Can Uganda ever have free, fair presidential polls?

A woman casts her vote in Kampala during the 2016 general election. MONITOR PHOTO

The 2021 general election, the eighth for the country, is at hand, but questions remain whether it will be any better than previous ones.
With the experience of seven elections, Uganda would have been expected to have weeded out pitfalls of polls management, but this is not so.
Not even the National Resistance Movement (NRM), which came to power on promises to fix the question of democracy, has yet succeeded in delivering a free, fair, credible, and verifiable presidential election results.

All the five presidential elections that have been held during the NRM tenure in the last 33 years have ended in controversy.

1996 elections
Moments after the Interim Electoral Commission (IEC) declared Mr Museveni winner of the first direct presidential elections of May 9, 1996, with 4,428,119 or 74.2 per cent of the vote, the runner up, Dr Paul Ssemogerere, declared he would not “accept the result as valid.”
Dr Ssemogerere, who garnered 1,416,139 or 23.8 per cent of the vote, claimed his election taskforce had recorded countrywide cases of 54 malpractices, including rigging, intimidation of voters and use of doctored voter registers.

He did not challenge the outcome in court, but on October 16, 1998, Mr Charles Owor, one of the seven commissioners of the Electoral Commission (EC), told a conference organised in Kampala by the political pressure group “Free Movement” that “underage voting” had been carried out to favour Mr Museveni. Again on October 23, 1998, while appearing on Radio One FM’s talk show, Spectrum, Mr Owor insisted that there had been “fundamental flaws in election.” Soon was another election.

2001 polls
Mr Museveni was declared winner with 5,123,360 or 69.33 per cent of the vote followed by Dr Kizza Besigye with 2,055,795 or 27.82 per cent of the vote.

Others in the race were Mr Aggrey Awori, Mr Kibirige Mayanja, Mr Francis Bwengye, and Mr Chapaa Karuhanga.
Dr Besigye filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the result, but on April 2, 2001, the court, by a vote of three to two, upheld the result. Two judges concluded there were extensive illegalities to warrant a nullification, but three others concluded the cheating did “not affect the results of the election in a substantial manner.”

2006 polls
Dr Besigye, who had returned to Uganda from exile in South Africa in October 2005, was arrested on November 14 and charged with treason and rape. A letter by then Attorney General Khiddu Makubuya that advise that Dr Besigye could not be said to be at the same level of innocence as other candidates, were interpreted as an attempt to keep the strongest Opposition candidate off the ballot paper.
Dr Besigye, who was nominated as a candidate while locked up in Luzira prison, was initially released on bail on November 25, but was rearrested and charged with terrorism. It was not until January 6, 2006, that he was released to resume campaigns that were often disrupted by security agencies.

Mr Museveni was declared winner with 4,109,449 or 59.26 per cent of the vote against Dr Besigye’s 2,592,954 or 37.39 per cent of the vote. Dr Besigye petitioned the Supreme Court, but three out of the five judges upheld Mr Museveni’s election. The judges argued that whereas they had found that “the principles of free and fair elections were compromised by bribery and intimidation or violence in some areas of the country” and “principles of equal suffrage, transparency of the votes, and secrecy of the ballot were undermined by multiple voting and vote stuffing,” they were not sufficient to nullify the election.

2011 polls
Mr Museveni won with 5,428,369 or 68.38 per cent of the vote against Dr Besigye’s 2,064,963 or 26.01 per cent of the vote, but this poll was markedly different. There were fewer cases of violence, but more of voter bribery with the ruling NRM said to have spent in excess of Shs20b. But the book, The Politics of Elite Corruption in Africa, Uganda in Comparative African Perspective, authored by Roger Tangri and Andrew Mwenda, indicates the NRM party spent Sh75b. Dr Besigye did not contest the outcome.

2016 polls
Mr Museveni was declared winner with 5,971,872 or 60.62 per cent of the vote while Dr Besigye came second with 3,508,687 or 35.61 per cent of the vote, and former prime minister and NRM secretary general, Mr Amama Mbabazi, third with 136,519 or 1.39 per cent of the vote.
Mr Mbabazi challenged the victory in the Supreme Court, citing among other things, non-compliance with the law. Though the court observed that the process had been marred by gross irregularities and malpractices and that the process fell short of acceptable standards of free, fair and credible elections, it declined to overturn the result.

Can 2021 be better?
Now that the 2021 polls are around the corner, one wonders whether it will be devoid of the irregularities that plagued previous polls. The Attorney General’s report which was handed to the Speaker of Parliament on Wednesday has already indicated there is no money to fund the coming elections.

Information available to Sunday Monitor also indicates that the donors, who have been topping up EC funding, have been dragging their feet over putting any more logistical support in the EC’s kitty. Can the EC under such circumstances organise and an election in line with acceptable standards of a free, fair, credible and verifiable election? In other words, can Uganda ever have an election that is devoid of controversy?

Prof Paul Wangoola, a former member of the National Consultative Council (NCC), which served as Uganda’s Parliament in the immediate post-president Idi Amin era, does not think it is possible for Uganda to have a controversy-free election.
“Have no illusion that the 2021 elections will be free of controversy because there cannot be free and fair elections under military rule and we are under military rule,” Prof Wangoola argues.

The deputy director of the Uganda Media Centre, Col Shaban Bantariza, says it is possible for the country to have a free and fair elections if all stakeholders worked together to ensure that the process if free and fair.

“There must be goodwill on the part of all the participants and actors – the candidates, the electorate and the State. They should all be working together towards having improvements in the electoral process so that the exercise is free and fair,” he says.

Pending reforms
The problem though is that there has so far been no sign of goodwill on the part of the State. Over the last 22 years, there have been calls for reforms, especially in the way the EC is currently constituted. There have been calls for the process to be made more competitive and participatory because the EC is looked at as an appendage of the NRM, casting doubts over the credibility of elections that it organises.
For instance, in 2014, in the run up to the 2016 general election, a National Consultation on Free and Fair Elections proposed that a new independent and impartial EC be established. It also proposed that offices of EC commissioners and staff be thrown open for application, public hearings and scrutiny by the Judicial Service Commission and successful applicants vetted by Parliament and their appointments endorsed by the President.

Other long-pending proposed electoral reforms have been put forward by both State and non-state actors that include the Cabinet in 2005, 2009 and 2015, the 7th, 8th and 9th Parliaments, the EC, Uganda Law Reform Commission (ULRC), and the National Consultative Forum (NCF).

Others were Uganda Law Society (ULS), Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD). Others are the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC), and Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU). Among the propositions were calls for introduction of proportional representation, waiving of the requirement for civil servants to resign before nominations; scrapping elections for special interest groups; and introduction of five-year bans from elective politics for those found guilty of offences such as bribery.

In March 2016, while giving their ruling in the election petition that had been filed by Mr Mbabazi, the Supreme Court judges ordered the implementation of a raft of reforms, including extending to 60 days, the period of filing and determination of presidential election petitions to enable the concerned parties and court to adequately prepare and present their cases. Also proposed was punishing of media houses that refuse to grant equal airtime to presidential candidates.

Those reforms were meant to have been carried out within two years of the ruling to avoid hastily enacted legislation, but government has not complied with the orders.

Since the 10th Parliament opened, the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, has been calling on government to table a Bill on major electoral reforms, but it was not until last July that five Bills, including the Presidential Elections (Amendment) Bill No.17, 2019, and the Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Bill No.18, 2019, were tabled, but did not consider the Supreme Court’s orders.

Most worryingly, however, is that the reforms have not been debated by Parliament, yet the general election is less than 12 months away.
Even Parliament’s Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs is yet to send a report back to Parliament although the rules of procedure stipulate that once a minister has introduced a Bill and it is considered read, it is sent to the responsible committee for scrutiny over a 45-day period before a final report is sent back to the Parliament for the second reading, which should be led by the line minister.

The committee had initially indicated that a report would have been submitted by the end of last year, but this schedule was pushed to January 7, a date it has failed to beat. The foot dragging has been quite hard to explain given the urgency surrounding the matter. But Prof Sabiiti Makara, a Political Science lecturer at Makerere University, says this should not come as a surprise as NRM does not have a record of implementing reforms that do not suit it.

“Mr Museveni met with his fellow principles in the Inter-Political Organisations Dialogue (IPOD) and they had a few recommendations made in regard to amendments to the Public Order Management Act (POMA), 2013, but they were not implemented. The reforms that were ordered by the court were also ignored. I don’t think they can implement any meaningful reforms,” Prof Makara says.

Mr Crispin Kaheru, the former coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), argues that Uganda may not see much of a change even if Parliament passes the law.

“Credibility of an election may be dependent on the passing of a good law, but even if Parliament passes a good law, I am not sure that will have the right effect on the election because those who are meant to implement it may not be committed to doing so. I foresee us going back to the same kind of election that we have been having,” Mr Kaheru says.

Mr Kaheru argues that if the law is passed late, there will not be enough time to change the mindsets of implementers, many of whom are bent on doing all in their power to preserve the government in power.

But Col Bantariza disagrees. He argues that what matters is that the law is passed.
“The time doesn’t matter. The level field is needed at the time when the competition is set to begin. The reforms are meant to facilitate nominations, campaigns and the elections so we are not late at all,” Col Bantariza says.

It appears that the ground will once again not be level, but Mr Bantariza says there has never been such a thing as a level ground and urges the Opposition to get on with it, a call that Ms Alice Alaso, one of the leaders of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), seems to have heeded.

“Reforms would make the ground better for everybody in the election, but even if the reforms do not come, we shall participate in all elections because we know that however difficult the terrain is, some people will always sail through. In every election, something good happens,” Ms Alaso says.
We now wait to see the good and the bad that will come with 2021 election.