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Uganda's long-serving leader faces challenge

Opposition moves to push through electoral reform agenda that seeks to unseat Yoweri Museveni after 28 years in power.

Last updated: 15 Aug 2014 04:05
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A cross section of Uganda's opposition, including Olara Otunnu, at a meeting [Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi/Al Jazeera]

Kampala, Uganda - In his office on the eighth floor of a 14-storey building in central Kampala, Uganda's capital, Olara Otunnu is preparing to meet journalists, but he has allowed them only 10 minutes as he has a "marathon" of meetings lined up for the day.

Otunnu, a former undersecretary-general at the United Nations and leader of the opposition Uganda People's Congress (UPC), returned to Uganda from self-imposed exile in 2010. He vowed to infuse new energy into the battle to dislodge President Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president and one of Africa's longest serving leaders.

Otunnu now coordinates a campaign that brings together members of civil society organisations and other opposition leaders looking to push through an electoral reform agenda that government spokespeople say targets Museveni, who has been in power for 28 years.

"This is a non-partisan, national social movement," Otunnu, 64, says. "It is about all the patriotic forces coming together to demand free and fair elections."

Although he tried unsuccessfully to convince other opposition leaders to boycott the 2011 elections, saying that they would be a "sham", Otunnu belatedly flung himself into the presidential race and finished a distant fourth. Museveni won 66 percent of the vote.

The president, a former rebel leader who governed unelected for 10 years starting in 1986, has won four elections since 1996, three of them disputed, and critics say he is turning the country into a political dynasty.

Museveni's wife is now a cabinet minister and his son, a brigadier, is the commander of the Special Forces Command, the elite force that protects the president and resources like the country's oil reserves.

Museveni was due to step down in 2006, but the two-term limitation was removed from the constitution, allowing him to contest again in 2006 and 2011. The current campaign aims to scupper his bid for re-election.

I went across the country sharing my ideas on how to run the country [but] one challenge I confronted consistently was how to convince the voters that the elections wouldn't be stolen again

- Kizza Besigye, Museveni's main presidential challenger in 2001

"Under the new dispensation, no person who has ever served or will have ever served as president of Uganda for two terms would be eligible to contest the presidency," reads one of the proposals in the concept paper on The Call for Free and Fair Elections Now issued in February.

Otunnu is working with Kizza Besigye, Museveni's main challenger in 2001, 2006, and 2011.

Besigye, 58, a retired army colonel who was also Museveni's Bush War doctor, has since retired from the leadership of the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change, now led by Mugisha Muntu, a former army commander.

Muntu, 55, together with other opposition party leaders and leaders of civil society organisations, has been addressing rallies and town hall meetings to gain support.

The challenges are daunting, and opposition politicians reckon Uganda cannot hold free and fair elections under Museveni's leadership.

"I went across the country sharing my ideas on how to run the country [but] one challenge I confronted consistently was how to convince the voters that the elections wouldn't be stolen again," says Besigye, adding that he will "never" run again against Museveni.

Besigye claims that he has won before but that the results were changed. This view has been given impetus by statements by General David Sejusa, who on falling out with Museveni and going into exile in 2013, claimed that Museveni lost to Besigye in 2006 but that the results were altered.

In 2001 and 2006, Besigye contested the results in the country's highest court and on both occasions lost in split decisions. The court ruled that the irregularities were not "substantial" enough to affect the final result.

Museveni's opponents now propose radical changes not only to how the elections are managed, but also on how election disputes are adjudicated upon. They have called for the appointment of a new electoral commission under new rules, compiling a new voters' register, redefining the role of security forces and militia in elections, and addressing the question of using public resources for campaigns.

The current commissioners of the electoral body were nominated by Museveni and approved by parliament. The parliamentary appointments committee, chaired by the speaker, has some opposition MPs. However, it mirrors the composition of the whole house, over two-thirds of which are ruling party members. The opposition MPs therefore cannot on their own block any appointments.

Otunnu's team says the demarcation of electoral boundaries also needs revisiting, just like they want the selection of polling officials done differently, together with new rules to govern the processing of electoral materials and ensuring the integrity of the tallying process.

Should the results of the elections be contested, particularly the presidential elections, the crusaders want a new mode of dispute resolution adopted.

Parallel agenda

The campaigners, on issuing the demands, had given the ruling party up to the end of April to respond lest they pursue their own agenda. The ruling party did not respond.

Rose Namayanja, the government spokesperson, says that the campaigners "did not even have the courtesy to inform [the] government officially about their demands".

They [the opposition] are misguided and are venturing into something whose dynamics they don't understand.

- Tamale Mirundi, Ugandan presidential spokesperson

As far as the government is concerned, she says, it is its duty to "update" electoral laws and that this will be done in due course.

Museveni has promised that his government will soon table before parliament proposals to amend the electoral laws.

Otunnu, however, says that what the government will propose will be "predictably" cosmetic. He says that his team will, in the coming months, convene a national consultation to discuss the way forward as far as proposed electoral reforms are concerned.

But Otunnu would not be drawn into discussing what they will do should Museveni refuse to give in to their demands.

The opposition, though, has pursued a two-pronged approach to the issue in recent months. On the one hand, they have been discussing possibilities of fielding a joint candidate in 2016. On the other, they have talked about possibilities of boycotting the election if their demands are not met.

Meanwhile, Museveni has been busy consolidating his position amid suspicion that Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who was for many years regarded as Museveni's most trusted confidant, is likely to challenge him for the top office in the next election. Mbabazi remains tight-lipped on the matter.

Ruling party MPs have come up with a resolution, in the presence of Museveni and Mbabazi, calling for Museveni to be declared the sole presidential candidate for his party for the 2016 election.

Mbabazi says that the resolution is not legally binding because the MPs' caucus is not a party organ. Museveni, on the other hand, has facilitated the MPs to popularise it among the citizens.

'Misguided' civil society

Otunnu says that their demands are "supported by some people within the ruling party", although he does not say who they are. Calls for reforming the electoral laws have come to be expected whenever preparations for elections gather steam, but the opposition has traditionally taken the lead.

The open involvement of some leaders of the civil society organisations has ruffled people close to the president.

"Some of them [civil society leaders] are failed lawyers; others are failed medical doctors; while others are non-entities. They are misguided and are venturing into something whose dynamics they don't understand," Tamale Mirundi, the presidential spokesman, said.

He said that the civil society leaders involved in The Call for Free and Fair Elections Now act in breach of the rules that govern civil society.

But Bishop Zac Niringiye, who retired early to take up a role in the civil society as an agitator for the restoration of presidential term limits, disagrees.

"To say that President Museveni should finish peacefully is the most non-partisan statement one can make. Civil society strives to ensure a civil society; that is an organised society that ensures rights and responsibilities of citizens are exercised," he told Al Jazeera.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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