By Dr Eva Namusoke, Postdoctoral Research Officer, ICWS
The 18th February saw long-anticipated elections in Uganda, where the incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) faced his stiffest opposition in his 30 years in office. With a reported 60.8% of the votes, Museveni was declared winner and will continue as president until 2021. The election drew extensive coverage in Uganda and abroad with the campaign process being marked by frequent arrests of the opposition leader, sometimes clashes between the Ugandan police and opposition supporters, constraints on the media, and the recruitment of controversial Crime Preventers. In this election in Uganda, as on previous occasions, international election observers were invited into the country to witness and asses the democratic process. Election observers included teams from the EU, the East African Community, the AU and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth in particular has one of the oldest traditions of election monitoring, having observed more than 130 elections in 36 countries since 1980. While the various observer groups present written reports about the process, the interviews in the Commonwealth Oral History Project (COHP) offer a look behind the scenes, moving beyond the measured words of the official reports and photo ops.
Election monitoring in the Commonwealth began in 1980 under the leadership of General Secretary Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal. In 1980, the Commonwealth sent a group to monitor the first elections in independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), the culmination of long-term involvement in the transition to majority rule. Neville Linton worked at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1983-1995 and was involved in observing numerous elections. Along with his discussion of elections in Namibia, Kenya and Bangladesh, he also explained the beginning of the activities in 1980:
‘You see, these were crisis situations: Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, and the phase after Idi Amin. But they had been one-offs. What happened in the meeting in Malaysia was that it was accepted that this would now be part of the routine practices of the Commonwealth.’
The process of Commonwealth election monitoring was formalised following the 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malaysia and as Linton recalled, Malaysia volunteered to be the first country to allow Commonwealth observers at its 1990 general election. As noted above, Uganda’s post-Amin 1980 election was one of the earliest observer missions for the Commonwealth. Hugh Craft, an Australian diplomat and member of the 1980 Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) described the turbulence of this particular election:
‘Violent? Yes, in the extreme. I vividly remember guerrilla leader Museveni surrounded by his AK47-bearing bodyguards, straight out of the jungle, coming into the Speke [Hotel] to see the COG.’
Raja Gomez, a Sri Lankan civil servant, was part of the same group as Craft and similarly remembers the events:
‘That was one in which we had soldiers firing in to our hotel. And we have a tape of the shots being fired and various people talking and saying silly things to each other – shall we get under tables and that type of thing you say to each other in situations that you would have never met before.’
Martin Aliker, a Ugandan diplomat, ran in the 1980 elections and discussed the results, arguing that while the voting was free and fair, the election was stolen by the electoral commissioner deliberately reporting the wrong winners.
Amitav Banerji, who joined the Commonwealth in 1990 was also actively involved in election monitoring and commented on what made the Commonwealth process unique:
‘Election observation by the Commonwealth was very different from other observer groups because they were led at much higher level, usually a former head of state or a former head of government.’
The inclusion of a former head of state remains an important part of the Commonwealth process and there appears to be an effort to ensure the individual is from the same continent. Most recently, the October 2015 Commonwealth Observer Group to Tanzania was led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, while the group in Uganda was led by another former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The 13-member group representing a range of professional and national backgrounds arrived in Uganda on the 11th February, a week ahead of the election, and spent their time meeting with various civil society groups. Reflecting on his experience in Namibia in 1994, Linton made an important point:
‘What we would do would be to go in before the election, in the run-up to the election because in any case that is when elections are fixed.’
His words were echoed with examples by another veteran of the Commonwealth monitoring process: Sandra Pepera who stated in reference to the 1992 Ghana elections:
‘Well, I think we understood intimately – straight off – that it was just too late to come in two weeks before polling and, clearly, certainly, in Ghana’s case… Yeah, two weeks before the election… This thing was a done deal long before COG arrived.’
As mentioned above, the campaign process for Uganda’s 2016 election has been a somewhat turbulent time for the opposition, suggesting the necessity to view the events of the 18th February within a longer timeline.
In Uganda’s 2016 election, unlike in previous years, the proliferation of social media added another level to monitoring. Despite the government’s surprise decision early on the 18th to block social media including Facebook, Twitter, and (in a move that unduly affected businesses) mobile money, the hashtag #UgandaDecides trended on Twitter. Through the creative use of VPNs to bypass the blockage, Ugandan news sources, opposition leaders and individuals alike shared stories of missing ballot papers, late openings and tense, hours long queues at polling stations. As a result the frustrations of Election Day in Uganda were instantly transmitted around the world, allowing the international community to follow events live.
The Commonwealth Observer Group’s preliminary report on Uganda’s 2016 election, published on the 20th February, echoes other international monitoring groups in its criticism of the process. With a long list of issues noted including a lack of transparency in campaign financing, restrictions placed on the media and incompetency in the work of the Electoral Commission, Obasanjo concluded that, as in previous Ugandan elections, ‘once again these elections fell short of meeting key democratic benchmarks’. Interestingly, African observer groups were notably less critical of the process.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who became Commonwealth General Secretary in 1990 right at the beginning of the huge scaling up of Commonwealth election monitoring described its significance:
‘Commonwealth observance of elections legitimises the election and makes it easier for the parties who have lost to accept the result if the election is judged to be free and fair by Commonwealth observers. And this works both for the governing and the opposition parties.’
In the case of Uganda’s most recent election, it appears the process was somewhat lacking in both freedom and fairness. In the wake of the announcement that Museveni had won, his closest opponent, Dr Kizza Besigye, who had received 35.37% of votes, disputed the result and was considering challenging the results in court. At the time of writing and despite protests from the likes of the US government, Besigye had been taken into police custody following three days of house arrest, and the office of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party had been stormed by police. Police have also been deployed around major intersections in Kampala and Obasanjo has meanwhile urged security forces and political party supporters to ‘exercise restraint and avoid unnecessary confrontations’.
With Commonwealth observers present at presidential elections from 1980 and regularly alongside a slew of other observer groups in the years since, Uganda has perhaps one of the longest histories of international monitoring of its electoral process. However, it appears that while the levels of violence have reduced markedly since that first monitored 1980 election, there remains some way to go before the country can claim truly democratic elections.