Uganda’s post-election question: “What Next?”


In a unanimous ruling read by Chief Justice Bart Katureebe, Uganda’s Supreme Court has upheld the declaration by the Electoral Commission that President Yoweri Museveni was re-elected on February 18, 2016. All nine justices of the Supreme Court dismissed a petition by former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi which had sought annulment of the results on the basis that the electoral process had been fraudulent. Mr. Mbabazi was one of the presidential candidates in the February 18, 2016 exercise. The Electoral Commission gave him 1.4 percent of the vote.

The Supreme Court’s ruling paves the way for Mr. Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, to be sworn in as president for a 6th (some say 7th) consecutive term in office. The Electoral Commission declared Mr. Museveni winner with 60.8 percent of the votes. Dr. Kizza Besigye, the candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was given 35.3%. The EC gave Mr. Mbabazi 1.4% and the other candidates were given less than 1% each.

Speaking to journalists at his Kampala home where he is under house arrest, Dr. Besigye told a TV journalist: “Any court process under the current legal framework in the country is not a process which can offer a meaningful verdict. The framework of examining an election in the framework of Uganda is very defective.” Dr. Besigye added that he would have gone to court to ask it to announce the rightful winner of the elections. However, he was prohibited from doing so because he was and remains confined to his home which is surrounded by heavily armed police officers.

According to the Forum for Democratic Change, Dr. Besigye won the majority of the votes and should have been declared winner of the exercise. Commonwealth and European Union Election Observer teams concluded that the Ugandan exercise had fallen short of the minimum standards for fair elections. In their preliminary statement, the European Observer Team said: “The National Resistance Movement’s domination of the political landscape distorted the fairness of the campaign and state actors created an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates, which continued in the days immediately following elections.”

The Commonwealth Observer Team, which was headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, stated: “These elections fell short of meeting some key democratic benchmarks … namely, the increased prevalence of money in politics, the misuse of state resources, which led to significant advantages for the incumbent, and the confidence, credibility, and ability of the electoral commission to manage the process effectively and impartially.”

Two days after the Ugandan voting exercise, the United States Department of State issued a statement that said: “While the vote occurred without major unrest, we must acknowledge numerous reports of irregularities and official conduct that are deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process. “

Speaking during a UN Security Council Debate on prevention and resolution of conflicts in the Great Lakes Region on March 21, 2016, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, said: “President Museveni’s actions contravene the rule of law and jeopardize Uganda’s democratic progress, threatening Uganda’s future stability and prosperity.”

On the other hand, the African Union Election Observer Team stated that the exercise was “largely peaceful, but not without shortcomings.” Similar support for the fairness of the election was voiced by other observer teams and by the spokespersons of the ruling National Resistance Movement.

None of this is new to Uganda. The only elections whose results were accepted by the competing parties were the pre-independence ones held in 1961 and 1962. Whereas electoral fraud was reported and has since been confirmed by some of the actors in the 1961 and 1962 malpractices, there wasn’t much post-election violence.

However, the 1980 elections were believed to have been rigged in favour of the Uganda People’s Congress, the party that had been in power from independence until they were overthrown in a 1971 military coup d’état by Maj. Gen. Idi Amin Dada.   President A. Milton Obote was declared the winner and was sworn in amidst post-election tension that had many people asking the question: “What next?”

That question was answered by Yoweri Museveni, a young politician-cum-soldier who had threatened to go to war in the event that the election was fraudulent. Less than two months after the election, Museveni launched a guerrilla war in an area north of Kampala which lasted five years and cost the lives of thousands of Ugandans.   Museveni and his guerrilla army eventually triumphed and seized power in January 1986.

The first post-war presidential election was held in 1996 under a no-party, individual merit arrangement.   Whereas that election was characterised by harassment directed against Mr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, the main challenger, the consensus was that Mr. Museveni won by a very comfortable margin. Nevertheless, the hope for free and fair elections remained distant.

The first big threat to Mr. Museveni’s grip on the presidency came in 2001 when Dr. Besigye, the president’s former ally and family physician during the war, mounted a formidable campaign in his first attempt to unseat his comrade. Widespread incidents of intimidation, harassment, bribery and outright ballot tampering were reported. Mr. Museveni was declared winner.

Dr. Besigye lodged a petition seeking reversal of the declared results. The petition was dismissed by the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court. Subsequent reports emerged that the court had initially found in favour of the petitioner, but two judges had allegedly reversed themselves at the last minute.

The question “what next” was soon answered when a group of senior army officers, among them Lt. Col. Samson Mande and Lt. Col. Anthony Kyakabale, fled to Kigali, Rwanda and reportedly declared that they had formed the People’s Resistance Army (PRA). That army reportedly recruited many young Ugandans and was preparing to launch an attack from Eastern Congo when they were defeated before entering Uganda. The number of those who died and those who remain in exile is not known.

Meanwhile, Dr. Besigye, who was subjected to much post-election harassment and faced the prospect of arrest, fled the country in August 2001. After a brief visit to the United States, he went into exile in South Africa. He returned to Uganda in October 2005 and, after nomination as his new political party’s candidate for president, he was arrested and imprisoned throughout most of the campaign for the February 2006 election. The Electoral Commission declared Mr. Museveni the winner of the 2006 election. Dr. Besigye went to court once again. His petition was again dismissed.

It has since emerged that the results that were declared in 2006 were probably false. Gen. David Sejusa, who was the Coordinator of Intelligence Services, stated in 2013 that there was a parallel “electoral commission” operating from Basiima House, one of the government’s intelligence centres. According to Gen. Sejusa, the intelligence service was feeding false results to the official Electoral Commission.

The postelection period was tense, with Ugandans asking the question: “What next?”

In February 2011, it was Museveni versus Besigye again, with the usual disequilibrium very evident all over the country. The declared results were disputed, but Dr. Besigye did not bother to lodge a petition this time. Notwithstanding the unreliability of Ugandan presidential election results, the general view was that Museveni probably won the 2011 election.

The post-election period was even tenser than before, with Dr. Besigye subjected to severe harassment and physical attacks. In one incident, a police officer by the names of Gilbert Asiimwe, sprayed Dr. Besigye with a toxic substance that left the veteran politician severely ill. He was admitted to Nairobi Hospital and later flew to the United States for medical treatment.

A series of street protests, led by Dr. Besigye, followed, but were suppressed by the police. Calls for electoral reforms were ignored by the state. The conduct and the results of the next election scheduled for 2016 were predictable. Well, at least until former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi declared his candidacy for president.

The government’s strategy became a singular focus on Mr. Mbabazi, with the entire arsenal thrown at his campaign to neutralize and humiliate him. The government succeeded beyond their expectation. Mbabazi’s campaign team was reportedly infiltrated by government agents. Some of his supporters were easily bought with cash. Campaign venues and radio appearances were sabotaged.

Meanwhile, Dr. Besigye’s campaign appearances had the feel of Christian revival gatherings, with thousands of his supporters braving the elements to see their candidate. Many donated cash and food as he traversed the country. Besigye appeared unstoppable and many of his supporters began to talk with the confidence of impending occupants of state power. They had good reason to, for Ugandans seemed ready for change. As one Museveni loyalist told me: “We focused on Mbabazi and forgot about Besigye until it was too late.”

They remembered Besigye after the voting exercise closed. He was placed under preventive arrest. His party headquarters were raided by the police who reportedly took away critical documents that might have been used as evidence of election fraud. Besigye, unable to leave his home, was denied the opportunity to lodge a petition. The task was left to Mbabazi. The latter had gathered a lot of evidence to support his claims. However, some people broke into his lawyers’ offices and took away a lot of that evidence. Mbabazi’s lawyers reported the matter of the break-ins and the stolen evidence. The Supreme Court found that Mbabazi had not produced evidence to support his claims.

Now Ugandans are asking the same old question again: “What next?”   This is a question that demands of us our collective efforts and sober reflection. We must find an answer that will make 2016 the last round in this destructive sport that Uganda’s attempt at democracy has become.

Dr. Muniini Mulera

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