Who is afraid of holding Local Council elections?

Voters line up during an election. Ms Esther Nambayo, the registrar of the Constitutional Court, says the panel to hear the case had been slated to sit in April, but it couldn’t because one of the five assigned judges had travelled abroad for treatment.

Ugandans will have to wait longer to elect their Local Council leaders after a High Court decision halted a process that would have commenced last week, on November 14, with the election of Village Women Committees.

High Courts in Kampala and Jinja ruled in favour of petitioners challenging the holding of the exercise at a time when secondary school students, some of whom are eligible to take part in the polls were doing their exams.

One of the petitioners was a ruling NRM member, James Tweheyo, and the court decision was the latest in many moves that have stood in the way of Ugandans electing their local representatives.
Many explanations for and against have been adduced over the last more than 16 years since the elections were last held, but one important question lingers. Who is afraid of holding Local Council elections?

In 2006, government seemed ready to hold the elections but only under the defunct Movement system. Uganda had reverted to the multiparty political system and when Maj (rtd) Rubaramira Ruranga, then a member of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), challenged the legality of the incumbent local councils which had been elected under the Movement system on the basis that Uganda had embraced the multiparty system, he was successful.

Court upheld his petition, nullified the Local Councils and ordered fresh elections under the multiparty system. Uganda has since gone through two presidential and parliamentary elections but government has always put forward excuses not to hold the LCI and II elections. The most pronounced was that the exercise valued at Shs505b was too expensive.

Last year, Parliament passed the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, 2014, providing for lining up behind candidates during the elections. The widely criticised move was to lower the cost of conducting these elections. The current budget for the exercise is Shs15.7b.

So why is there seeming reluctance to hold the elections that helped the ruling NRM government to consolidate authority when it captured power in 1986 after the five-year Bush War.

Originally the Local Councils, then called Resistance Councils (RC), were created as a political and logistical support system for the National Resistance Army (NRA) which had waged a war against president Milton Obote’s government at the time.

The 1995 Constitution revised their name and duties. The RCs became LCs and were replaced by directly elected legislators as the top law making body. When they were still effective, LCs were credited for mobilisation of the community in law and order matters. This included law enforcement, gathering of data on crime and establishment of by-laws in their respective communities, among other things.

The answers to our question, Dr Sabiti Makara, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Makerere University, says it can be traced in Uganda’s embrace of multiparty political system in 2005.

“Maybe there is nobody afraid, but there is lack of interest on the part of those in government. The introduction of multipartism became a threat to government when it came to LCs. LCs can entrench certain political parties if you open up space for people to contest under that arrangement,” he says.
The ongoing controversial debate on whether to remove the presidential age limit or stay it in the Constitution is also not in favour of the LC elections according to Dr Makara.

“If they were to happen, government would lose, especially at this time when there is debate over the highest office in government,” he says.
It appears, like Dr Makara observes, the ruling party has everything to lose in these elections. When NRM became a political party after the Movement system, it inherited the entire LC infrastructure and the LCs have largely been seen as members of NRM.

Even with an unlikely 90 per cent win as predicted by NRM party electoral commission chairperson Tanga Odoi, the ruling party will have ceded some ground (10 per cent) to the Opposition.

“We wanted the elections to be held as per the programme announced. We are the most disappointed because we already have 46 positions unopposed. We thought we would clear it right away,” Dr Odoi says, adding that other political parties have not filled candidates in many polling stations.

Reports that the top leadership of the party, including the central executive committee (CEC), NRM’s top-most decision making organ, wanted the exercise called off fuel the speculation that it is in fact NRM that doesn’t want the elections held until the party is sure of victory. Mr Tweheyo is a member of NRM CEC and this perhaps explains why he moved to court.

“If I had authority, I would push the LCI elections to early 2018,” NRM’s communications officer Rogers Mulindwa posted on his Facebook wall on October 31.
Mr Mulindwa was not the first NRM official or senior party member to challenge the EC to dedicate more time to Ugandans before holding the election.
EC’s quick compliance and embrace of the court orders without the commission’s lawyers putting up a fight as expected has left some Ugandans speaking in hushed tones.
In one of his farewell addresses then EC chairman, Dr Badru Kiggundu, stated the inability to organise the LC elections was his only major regret. It looks his successor will have to wait longer to see the exercise out of the way.