For three days, political and civil society leaders converged in Kampala, mulling a way forward for the country’s electoral agenda. That meeting attracted more than 1,000 participants and gave birth to a document aptly dubbed the Uganda Citizens’ Compact on Free and Fair Elections.
This will form a petition yet to be presented to the Speaker of Parliament, who will in turn, spur debate in the August House that will inform the constitutional amendments the Uganda Law Reform Commission is spearheading.
The conspicuous absence of top National Resistance Movement (NRM) leadership spoke volumes akin to the coldness to and disinterest of the ruling party in the reform gospel.
Uganda Media Centre executive director and government mouthpiece Ofwono Opondo asserted that, “the government does not work through the Opposition and civil society” and Parliament’s legislative role is clear cut.
Presidential Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi said his boss was busy and doubted if he had been invited. The organisers poured cold water on that excuse and clarified that the President and all MPs had been invited.
What picture does the absence of the ruling party paint for the reforms agitators?
Former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president Kizza Besigye and civil society activist Sheila Kawamara downplay the absence of the NRM as only hiding its head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.
Ms Kawamara said, “Let the country not be fooled. The top leaders are only feigning ignorance because NRM is part of this effort. They are only showing they are not interested because of the nasty background, since January police has been dispersing our regional consultative meetings. They know the organisers are pulling a rag in the carpet. The President should have sent the NRM secretary general.”
Dr Besigye, who has expressed a lukewarm attitude to the 2016 elections said, “We have LC5 chairpersons and MPs from NRM here. They made a big mistake which we can exploit because they forget that their strength lies in the lower cadres.”
At this stage, it is material to pose the question, how far can the reforms campaign go, especially in a system where the reforms directly affect the regime survival project that President Museveni has been criticised for entrenching? Are we chasing wind?
Makerere University constitutional law don Busingye Kabumba waves a flag of scepticism.
He says, “A lot will depend on the commitments various stakeholders in the process demonstrate to ensure the realisation of the proposals. A lot will also depend on the extent to which Ugandans realise their role in regard to shaping their country’s destiny.”
Justice minister Kahinda Otafiire has called for proposals for constitutional amendments from the citizenry.
Kabumba reminds readers, “Historically, government made processes for constitutional reform which have not been truly inclusive and I don’t see anything different here. All indications are that NRM’s interests will be written in the Constitution.”
In a week or two, Parliament will receive the more than 23 proposed reforms, but the law scholar sends another aide memoire, “That assumes good faith on the part of the NRM, I am not too sure that assumption will be borne out.”
Parliament has already been labelled a rubber stamp of the NRM, in fact, the NRM caucus is the de facto Parliament, with its numerical strength shaping the legislative agenda. The caucus has been criticised for dancing to the whims of the president.
In this mix, how do we penetrate the wall?
Kabumba ponders and says, “That is a question for Ugandans to determine by themselves.”
Indeed, if this is a question for Ugandans to determine, the activists are sure they will facilitate that process too.
Dr Besigye says, “It is the duty of all people here (at the convention) to do everything within their power to ensure what has been agreed on is implemented. That is where the energy must go now.”
He is optimistic some sections within the NRMs’ rank and file will also pile pressure.
“Unreasonable people in NRM are slowly being isolated. Many NRM leaders are here and even criticised their party for not sending the top leadership,” he told our reporter at the closure of the conference.
He adds, “The citizens have spoken and made a strong commitment that what has been agreed on must be implemented, there is no need to emphasise that power belongs to the people. Whether NRM wants it or not, they must implement these proposed reforms.”
Kawamara agrees with Dr Kabumba. The 9th Parliament, she opines, is the weakest Parliament in the country’s history. For that matter, the activist says, “The power of the people is going to be put on test. Either the government listens or reacts to the masses. I am sure they will be forced to adapt these reforms. They have no way out. I have learned never to underestimate the power of people.”
Former executive director Aocates Coalition for Environment and Development (ACODE) Godber Tumushabe has been at the frontline of the reforms and argues that parliamentarians will pay a heavy price if they fail to pass the reforms. If the MPs subdue to the pressure from the ruling party, he says, the campaigners for the reforms are already mobilising citizens to take over Parliament.
“Unless Ugandans decide that it is ok to be taken for granted, there is no way the system can fail to respond. Our fundamental problem is that people do things with impunity, if government fails to respond, we must force them,” Tumushabe says.
It is prudent to remind Tumushabe that in 2005, the citizens he is relying on for mass action looked on as the presidential term limits were lifted. He quickly downplays that and says, “At that time citizens were not engaged. This time we spread the discourse beyond politicians. There was energy in the regional consultations. I am sure Ugandans will rise up when the country’s future is at stake.”
Time frame unrealistic?
However, Charles Rwomushana, the former head of political intelligence at State House and self-proclaimed political commentator, pokes holes in the reforms, arguing for instance, that dissolving and reconstitution of the Electoral Commission is too late.
First on the agenda for the reforms is the constitution of a new Electoral Commission with ingredients such as a new, clean and verifiable register of voters which should capture Ugandans in the diaspora and must be compiled by the new Electoral Commission.
There are fears that with less than a year to the polls in 2016, this falls short of the time constraint. Mr Tumushabe argues that in the event Parliament fails to expeditiously implement the reforms, “we shall push for a transition government to take over briefly in 2016 to purposely implement the reforms and whoever serves it shall be barred from standing for at least 10 years.”
The Badru Kiggundu led EC has come under attack for working as an appendage of the NRM. Senior commissioners are either former or active NRM cadres. In 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the elections were marred by irregularities but fell short of shooting itself in the foot when it asserted that the irregularities were not substantial to cause a change in the outcome.
The activists now want Section 59 of the Presidential Elections Act amended so that the test of substantiality is ejected. This provision is likely to meet stiff resistance from the ruling party. The activists are also calling for an independent judiciary. This perhaps comes from the background of the 2001 and 2006 polls.
Justice George Kanyeihamba, who was part of the seven judge panel that handled the petition in 2006, has revealed in his autobiography, The Joy of Being Who You Are, the role of the invisible hand of the President that appeared to blur the judges’ assessment and final decision.
Already the country is still grappling with what Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine recently called a fatherless Judiciary and the appointment of a new Chief Justice (CJ) is giving the appointing authority sleepless nights.
Critics have connected this to the 2016 polls, as the President might be stuck on zeroing in on a CJ who can tilt the balance in the court room just in case we have a repeat of 2001 and 2006.
A boycott not one of the options
The practicability of Tumushabe’s idea of a transition government makes fine fodder for imagination and debate in the same way a boycott of the election would. In 2011, Uganda Peoples Congress president Olara Otunnu, who to his credit was the first to call for the reforms, boycotted the ballot process on the D-day.
Indeed, some voices in the Opposition have called for the inclusion of this among the options. But a boycott is not as easy as it sounds. Nothing stops the ruling party from sponsoring some opposition figures to contest, if only to lend credence to the ballot. In Zimbabwe, the same approach hit a snag as president Robert Mugabe still carried the day in an election largely boycotted by the opposition.
Tumushabe vehemently rules out a boycott from their window of options. “I wouldn’t aise a boycott. Why should we boycott our election? It is ours and it must be conducted on our terms and conditions. We cannot boycott it,” he says.
But above all this, Kawamara says, “This is a post-Museveni compact, we don’t want to have the masses rising up, taking over power and they are bleak on what to do with it as is the case in Tunisia and Libya. If Museveni is out, we don’t want the army in elections, we want the president to serve for only two five year terms. It is beyond him. If Museveni died or failed to make it to the ballot, won’t we have electoral reforms?”
When all is said and done, the agitators for the reforms have limited delicate options, including a boycott of the polls which appears a tall order given the background of an Opposition struggling for harmony.
One is to put Parliament to task to implement the reforms at all costs. Very few NRM-leaning MPs (factoring their make or break numerical value) have expressed enthusiasm, at least publically in the reforms and with a cold shoulder coming from the Executive, only time can tell how far this can go.
The other option, which has not been time tested at least in the last 28 years, is to rally the masses, perhaps the anti-Blaise Compaore-Burkinabe way, to turn tables upside down and force the regime to respond or be booted.
Is this achievable? Do these reforms have such a strong resonating appeal that the wananchi, wallowing in citizen apathy, can match to the streets to demand for their implementation? The activists think so but time alone can give the most accurate answer.
THE PROPOSED ELECTORAL REFORMS
1. A new independent and impartial Electoral Commission with selection of commissioners carried out by the Judicial Service Commission in public hearings.
2. A new, clean and verifiable register of voters including Ugandans in the Diaspora, compiled by the new Electoral Commission. The register must be a public document, ready six months before elections.
3. The military must be withdrawn from electoral processes, with the regular police handling all matters of law and order and monitored by the EC. The President should relinquish tactical command and control of armed forces to the Joint Chief of Staff.
4. Establish mechanism to monitor and prevent raids for funds from central bank, ministries and international assistance accounts.
5. To address patronage, no new political offices shall be created in the last term of the President. No minister should be an MP at the same time.
6. Repeal the Public Order Management Act and institute penalties for media houses that fail to cover elections objectively and fairly. Allow media report in real time the votes counted and winners and declare all general election results at constituency level.
7. Review special interest group representation, restore term limits and amend Section 59 of Presidential Elections Act that establishes
substantiality test for election petitions.
About the Badru Kiggundu-led EC
The Badru Kiggundu led Electoral Commission has come under attack for working as an appendage of the NRM. Senior commissioners are either former or active NRM cadres.
In 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the elections were marred by irregularities but fell short of shooting itself in the foot when it asserted that the irregularities were not substantial to cause a change in the outcome.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor