I still remember it as though it was yesterday – the scenes of violent clashes between the police and campaigners for Free and Fair Elections, last year in Mbale town. Pictures came pouring in over the news and social media, of a policeman manhandling Bishop Zac Niringiye – one of the campaigners. And why all the chaos and mayhem? Because a group of Ugandans had mobilized citizens to rally support for a raft of electoral reforms necessary for us to conduct a truly free and fair election come 2016. The clashes also happened in Soroti town, where a Free and Fair Election Campaign was disrupted and police cordoned off the venue. In Kabale, some of the campaigners were involved in a high speed chase with the police, and some of the opposition leaders were shuttled off to Ntungamo – a town about an hour away from Kabale.
But even before the Free and Fair Election Campaign hit the road, there had been many other events and processes to agree reforms necessary to correct our electoral system. The Citizens Coalition for Elections and Democracy (CCEDU), having observed the 2011 elections, compiled proposals for 8 major reforms. Others, such as the Inter-Party Organization for Dialogue (IPOD), a platform for all political parties represented in Parliament, also discussed and presented reforms to Parliament. Likewise, the Electoral Commission also proposed some reforms, to enable it conduct better elections.
Last year, after the public rallies to popularize the proposals for free and fair elections, there were also consultative meetings with key leaders across 14 regions of the country, to get citizen’s input to the proposed reforms. This process culminated into a national consultation on free and fair elections, held in November 2014 where over 1,200 Ugandans attended. The meeting outcome was a Citizen Compact on Free and Fair Elections. Also last year, the Speaker of Parliament repeatedly asked the Executive to present electoral reforms in time, to enable adequate debate, passage and implementation by the relevant bodies.
Through all this, Government kept stalling. Finally, two days ago, Government presented a Constitution Amendment Bill. And we all breathed a collective sigh of relief thinking that finally, they had responded to pressure to present meaningful electoral reforms. It was like the long awaited meal we had been waiting for. We all sat at the dining table of expectation, hopes high, eyes on the dish that was presented, as the Government, in dramatic fashion, whipped off the cover of the dish. And what did we behold? A small, tiny, puny, half cooked meal, for of all the proposals that had been made, Government chose the least consequential of all electoral reforms – the change of the name of the Electoral Commission to Independent Electoral Commission!
One wonders whether Government lives in cuckoo land! I mean of all things that have caused elections to adjudged as fraudulent, how could Government pick on the change of name of the Electoral Commission, as though that would solve the systemic problems that have plagued our electoral processes over the years? These problems include lack of integrity of the campaign process, use of state funds by the incumbent and other government officials during campaigns, addressing the role of the military in our elections, curbing electoral related violence, ensuring a clean voters register, restoring Presidential term limits, and re-composition of the Electoral Commission so that it is more reflective of our multiparty dispensation, among others.
The amendments proposed by Government seem more like a slap in our face. They show a Government that has little regard for what its citizens say. It shows a Government that is not willing or interested in changing the rules of the game to ensure an actual credible electoral process. It shows a Government going through the motions, but totally uninterested in a substantively free and fair election. It shows a Government that knows it can get away with impunity. This is clearly not a Government for the people, by the people. It has become its own lord, and turned citizens into subjects, to do with as they please.
What Government presented is not the bill we asked for; it is not the reforms we wanted. What we want, nay what we desperately need in Uganda is not a mere change of guard, but a fundamental change.