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The country is bracing for new elections in 2021, but dangers loom on the horizon

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A man walks past words for an anti-coronavirus awareness campaign in Kampala, Uganda, August 10, 2020. KAMPALA, Aug. 11, 2020 (Xinhua) Hajarah Nalwadda/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

The word ‘’scientific” has gained prominence in Ugandan social, economic and political circles. The expression was familiarised by the country’s president, General Yoweri Museveni at the start of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in which he prescribed new ways in which the population would conduct their daily life in order to curb the spread of the novel Corona virus. Nowadays, the expression “scientific” is being applied to almost every quadrant of Ugandan social life ranging from weddings or burials to commerce with its key tenets being social distancing, hand hygiene and the use of face masks. However, most recently and even more controversially, the application of the term “scientific” to the forthcoming 2021 general election has lurched the country into intense debate. Though the possibility of a scientific election had remained largely unestablished in the earlier months, the release of a revised roadmap by the Uganda Electoral Commission (EC) for the 2021 general elections has created waves within the Ugandan political circles. The new roadmap declares that all electoral processes such as nomination of candidates, campaigns and polling, would be “scientific”. While EC approach syncs with government health and safety measures, critics are worried that the outcomes of the electoral process are already in question.

Samuel Kasirye is a Programme Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation East African Regional Office

The nature of the planned electoral process as envisioned by the EC has produced a number of institutional, democratic and constitutional concerns. On one hand, the Electoral Commission Chairman Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama insists that his commission is bound by Article 61 (2) of Uganda’s constitution which tasks it to organize elections within 120 days before the expiry of the term of president, parliament or local government. However, his former colleague the Justice James Ogoola and now Chairman of the Elders Forum counters that the Uganda constitution did not envisage a “scientific” election and therefore calls for a national dialogue to discuss the constitution in relation to the upcoming general elections. Justice Ogoola further elaborates that the elections imagined under the constitution are based on the values of equality and principally; unrestricted engagement with traditional features like mass rallies involving candidates and voters.

The proposed EC guidelines state yield that any political campaigns should be organised exclusively by media under the guidance of the Ministry of Health (MoH) experts. The commission maintains its will to exercise its role in holding “scientific” elections to promote the right of Ugandans to choose their representatives in a free and healthy environment.  The EC insists that regardless of protective measures implemented, citizens cannot assemble in one place as they have considered the need to preserve the health of the citizens’ vis-a-vis their constitutional and democratic right to elect leaders of their choice as guaranteed under the Constitution. In consultation with the Ministry of Health, the EC says it has come up with a plan that ensures minimal person-to-person contact during the implementation of the electoral process and added that the EC will issue specific guidelines for each electoral activity under this revised roadmap in due course and will engage with various stakeholders on the same.

Interestingly, the governing National Resistance Movement (NRM) has accepted the EC revised plan and asserts that it is going to change its internal policy and mechanisms accordingly. Opposition politicians state that the EC is playing into the hands of incumbent, General Museveni and other powerful NRM politicians. The opposition politicians accuse the EC of not consulting them as it drafted the revised election roadmap and according to the popular youthful musician turned politician; and presidential hopeful Bobi Wine, the “scientific” election cannot deliver a free and fair election since the EC is also issuing regulations that antagonise internal Political Party rules. Bobi Wine, now the leader of the newly formed National Unity Platform also reasons that the EC has gone beyond its constitutional mandate to even dictate how parties will organise internally in holding primary election to raise flag bearers for the different positions. He adds, that it is impractical and an insult to citizens to suggest Zoom meetings to elect leaders countrywide with the nature of existing telecommunication infrastructure and the sheer poverty ravaging particularly the countryside. Another formidable force in Uganda opposition politics, Dr. Kiiza Besigye who now heads the “Peoples Government”, a loose outfit created after the 2016 presidential elections claims that Uganda the upcoming polls are so unjust and that they should never be seen as a form of political transition.

Another side of debate brought forward by some opposition quarters like the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the largest opposition party in the Uganda parliament, contend that Malawi’s presidential re-run gives a vivid picture about what an election in these “Corona times” would feel like. FDC contends that the Malawian election model provides for the strongest, basic and classical illustrations of how Uganda should arrange a credible election during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Party contends that the number of infections and fatalities in Malawi are much higher than Uganda, yet they managed to have a lively campaign from both opposition and government sides occasioned by the usual pageantry and fanfare. The opposition groups note that the Malawi polls are not an isolated case and that other countries have organised elections amidst the pandemic – e.g. South Korea, Mali, Burundi and others like Ghana, United States and Tanzania are slated to hold their polls later this year.

Reading the mood, the Ugandan government seems bent on going on with the electoral process. Consequently, a number of individuals and organisations have come up with legal challenges against the upcoming elections. One of the presidential aspirants, Joseph Kabuleta, filed a petition before the civil division of the High Court challenging the manner under which the campaigns are to be conducted. In his application, Mr. Kabuleta asked the court to quash the said revised roadmap on grounds that it is not rational in a free and democratic society. His petition notes that the EC guidelines are illegal and contravene the Parliamentary, Presidential and Electoral Commission Acts which provide for open-air rallies that can be attended by all willing voters and also pave way for wider consultation. He contends that by banning open air campaigns, the commission is unjustifiably restricting freedom of speech and imposing unconstitutional limitations on the public. Kabuleta predicts that unless the High Court quashes the said road map, there is an imminent threat that the Commission will infringe on citizens’ rights to participate in public affairs through freedom of expression of their ideas, right to vote and other fundamental principles of democracy.

Similarly, civil society organisations have tasked government on key questions like civic education and access to radio and television by the candidates given that the majority of media houses are owned by NRM inclined politicians and businessmen. Questions have also been raised on the population’s access to radio, television and the internet given that 74.3% of Uganda’s population lives in rural areas; yet there has been insufficient financing and regulation of the ICT infrastructure. In many areas of the countryside, the existing private telecom sector has only managed varied capital investments that created uneven levels of concentration and penetrations that typically only serve urban areas. Paradoxically, citizens are questioning why various NRM officials intending to stand in the next election have been seen meeting their campaign managers and addressing relatively large gatherings while other players have been stopped habitually with brutal force.  

Given these state of affairs, there are strong calls for the need to build provisional regulations for the upcoming election in order to reach a compromise between democratic and health protection for citizens. The revised roadmap in its current state threatens various electoral legislations and therefore there is a need to quickly synchronize the current laws with the recommendations found in the restructured roadmap. Some of the proposals brought forward by The Civil Society Organization, Citizen’s Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) urge the Government to quickly legislate what they have termed as a Special Arrangements Act for the Protection of Elections to guarantee the protection of citizens, while also guaranteeing the political privileges of the stakeholders for the 2021 elections. CCEDU maintains that if the possibility of a postponement of the election doesn’t suffice, a legal instrument should be passed by the August House that details the guidance suggested by the EC proposals. Consequently, this process also calls for the revision of other legislation, including the Internet Abuse Act and the Uganda Communications Commission Act, which give government unlimited power to decide what the public shares on social networks and also further restricts coverage for certain people.

As the poll nears, the legitimacy of the Uganda 2021 general election is under tight scrutiny from various stakeholders. It is therefore incumbent upon these players especially in government to make compromises in order to ensure the aftermath does not lead to calamitous events similar to those witnessed after the 2011 General Elections which plagued the country into violent street protests. For now, the most logical way forward is the one suggested by former Principal Judge James Ogoola who calls for an inclusive national dialogue that maintains the spirit of the 1995 constitution of a democratic Uganda.