Long Read: Ramifications of Covid-19 pandemic on elections in Uganda – Obedgiu Samuel

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The COVID- 19 was recently declared a pandemic by the world health organization. In the wake of this pandemic, leaders in Hungary and Russia have exploited the situation to get their parliaments to vote in favor of giving them absolute powers .

Take for example in Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. He has managed to urge his rule to be secured until 2036 to avoid “upheaval”, while also conveniently ruling out any mass protest on safety grounds. “We can see how difficult the situation in the global policy, security, and economy is” He said in a speech in parliament, explaining why a rest of presidential term limit that would allow him to run for more fifth term should be included in the Constitutional Amendment.

The confirmed figures in Africa are still fairly low compared to other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, where the coronavirus pandemic has spread wildly, overwhelmed healthcare systems and upended daily life, including politics. Uganda’s official confirmed cases still stand at 55 people.

Already, several scheduled elections in Western countries – from local polls in parts of the United Kingdom and France to several Democratic primaries in the US ahead of November’s presidential vote – have been delayed due to the pandemic.


Besides Guinea, other African countries with elections due to take place later this year include Burundi, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Tanzania, Togo and Seychelles. But as the pandemic takes a firmer hold on the continent, elections scheduled for next year could also be affected. Uganda’s elections were also scheduled for next year.


In Uganda, the country’s High Court has been petitioned to delay next year’s vote for five years as Kampala grabbles with the outbreak. No decision has been made on the petition by a “concerned citizen.”
Voices in parliament are calling onto the president of Uganda to call for a “state of emergency” so that whatever he does right now legal backing but the attorney general wasn’t clear on his stance against the state of emergency.

Introduction
Uganda is supposed to go to polls at the beginning of next year to fill all elective positions including the presidency. However every COVID-19 case that is confirmed in Uganda, it throws doubts of the possibility of having these elections during the time they were scheduled to take place.
According to the Electoral Commission revised Roadmap for 2020/2021 general election, there were a number of activities that had been planned for the month of March and April which have not been able to take place because of measures instituted by the government in response to the pandemic.


Uganda is country characterized with weaker institutions, which might not with stand the covid 19 disruptions especially during elections. The Electoral process in Uganda had commenced with display of the National Voters Register from the 19th February to the 10th March and the election processes for the Special Interests Groups (Youths, Persons with Disabilities, Elders) had already started as well the 8th to the 19th as according to the Election Commission starting with the Elections of the Village Youths councils on the 24th March 2020 in fulfillment of the Election Commission duty under the EC Act (Cap 140) from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm on the appointed dates. But due to COVID-19, the Election Commission has suspended the entire process to future dates. The eminent question is what should Ugandans expect in regards to the elections?

Analysis of the Discussion.


According to the constitution, article 61(2) as amended 2017, “The Electoral Commission shall hold presidential, general parliamentary and local government council elections within the first thirty days of the last one hundred and twenty two days before the expiration of the term of President, Parliament or local government council as the case may be.


However article 103 (3) d states that there will be a presidential election within 30 days of the last 120 days before the expiration of the term of the President, except in the case of “an election necessitated by the fact that a normal presidential election could not be held as a result of the existence of a state of war or a state of emergency, in which case, the election shall be held within such period as Parliament may, by law, prescribe,” the provision adds.


In our present scenario, Uganda hasn’t seen its curve of the corona virus pandemic reach its peak and no state of emergency has yet been called to shift the electoral cycle. However, if Uganda becomes the epicenter of the pandemic, like has been in New York, London or Italy, a state of emergency might shift the electoral cycle.


What is being done by the authorities in regard to the Elections?
According to the Electoral Commission revised Roadmap for 2020/2021 general election, there were a number of activities that had been planned for the month of March and April which have not been able to take place because of measures instituted by the government in response to the pandemic.


Addressing the nation on March 18, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni froze all gatherings including those by political players as a means to prevent the spread of the virus. This meant that several Electoral Commission activities were effectively banned because in their nature, they involve the gathering of people.


According to the Roadmap between March 11 and 20, there was supposed to be the display of tribunal recommendations on who should be removed from the voters’ register at each parish. By the time of the ban of gatherings, the display was two days shy of completion. It’s not clear whether after the country gets back to business it will not be repeated.
From April 6 up to Friday April 10, the EC was scheduled to gazette and publish presidential and parliamentary candidates’ nomination dates and venue. From April 8- 17, the EC was going to nominate village special interest groups such as the older persons, youths and people with disabilities.

They would also use the same time to campaign and have their elections between April 20-24. This process would extend to the parish level for the same interest groups between April 27-29.
Going by the directives of the President, if COVID-19 is not a threat anymore, the country will go back to normal business earliest May 6th after the completion of the 32 day ban on public gatherings. However elsewhere, where there has been a lockdown like Rwanda, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain, the lockdown has been extended at least for another 14 to 21 days as the virus in some people takes longer to incubate.

Jotham Taremwa, the spokesperson of the Electoral Commission was on record that if after this month the country is opened up, the delay in the execution of certain activities due to the COVID-19 lockdown can be managed.


The 2021 election preparations had started gathering steam with over 30 candidates writing to the Electoral Commission notifying them of their intentions to unseat President Museveni who by the end of this term on May 12 2021, will have ruled Uganda for 35 years. Among the notable aspirants include; Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu commonly known as Bobi Wine, the Kyadondo East Member of Parliament and Lt Gen. Henry Tumukunde, who is currently in prison on charges of treason which were brought against him barely two weeks after his public declaration of interest to challenge his former commander in chief.


On 13 march, 2020 bby Mgugu filed his suit at the Civil Division of the High Court seeking a declaration that court suspends or postpones and or halts all elections of 2021 in Uganda for five years or until the government gains control over threatening disaster or danger of coronavirus. According to the court documents, the applicant strongly believes that the relief sought is essential to the life of the Ugandan community and also enabling government gain control over the spread of coronavirus as the public stands a risk of irreparably losing lives of dear ones compared to the general election process that can be halted and resumed any time.

However, legally this is not feasible. A state of emergency is the only such measure by Ugandan law that can tamper with the electoral cycle.

Recommendations and conclusion


Should the curve fail to flatten, and government still needs to control the virus, a state of emergency should be called so that parliament legislates broad measures on how the elections could be carried out.


a) A debate around Electronic Voting will arise. We all know that most Ugandans in the diaspora have not been able to participate actively in the previous Uganda Elections processes simply because the government has put in place friendly and cheap avenues for them to vote. They are all to ferry themselves at their own expense after every half a decade from wherever foreign countries they would be residing, into Uganda in order to vote. I have a very strong believe that as the result of COVID-19 pandemic, a number of concerns and advocacy will arise around the above mentioned subject matter and be tabled before the Parliament of Uganda with justification that will allow all citizens to participate freely in the coming election processes even when they are not when the country.


b) Ugandans should also expect continuous interference from the Executive or President Museveni into the activities of the Election Commission under the justification that they are doing things for public security and public interest because in the constitution under section 43 and 44 gives the executive some powers to suspend some rights provided it’s for the interest of the public and its justifiable in a free and democratic society. Basically you will have to expect them to use that power on derogation of rights or certain rights as Executive as an excuse.


First, most basically, in the emergency election laws passed by parliament, they must ensure that every legally eligible voter has sufficient opportunity to cast a ballot without facing a substantially greater-than-usual risk to their health (under the circumstances, some minimally heightened risk may be inevitable in virtually any activity). Second, they must maintain strong protections against fraud, mistake and other irregularities that may impact the results. Third, election officials must conduct the election in a way that assures the public it was fair and the results are accurate.

Conclusion
Elsewhere in the world like the U.S, Election emergency laws often give election officials substantial discretion to modify the rules governing the state’s electoral process. General state-of-emergency laws often give the governor even broader authority. When legislatures draft such laws or executive officials develop plans for implementing them, they must identify not only the most effective courses of action to take—an issue my previous work discusses—but also particularly problematic alternatives that should generally be avoided. However, in Uganda, such elections that are help in emergency times are open to abuse.


Measures such as automatically sending ballots to every person in a country’s voter registration database, transmitting blank or completed absentee ballots over the internet, and postponing or extending the election unless absolutely necessary should be rejected.

Civic Human Rights Activist and Pan-Africanist Contact. +256780448012 Email.     sammyobedgiu@gmail.com