Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lessons for Nigeria on 2016 Ugandan elections

The Ugandan election was my fourth international election observation mission. I had previously served as Short Term Observer with Carter Centre in Ghana (2008); International Foundation for Electoral Systems in United States of America (2010) and African Union in Egypt (2014). My Ugandan observation mission was courtesy of Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. We were handpicked from 22 African countries and I was in Uganda from February 12 – 22, 2016. After three days of briefings from the Ugandan Electoral Commission, representatives of political parties, civil society groups, security experts, and the EISA secretariat team, I and my Zimbabwean team mate, Gamuchirai Matsheza were deployed to Masaka District to observe the February 18 presidential and parliamentary elections.

A lot has been said on the polls by various observer missions in their preliminary statements released at a press conference last Friday, February 19. While some of them like the Commonwealth and European Union Election Observation Mission were very critical of the elections, others were not quite scathing in their remarks. In all honesty, the election I witnessed was not perfect. It fell short of minimum international standard in some key areas.  There was breach of campaign finance regulations with the ruling party, National Resistance Movement flagrantly abusing the state and administrative resources. There were significant incidences of vote buying particularly in rural communities. The campaigns were tense especially at rallies organised by the main opposition party, Forum for Democratic Change whose presidential flag bearer, Dr. Kizza Besigye was the main opposition figure. Many of the FDC campaigns were disrupted by police and other security forces while the party’s presidential candidate was severally arrested and have his movements restricted.

Opposition political parties and their candidates were also reportedly denied access to some of the media houses while there was late commencement of voting in many of the 28,010 Polling Stations across the 112 Districts of Uganda. Elections which ought to be from 7am – 4pm could not start in many places until about an hour of two late. This was largely due to late arrival of voting materials and poll officials. Many political observers of Uganda have also accused the country’s Electoral Commission of being a lackey of government thereby not able to inspire trust and confidence of critical stakeholders, particularly the opposition political parties and their contestants.  The security forces were also alleged to be kowtowing to the dictates of President Yoweri Museveni . A couple of deaths were recorded in the lead up to the elections.

In spite of the several shortcomings highlighted above, the February 18 elections were all not negative. The polls were largely peaceful and successful. It was not stalemated and were conducted in substantial compliance with the Ugandan electoral laws. On that day, three elections were held simultaneously. Presidential and those of the members of the parliament – both open seats and quota seats for women.  The presidential seat was the most coveted and expectedly grabbed most of the media reportage. Though there were eight presidential candidates, the outcome of the elections eventually proved that it was a two horse race between friends turned political rivals – incumbent President Museveni and his former personal physician, Dr. Kizza Besigye. The Electoral Commission of Uganda declared that Museveni won his fifth term in office with 5,617,503 votes, a percentage of 60.7 while his main challenger, Besigye garnered 3,270,290 votes, representing 35.37 per cent of the total valid votes cast.

There are lessons for Nigeria. By far the most highly recommended for our electoral system is the inclusive and highly participatory nature of Ugandan electoral process.  The country’s constitution made provision for special interest groups such as women, youth, workers, persons with disabilities and even the military. They all have seats reserved for them in the Ugandan 418 memeber parliament.  Article 78 of the Ugandan Constitution requires parliament to have one woman representative for every district or city.  There are 112 Districts in the country.  Other interest groups are the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (the military) which has 10 reserved seats in parliament; the Youth, Workers, and Persons with Disabilities who have five reserved seats each. Of these seats one of them is reserved for women and in the case of UPDF which has 10, two is reserved for women. In the ninth parliament (2011 – 2016) women representation was 34 per cent.

There is also provision for independent candidates in Uganda.  51.9 per cent independents vied for both presidential and parliamentary slots in the February 18 elections. Indeed, four out of the eight presidential candidates stood elections as independents. A minimum of Advanced Level Certificate of Education is needed for anyone to contest elections in Uganda. In Nigeria, it is Ordinary Level West African Examination Council certificate or its equivalent. The 2016 elections were held on a Thursday as against Saturdays when we normally have ours here. During the polls, there were no military roadblocks, no restriction of movement and no shutting down of the Ugandan economy as is the case here.

During the polls, two polling agents were allowed to protect the interest of each of the contestants. In addition, these agents were allowed to bring the Voters Register for the Polling Station with them and track electorates who turn out to vote same way as the Poll Officials are doing. This enhances transparency of the process. Furthermore, both the agents and the voters were allowed to observe the entire electoral process – voting, closing, sorting, counting and announcement of results. Unlike our own laborious Modified Open Secret Balloting Systems where accreditation is separated from voting, voters in Uganda have both done simultaneously. They have the option of using pen to tick their preferred candidate or thumbprint. They do the voting inside a plastic bowl to guarantee secrecy while casting their ballot in a well secured transparent ballot box.

Unlike our own system here where all you need to win executive positions such as that of the president, governor and Council chairman is 25 per cent of valid votes cast in two thirds of the constituency, in Uganda, you need to score absolute majority, that is, over 50 per cent of valid vote cast, otherwise there will be a run-off between the top two candidates within 30 days. This is exemplary.  Presidential elections are to be submitted to the Supreme Court of Uganda within 10 days and the Court is to adjudicate on the matter within 70 days. In Nigeria’s case, Court of Appeal has original jurisdiction to hear presidential election matters with the candidates having a right of appeal to Supreme Court. Perhaps Ugandan model will serve us better.