“But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”
Listening to Amanda Gorman recite her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the inauguration of President Joe Biden caused me to reflect on my home country, Uganda, which recently completed its own controversial election on January 14. The line reminded me that Uganda’s democracy still has a long road ahead. Days before the Ugandan election, the government forced an internet black out, which meant I could not reach my family, allowing me to poignantly reflect on the consistently defective election process in Uganda.
While announcing the election results on Jan. 16, the Electoral Commission chairperson, Justice Simon Byabakama, said about 10 million votes were cast in the presidential election, representing 57 percent of the registered voters. Fifty-nine percent of these votes were reportedly cast in favor of the incumbent, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, and the leading opposition candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, more popularly known as Bobi Wine, received 35 percent. According to the Electoral Commission, 18 million Ugandans were registered to vote this year, indicating that nearly half of all registered voters, which is about 8 million, did not show up to vote in the presidential election. Why did so many registered voters, with the power to contribute to the country’s democracy, not vote? More importantly, how do we get them to vote in the future? How do we prepare voters to fully participate in future elections?
The late Democratic congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis once stated that voting is “the most powerful non-violent tool we have in democratic society.” Since 57 percent is pretty typical turnout for presidential elections in the United States, why is this average turnout of great concern for Uganda? It’s because, unlike the United States which has had numerous democratic transitions, Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power. Museveni, himself, has been in power since 1986. Consequently, it is imperative for all of us—the international community, as well as Ugandans, especially the leadership in both the opposition and the ruling party—to dig deep t0 find out why 8 million chose not to use the most powerful non-violent tool. One can rightfully assume that people did not show up to vote because of voter suppression, compounded by voters’ distrust in the process and having a negative perception of what it means to vote or the power of their vote.
For many, voter trust began to break down when presidential term and age limits were removed from the Ugandan constitution in 2005, and later, in 2017. These actions essentially established the potential for a president to stay in office for life and, in turn, led to the erasure of trust in the voting process.
Elections are a process, not an event, so Uganda’s election did not start or end on Jan. 14, when people actually went to the polls. Recent media reports show that the weeks leading up to the election were characterized by widespread violence and human rights abuses. The abuses included killings by security forces and an internet shutdown. This kind of violence and abuse damaged the integrity of the election before it even took place and contributed to the lack of trust in the voting system.
Compounding the issue, the Uganda Electoral Commission did not immediately share the election results on its official website and it excluded results from 1,200 polling stations, calling into question the independence and credibility of the Commission. This situation has resulted in a series of undesirable outcomes, like the rejection of election results by unsuccessful candidates These outcomes eventually lead to continued disengagement of voters from future electoral process and an increased likelihood of violence.
Negative perceptions and the lack of trust in the vote are also fueled by violent and forceful arrests of opposition leaders, violence against opposition supporters, and the forceful disruption of opposition rallies in the past and during the recently concluded election. These actions, all led by government security and law enforcement officers, continue to create presumptions that supporting the opposition is a crime, it intimidates voters and, in the end, leads to unhealthy competition.
Actors working on democracy and good governance in Uganda should begin to deeply invest in solutions that will get all 18 million registered voters to believe in the powerful tool of the vote. There are three pathways that need to be taken to restore the integrity of the election process and to regain the trust of all registered voters.
The first pathway is through enacting new policy. This includes restoring presidential term limits in the 1995 constitution; revising the “Emolument and Benefits of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister Act” to include advisory roles that a former president could play, thereby fostering a peaceful transfer of power; and dismantling the current election management system to create an election management that is citizen-inclusive and incorporates election recommendations from Uganda’s Supreme Court.
The second route is a justice pathway. Great leaders like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that peace is not just the absence of conflict, but that it also requires the presence of justice. This pathway would include providing justice for those who have been affected by the widespread violence and human rights abuses committed by government security and law enforcement officers during past and current election periods.
The third step that must be taken is voter mobilization. Once trust is restored, efforts will need to shift to mobilizing all 18 million registered voters to use the most powerful non-violent tool in democracy in future elections.
These three key pathways are critical because of Uganda’s history of never having experienced a peaceful transition of power and the fact that peace and democracy in a country are often dependent on a sound electoral process. We must not let democracy be permanently defeated in Uganda before it’s even had a chance to take hold.