For the first time since the 2006 general elections, the European Union Election Mission will not have election observers in Uganda. Initially they citied the Covid-19 pandemic threat and ensuing travel complications for their absence but the government's non-adherence to previous election observation report recommendations appears to be the main issue. The EU has been sending the largest number of election observers in Uganda in the 2006, 2011 and 2016 elections.
In July, the head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to Uganda, Ambassador Attilio Pacifici, said that they will not deploy election observers as Uganda votes in 2021.
However, The Independent has learnt that the EU delegation has written to the Electoral Commission providing a list of diplomats who will participate in an Election Watch Exercise on the polling days. By press time, the EC was yet to respond to this request.
A diplomatic election watch exercise is very different from an election observer team. The later involves months of observation of the electoral processes, the media coverage of elections, the campaigning of candidates, the behavior of security forces towards participating candidates prior and during the Election Day. So the EU election observation mission is more technical than the diplomatic election watching exercise.
The relationship between the EU delegation in Uganda and the Uganda Government seem to be tense. On November 24, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained in a statement that the EU delegation leader was talking in the press about issues of a diplomatic nature that would have been addressed through diplomatic channels that remained open.
Uganda took issues that Pacifici had given a detailed explanation stating why the EU had decided not send a team to observe next years' elections. Pacifici had pointed out the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, failure by the government to carry out any reforms in line with the recommendations that EU observer teams have been making over the last 15 years and failure by the government to send a formal invitation to the EU to send such a team as the three reasons that informed the Union's decision to keep away from the elections.
However, Uganda government shot back saying it had sent out invitations on December 18, 2019, and on July 3, 2020, to all diplomatic missions and international organisations accredited to Uganda and interested in observing the elections.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry statement reads: "The invitation was duly acknowledged by the office of the EU head of delegation. The response to the invitation dated September 3, 2020, indicated that the EU would conduct what they term as a Diplomatic Watching Exercise. In addition, a list of EU diplomats to participate in the exercise was provided, including a request for their accreditation."
On December 1, again Uganda's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out invitation letters to diplomatic missions in Uganda to observe the elections. The letter by the ministry followed one written on June 25 by the chairperson of the EC, Simon Byabakama, sent to the Foreign Affairs Ministry requesting it to invite international community and institutions, diplomatic missions, election observation organisations and missions and election management bodies (EMBs) who might be interested in observing the elections.
In response it's so far only election observer teams from the region and the UK that have confirmed participation in Uganda's January 2021 election. The UK is no longer part of the EU. The East African Community confirmed on December 4 that it would send an election observer team in Uganda. The EAC election observer mission will commence in the middle of December with a technical and long-term mission; followed by a short-term mission in mid-January.
Using the precedent of previous elections, international election observers should have been in the country by now. Under COVID-19 pandemic control guidelines, the international observers have to be tested and then quarantined for 14 days.
In the 2016 election the EU had a total of 94 election monitors who stayed in the country for up to three months.
Significance of international election observers
Crispin Kaheru, the former coordinator of the Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) who has participated in several election observation missions in and outside Uganda, says the absence of EU election observers will not have much impact on the election since there are local observers who will be on the ground. He told The Independent that: "Most elections going on are not being monitored by foreign missions due to threats of COVID-19 pandemic. The absence of international election observers won't have an impact on the credibility of the election because there are domestic observers."
It is in the interest of the EU as the biggest development partner for Uganda to see free and fair elections and as such they have recently been particularly concerned about the security brutality to protesters and harassment of opposition political candidates; especially the arrest and blocking of NUP's Robert Kyagulanyi and FDC's Patrick Amuriat.
The EU delegation in Uganda has embarked on a process of meeting key individual presidential candidates discussing with them the need for holding peaceful elections. So far they have met Kyagulanyi and Amuriat and plan to meet President Yoweri Museveni who is the ruling NRM party presidential candidate seeking a 6th term of office.
For a long time, the EU has been ignoring the excesses of the Museveni regime as they give huge development aid and trade opportunities to Uganda. Through this arrangement, Uganda can export duty free to Europe, but it is very possible that the EU decision not to send election observers signals the beginning of a change in policy.
In an interview with The Independent soon after the 2011 elections, the then chief observer of the EU election observation mission in Uganda cautioned that elections should never be treated as war. By then the EU election observers report had said the election was marred by avoidable failures.
This article was published by The Independent.