On a round table, we had different opinions among young African policy advisors who would wish to see Africa free from political violence and the peaceful transition of power. This is a real problem across the continent and as a Ugandan, I have always been inspired to understand why it is impossible to change governments by ballot. In searching for an effective solution, I have always wanted to understand why Uganda, despite its smaller size, has a history of political and electoral violence as compared to other East African Countries (EAC) like Tanzania. Of course, I am not praising Tanzania as having the best political fairness and the rule of law in the region, but it might be way far better on issues of peace and the absence of war in the region.
Uganda is one of the smallest landlocked countries in East Africa boarded with Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Uganda was not fully colonised by Britain but nevertheless it was controlled politically and economically until October 1962 when she became internally self-governed. Since its inception as a republic, it has passed through a series of political tribulations including civil wars. Uganda has always tried to work on democratization with all the regimes but it was not only until 1995 that the Constitution established a multi-party political system and the Electoral Commission that would later be responsible for managing and organizing electoral processes.
The birth of the Electoral Commission has been the foundation for electoral violence in the country and in fact, violence has been part of all the presidential and parliamentary elections since 1995. Violence is not only attributed to civilians but also security forces have used force against civilians on different occasions across the countries which sometimes have resulted to a number of deaths. The 2001 election witnessed such a level of violence that a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the violence. International media houses and human rights organizations made several reports on the excessive use of force by security personnel which resulted to massive violations of human rights such as disappearances, torture, arbitral arrests etc.
It is very hard, and I am hesitant to compare the effectiveness of democracies by country since each country has its own democratic history however, there is a consensus that National Electoral Commissions play a great role in ensuring strong democracies. In fact, they help people have faith in democracy and in government institutions because free and fair elections guarantee legitimacy of governance. Thus, to ensure the independence, fairness and effectiveness of the Commission, there must be in place different governing legislation, including complementary regulations on accountability, institutional budgets and finances, on electoral offences which might be committed by election observers, direct supervision and auditing of the expenditures made by all political parties among others.
Suddenly, Uganda does not have an extensive legal framework on the Electoral Commission or elections in general, but I will make inference to its narrow and major three existing legislations that would help us better assess the effectiveness of democratic processes.
The institution of the Commission is established under Article 60 of the Uganda Constitution of 2006 (as amended). The Commission is composed of seven persons who are directly appointed by the president for a period of seven years renewable once. The president further has powers to remove any officer in office on grounds of inability to perform the functions of his or her office, misbehaviour or misconduct and incompetence. The Commission, therefore, is mandated to ensure free and fair elections through organising, conducting, and supervising; to manage or determine the voters’ register; to hear and determine election complaints. It is interesting to note here that despite the direct power of the president to appoint and remove a commissioner, the commission is presumed to be “independent and shall, in the performance of its functions, not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority”.
The Electoral Commission Act, Cap 140 elaborates more on the mandate and the independence of the Commission. Section 2 provides its responsibilities related to electoral processes and in its capacity, it holds such a noble position and to determine the country’s future especially in those areas that are born within a democratic framework. However, its independence from the executive is questionable since it does not have a trust fund to independently manage its budget expenditures. Although on rare occasions it may get donations or grants from non-governmental stakeholders, its main budget is funded by the government.
The Political Parties and Organizations Act, 2005 regulates the financing and functioning of political parties and organisations, their formation, registration, membership, and organisation. However different from other EAC laws, the Commission does not have the direct right to audit and supervise the expenses incurred by the political parties during the electoral process, rather, parties are required to submit a statement (written document) declaring their assets and liabilities annually. In 2010 this legislation was amended and as such, section 14A gives the right to the government to use public funds and resources towards the activities of political parties or organizations represented in Parliament on an equal basis. Although this section has been functional, it benefits the incumbent parliamentarians hence excluding youths and in particular women from direct participation in politics. This legislation further would be considered as unfair to many Ugandans who could not finance their electoral campaigns.
Therefore, from its legal framework, there is a strong coloration between the structure, independency, and capacity of the Electoral commission in managing and organizing free and fair elections and to mitigate electoral violence in the country. As it has been noted, the Ugandan Commission holds the future of the Country for it is mandated to register voters, issue voter cards, and determine which party should be registered and to declare the final results. Uganda, however, still faces a great challenge in making democracy a reality due to the direct intervention of the executive, and lack of accountability on public finances. In fact, it was reported that just in 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections, Uganda spent 2.4 Trillion UG shillings. Thus in the absence of such formalities, violence is inevitable within the young generation who would wish to see a more inclusive political governance and economy.
It should be noted however that electoral violence in Uganda is not only attributed to the week and poorly organized Electoral Commission but also the presence of effective and independent institutions like the judiciary as well as the decisions taken by political leaders or the founding fathers of the nation plays a great role to ensure unity in the country hence minimal political violence.
In the lineage of the rule of law, Stephen Holmes notes that the decisions made by Political leaders in most cases determine the destiny of a country. They may choose to be bound by the law, rule by law or choose to change the Constitutions to remain in power. In fact leaders play a great role in ensuring equitable institutions are in place with equal distribution of resources and power. For instance, Nelson Mandera believed in reconciliation as the national tool that would create a stable country. His theory might not have made sense to many South African who had lived in an unjust society for decades but today such a model is appreciated in many African States and abroad. In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere made a strong foundation on the political culture when he introduced the Ujama policy. He aimed at making Tanzanians as one with socialist aspects. Such an inclusive political foundation has held the Tanzanian politics despite its diversity. In Uganda, things went off from the beginning; no leader has been consistent at creating an inclusive and unilateral political system. The majority of the regimes including Yoweri Museveni have been so corrupt and tribalistic in distributing natural resources and civil servant leaderships which has caused political fragmentations leading to electoral violence.
It should also be noted that, in such a fragmented and vulnerable country like Uganda, the only way that would have helped to bring unity and accountability to public institutions would have been strong institutions such as the judiciary. North Weingast underlines that strong and independent political institutions play a great role for political stability in a country since they serve each one of its citizens including the head of state equally. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in “Why Nations Fail” also notes that having inclusive institutions that allows all citizens to be included in decision making processes to attain their objectives contributes much to the Country’s political stability since each citizen feels part of the society. For instance, Kenya demonstrated the power of having an independent judiciary when it delivered a remarkable judgement in John Harun & Others Vs. the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and 2 Others. The Kenyan Supreme Court gave a precedent when it annulled the results of presidential elections in 2017 and the Electoral Commission was obliged to re-organise another election.
Therefore, as a Ugandan youth, I am hopeful that this regime will have remorse for leaving behind failed public institutions that would have led to a peaceful Uganda. I am also hopeful that sooner we shall the National Electoral Commission restructured to function in a more free and accountable manner. This, among other institutional changes will ensure effective democracy and a peaceful transition of power.
Mary Goretti Byamugisha