they brought up the matter of Dr Kiggundu’s impending departure from the EC for discussion.
Mr Nsubuga says they proposed to the President that Parliament should grant a six-month extension to the Kiggundu Commission and use the time to amend the electoral laws and provide for a different way of constituting a new Commission.
According to Mr Nsubuga, their proposal was that those interested in taking up positions on the Commission would apply, an independent committee would vet the applications and shortlist names from which the President would appoint the commissioners, after which Parliament would ratify the appointments.
“He (Museveni) told us he did not have time to discuss the proposal in detail but that he would call us back after consulting. We were waiting to be called back only to hear that he has nominated people to constitute the Commission,” Mr Nsubuga says. “The new commissioners will start on the wrong note and they won’t be able to offer much.”
Mr Crispin Kaheru, the coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy, is not any more optimistic about the tenure of the prospective commission.
“I think what Ugandans will continue to ask themselves is how consultative and inclusive the process of appointing the EC was given the sentiments around the inclusivity of the process that have been raised by different quotas,” Mr Kaheru says.
Securing tenure of EC chairman
In keeping with the subject of reforms, something that happened in Dr Kiggundu’s last days at EC speaks volumes.
It emerged just months ago that President Museveni had assigned Dr Kiggundu to supervise works on the construction of Karuma dam. This inevitably led to questions on why it was Dr Kiggundu, of all engineers, who had been assigned the task.
Does he possess special knowledge and/or experience on dam construction which no other engineer has?
These questions were being raised because there were suspicions that Dr Kiggundu was being rewarded for tilting the 2016 election in Mr Museveni’s favour.
The other view is that President Museveni, by assigning the much-reviled Dr Kiggundu another task even before leaving EC, he sends a message to those who serve him that there will be rewards for loyalty.
Whichever way one looks at it, Dr Kiggundu’s conduct when at the helm of EC did not encourage kind reviews. With just days to elections in February, for instance, Dr Kiggundu told NTV that he regretted having nominated Dr Kizza Besigye to compete for the presidency.
This makes one wonder whether Dr Kiggundu, as he served his 14 years at EC, considered that he needed to do his job in a way that would prompt President Museveni to give him another assignment at the expiry of his term at the Commission.
Not the first
Dr Kiggundu was not the first former boss of the electoral body to be assigned another task by Mr Museveni. The late al Hajj Aziz Kasujja, Dr Kiggundu’s immediate predecessor, was given a diplomatic posting after leaving EC.
And this feeds into a proposal that has been made on a number of occasions that members of the EC, especially the chairman, should have a secure term of office that cannot be cut short by anyone, not even the President, unless they commit offenses or become incapable of performing their jobs.
Even in such circumstances, the proposal goes, the members of EC should only be removed on the recommendation of an independent tribunal.
This is the case regarding the occupants of key offices whose independence is deemed important, like judges, and there are proposals that even EC members should be treated the same.
And an increasing number of countries are adopting this approach in order to guarantee the independence of their electoral bodies.
The proponents of this view also suggest that EC commissioners, including the chairman, should on leaving the electoral body not be eligible for appointment to any other public office for a given period of time or at all.
With the kick in the teeth that the Opposition feel they were handed by Mr Museveni sidestepping them to nominate a new Commission, it is not easy to tell which direction the pursuit of electoral reforms will take in the months and years ahead.
But as it stands now, it seems likely that Dr Kiggundu’s departure will be a mere formality unlikely to cause any serious changes in the public perception and actual workings of the Commission.