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The legacy of contested elections in Africa

Ugandan presidential candidate Bobi Wine is led into a vehicle by riot policemen in Luuka district, eastern Uganda Nov. 18, 2020

Barely 3 years ago, Zimbabwe held one of its most contentious elections in the history of the country which can be equally compared with the elections that were held in Uganda on 14 January 2021.  In both elections, the two main presidential candidates were young and old representing a scenario in which there is a massive youth bulge which is contesting to take power from the old guard. In the case of both Uganda and Zimbabwe, the youthful candidates represent change whereas the older candidates represent the status quo and are seen as reluctant to let go of power in the face of growing dissent and disapproval among the electorate. At this juncture, it is of utmost importance to juxtapose these 2 cases given the irresistible similarities that can be observed before, during and after elections including but not limited to Organised Violence and Torture (OVT), captured institutions in the form of the judiciary and the Electoral Commission, incapacitation of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and finally the deafening silence of regional and international bodies such as the United Nations (UN), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)  and the African Union (AU) are all concerning. There is a pattern of events that is developing in Africa and it is high time that they are exposed in the interest of democracy, good governance and peace in the continent.

Organised Violence and Torture (OVT)

OVT can be understood as the deliberate use of violence and torture by the state to intimidate and decapitate perceived or real opponents particularly in the opposition, civil society and human rights defenders. After attaining independence in the 1980s, both Uganda and Zimbabwe saw the rise of strong men in the person of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and former President Robert Mugabe who was, in November 2017, forcefully removed from office by the incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Both leaders made significant efforts either to co-opt or totally annihilate the opposition in an effort to create one party States. Similarly, both Presidents enjoyed unprecedented support in the rural areas. For years, the ruling parties in both countries, which came into power after staging liberation struggles, encountered close to no opposition at all in the early years of governing. However, both States started to experience the growth of an organised and resilient civil society and opposition parties in the early into the late 2000s (between the year 2000 and 2018) which was mainly composed of young people. This unprecedented ‘threat’ to the State unfortunately provoked an undesirable response seen through the lenses of the deployment of brutal force against unarmed protesting citizens. For example, on 1 August 2018, at least 6 people were shot and killed by the army in broad day light in Harare (NGO Forum, 2018) following protests related to the release of Presidential results for the 31 July 2018 elections.  In the past, Zimbabwe’s electoral environment was marred with violence before, during and after elections which reached its peak in 2008 when R.G Mugabe lost to the then opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Most recently in Uganda, the State rolled-out systemic and widespread violence against Robert Kugelanyi (aka Bobi Wine), his close aides and supports across the country. Before and after one of the most anticipated elections in Uganda’s history, the news was awash with cases of State-sponsored abductions, arbitrary arrests, assault and torture mostly of people affiliated to the opposition. A number of assassination attempts were reported particularly against Wine. During and after the elections in Uganda, the internet was shut down for days and Wine’s house was besieged by the military for 8 days to prevent him from leaving the premises and contest the election results which had declared President Kaguta Museveni as the winner paving way for his 6th term in office. Apart from Uganda and Zimbabwe, similar clampdowns against the opposition has been observed in countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia and Cameroon, among others. The pattern is visible and becoming contagious across the continent.  

Incapacitation of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are independent public bodies which seek to promote and protect human rights in their country (The Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2018). The Commonwealth Secretariat (2001) mentions that “an NHRI should have a broad mandate covering the full range of human rights issues while taking into account the universality, interdependence, interrelatedness and indivisibility of human rights which should be defined according to both domestic and international standards of law. Following the appalling history of Uganda and Zimbabwe, both countries established Human Rights Commissions as a measure to address and redress gross human rights violations committed in the past and set standards which would see the promotion, protection and respect for human rights at national levels in the interest of non-recurrence of gross human rights violations. Unfortunately, both the Ugandan and Zimbabwean Human Rights Commissions have been incapacitated through inadequate funding, politicisation of the institutions, undermining of the independence of the NHRIs and in some cases, the deliberate use of intimidatory tactics to silence Commissioners. For example, following the release of the daring and factual report after the January 2019 protests, there are reports that Commissioners in the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) received death threats. An avalanche of resignations followed and up to this day, the Commission is incapacitated to fully operate due to the shortage of Commissioners as stipulated in the Constitution.

In the context of Uganda, the Human Rights Commission did not even produce a report to either dismiss or confirm allegations of assassination attempts, abductions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, assault and torture mostly of people affiliated to the opposition. It is important that the NHRI puts the record straight as this can be used to qualify or disqualify allegations of intimidation when cases of vote rigging and intimation are heard in the courts of law. In the long run, reports by Human Rights Commissions can also be used for purposes of justice and accountability at national and international levels. Unfortunately, given the undue influence Museveni exerts on the police and army, my opinion is that Commissioners in Uganda’s Human Rights Commission fear for their lives and personal security if they dare produce election violence reports. Just like what happened in Zimbabwe in 2019, the likelihood of death threats and possibility of death of Commissioners in Uganda is very high at the moment. 

Captured institutions

In Africa, including Uganda and Zimbabwe, the creation and consolidation of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships has translated into captured institutions which serve partisan and the incumbent’s interests. In Zimbabwe’s highly contested 2018 elections, there were allegations of election rigging by the ruling party with the full cooperation of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) which was accused of announcing incoherent and doctored electoral results.  In the just ended elections in Uganda, the opposition also accuses the Ugandan Electoral Commission (UEC) of the same in the face of overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud. If any party contesting in an election doubts the efficacy of the electoral results, there are legal provisions to contest the outcome in the courts of law. However, as history has taught us, Presidents who have stayed too long in power have a way of co-opting and manipulating critical institutions such as Election Commissions in their favour by exerting undue influence on funding, terms of office, benefits and salaries of Commissioners. In some cases, the incumbent uses the threat of violence to manipulate the process since they retain control of the security services. Given Museveni’s grip on the army and police, there was no other way the Commission would have announced otherwise.

It was going to be surprising for the UEC to announce Bobi Wine as the winner in the Ugandan 2021 elections because more often than not, Commissioners cringe at the thought of biting the hand which feeds them. This line of thought equally applies in the courts of law in which opposition candidates are given a platform to contest the electoral outcome. The possibility that the electoral results announced by the UEC will be overturned in favour of Wine was very slim or rather quite impossible. Before making any announcements or pronouncements, Commissioners and judges engage in a cost-benefit analysis and usually prefer to deal with the devil they know. In some cases Commissioners and judges also prove their loyalty the incumbent during such processes. The cost of trying to be factual and oust the incumbent in such scenarios outweighs the benefits.

Silence of regional and international bodies

In the face of overwhelming evidence of violence before, during and after elections in African countries, the silence of regional and international bodies such as IGAD, A.U and most importantly the U.N is very concerning. The silence about on-going human rights violations in countries such as Uganda is reinforcing and consolidating dictatorships in Africa. Under international law, it is mandatory and standard practice that regional and international bodies condemn any human rights violations within any jurisdiction which is part of the family of nations. The mere fact that international observers from Western countries were barred from observing the Ugandan elections is indicative of the fact that the elections were not transparent, free and fair. This was complemented by the fact that at the time of publication of this piece, not more than 5 Head of States had congratulated Museveni for his ‘victory’ in the controversial January 2021 elections. If African leaders are not sincere and not prepared to smooth transitions of power then they should not waste resources by engaging in bogus processes.

The culture of contested elections will continue to haunt the African continent if we do not critically examine the views proffered above. These views are not conclusive, but can start conservations on finding solutions to African problems. The writing is on the wall and it is up to us deal with the perpetual crises of electoral contestations and violence before, during and after elections. Zimbabwe is voting again in 2023!

Tendaishe Tlou

Human Rights/Transitional Justice Advocacy and Research Specialist.

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