When on May 7 the Electoral Commission (EC) released its roadmap to the 2016 general elections almost three years early, one would expect that the political class would applaud it for the effort. However, critics have been quick to come out and say the EC's plans are hollow unless bold electoral reforms are adopted.
The EC's document titled, "The Strategic Plan 2013-2017 of the Electoral Commission, Uganda" spells out key areas with corresponding budgets that the EC thinks will suffice to have results all Ugandans believe in.
The EC says it wants to lay more focus on strengthening election management to ensure free and fair elections by improving access to the voters' register in addition to carrying out comprehensive voter education ahead of the 2016 elections.
The Electoral Commission has faced a number of hurdles since Multi-party democracy was adopted in 2005. Although Article 62 of the Constitution guarantees the independence of the Commission both in decision making and financing, its critics insist it is not independent enough to deliver credible elections.
A European Union (EU) election observation mission report on the 2011 general elections noted that although the elections showed some improvements in comparison to the 2006 election, the electoral process was marred by avoidable administrative and logistical failures, which led to an unacceptable number of Ugandans being disenfranchised.
Furthermore, the power of incumbency was exercised to an extent that was deemed to compromise severely the level playing field between the competing candidates and political parties.
The EU, in its report said although Uganda's legal framework offers a workable and detailed foundation for the conduct of elections, there still remain legislative shortcomings that call for amendments to level the playing field; to deter illegal practices, and to enhance public confidence in the Commission's independence.
Leaders of opposition parties say they are disappointed because the roadmap is premature and unreasonable considering that their proposals have been ignored.
But at the launch of the roadmap, the EC Chairman, Dr. Badru Kiggundu who has been in charge of the EC for more than a decade and is looking forward to supervising his third consecutive election, noted that the early preparations are aimed at steering past obstacles that usually crop up in the final stages of the electoral period.
According to the roadmap, the EC's early preparations include plans to strengthen the EC, formulation of a credible, accurate and accessible national voters' register, effective and comprehensive voter education as well as the need to undertake the necessary structural and legal measures to ensure free and fair elections and to have an inclusive and service-oriented election body.
Kiggundu noted that all these plans will only be possible with timely, supportive and cooperative roles of the various stakeholders. Whether they will get that cooperation is the question that remains to be answered.
The EC have brought their plans forward to as early as Nov. 1, 2013 when adverts for the procurement of the 2016 election materials, equipment and services will be done. The EC also want to start the process of cleaning and updating the voters' register by Sept. 1, 2014.
The roadmap itself will cost about Shs 600 billion although the entire strategic plan is about Shs1.2 trillion. However, all the EC's plans are premised on the idea that the government will adopt and make timely funding for the strategic plan and the general elections. Even that is not guaranteed.
Out of the proposed budget of about Shs 1.2 trillion, the EC needs about Shs 172 bn in the 2013/14 financial year alone, Shs 215 bn in 2014/2015, Shs 552 bn in 2015/2016, while about Shs 180 bn will be required for the 2016/2017 financial year to do a 'mop up' exercise. With the financial squeeze that is widely expected in this next financial year, the EC will count itself lucky to get even a half of the Shs 172 bn.
Despite what critics say, Kiggundu insists that he and his team want 2016 to be the most credible and peaceful election since President Museveni's NRM government allowed multiparty democracy to thrive in 2005.
However, his detractors insist the EC's roadmap launch is unworkable because the political parties, which are the major stakeholders, have not been involved in the process of striking out a roadmap agreeable to all stakeholders.
Politicians dispute roadmap
From a legal perspective, the Democratic Party (DP) Secretary General Mathias Nsubuga says it is wrong for the EC to come up with a strategic plan and roadmap for 2016 before Parliament passes electoral reforms to guide the process. Norbert Mao, the DP president, suggested the EC could be putting the cart before the horse.
"Certain conditions must be met if the EC is to hold credible elections," he said, before adding that without these reforms, the EC continues to behave like "bridesmaids escorting President Museveni" each time elections are held.
Medard Lubega Sseggona, the shadow minister for the Presidency and Constitutional Affairs and the DP MP for Busiiro County East, argued that at the planning level, he commends the EC for coming up with the roadmap but for as long as they [EC] dance to the tunes of an incumbent who is not interested in free and fair elections, the roadmap would remain merely theoretical.
Alice Alaso, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Secretary General, insisted that there are pertinent issues regarding Uganda's electoral process, which are way beyond the mandate of the EC.
For instance, Alaso argues, the current EC is not responsible for its composition and there is need to change the way the EC is constituted upon which they will discuss the roadmap with an independent EC.
However, in an interview with The Independent, Joseph Biribonwa, the deputy chairperson of the EC, appeared to be bent on discussing the logistical issues and not the political ones. He said one of the ways the EC will have a clean register is when the EC's critics become more responsible to mobilize their supporters to participate in all the electoral processes.
"We [for instance] go to these parishes, register these people and display their particulars for 21 days," he said.
"It is during one of such exercises that every responsible Ugandan is supposed to help the EC weed out the underage, non-Ugandans and the dead."
"We cannot sit here at the EC and add or remove people's names. People should also realize that the electronic system can only be perfect with the assistance of everybody."
"Whoever is unhappy with the EC is equally responsible [for the problems]."
The donors have also weighed in and they too want reforms to take effect before the 2016 elections. On May 5, the European Union Ambassador, Dr. Roberto Ridolfi, led a group of EU ambassadors to meet President Museveni at State House, Entebbe. Among several issues they discussed, electoral reforms came to the fore.
The donors want the government to carry out electoral reforms that they believe are important to the full realization of a democratic dispensation. At that particular meeting, President Museveni was positive and recognized the importance of having in place a computerized voter register to avoid cases of cheating.
In their EU observer mission report on the 2011 general elections, the EU recommended that improving the transparency and credibility of the system for appointing commissioners, alongside the provision of security of tenure and reaching a greater consensus could be achieved by including opposition and civil society voices in the appointment process.
In addition, they suggested that the criteria for nomination and precise terms of reference for Electoral Commissioners and other electoral officials should be set out in law.
The EU also recommended that legislation to curb the use of state and government resources during an election period for the advantage of the incumbent should be put in place. For example, the use of ordinarily attached official facilities by the incumbent presidential candidate, other than those related to his personal security, should be restricted to the execution of his official duties only.
The EC expect all the necessary legal reforms to be done in time to facilitate proper implementation of the strategic plan and the General Election activities, and primary data for the compilation of the National Voters' Register (NVR) will be acquired from the National Security Information System by Sept.1, 2014-- that is if the now controversial ID Project is resurrected in time.
Observers who have studied Uganda's electoral environment argue that for Uganda to hold credible elections, electoral reforms similar to those in Kenya that disbanded the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) following the acrimonious 2007 general election are needed. Subsequent reforms led to the birth of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in 2008. For instance, according to the IEBC Act, no commissioners of the IEBC should be beholden to any political side.
This is what Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), which hosts the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), an alliance of about 800 civil society organizations, wants Uganda to adopt.
"The necessity for reforming the way the EC is constituted is such a big issue and if the electoral reforms are to be effected, let there be guarantees for the security of tenure for the EC Commissioners in order for them to do their work effectively," he said.
Electoral reforms coming
The Electoral Commission, in its report to Parliament on the 2011 general elections suggested a 12-month period before general elections for Parliament to enact and amend electoral laws to enable the Commission have enough time to study and interpret them, and formulate voter education messages for dissemination.
Fredrick Ruhindi, the state minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, told The Independent that the Justice and Constitutional affairs ministry is quite abreast with the electoral reform proposals, adding that the National Consultative Forum and the Inter-party Organization for Dialogue (IPOD) have already submitted proposals.
"We are confident that a good package for discussion at Cabinet level and later in Parliament will be ready by February next year as the EC's strategic roadmap notes," he said.
Ruhindi said consultations and comparative studies have been made in Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Ghana to look at what Uganda should incorporate in the electoral law.
Ruhindi said contrary to what the political parties are saying, there is no contradiction whatsoever for the EC to come up with the strategic plan at this time because all it deals with are benchmarks and the electoral reforms have been catered for.
"The strategic plan has come in early because there are budgetary implications... Instead of the government coming out to fund a very big budget in say, 2015, let the budget be phased," he said.
But Sewanyana counter-argued that although the EC's roadmap is a good indicator, political commitment, timely release of resources and cooperation from all the stakeholders are equally important. Without these ingredients, he said, the roadmap will suffer the same challenges like other roadmaps in the past.
According to the roadmap, nominations for the presidential candidates are slated for Sept. 1, 2015 while campaigns will run in earnest from Sept. 18.
Unlike the other parties, the ruling NRM appears to be comfortable with the EC's roadmap.
Mary Karooro Okurut, the minister of Information and National Guidance, while lashing at the opposition, commended the EC saying rather than dabble in management by crisis; it is good that they are planning early.
"We are not surprised by their comments (opposition political parties) because they always sing the same tune. The EC is not responsible for changing itself," she said.