Is East Africa’s democracy now at a crossroads?

Saturday September 30 2017

None of the EA countries have escaped the

None of the EA countries have escaped the spectre of electoral fraud, violence and public mistrust. PHOTO FILE | NMG 

By PETER MUNAITA
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In Uganda, the ruling National Resistance Movement’s super majority is pushing through an amendment to the Constitution to do away with presidential age limit, 12 years after the country removed term limits.

It will take some convincing that the change, though within the law, is not designed to help President Yoweri Museveni, who would be age-barred by the time of the next election, remain in power.

In Kenya the ruling Jubilee Party is taking advantage of its majority in both houses of Parliament to change electoral laws in its favour ahead of the October 26 repeat presidential election as the opposition embarks on mass action.

While some changes seeking to hold returning and presiding officers accountable for their conduct during elections are timely, it is those touching on technology and the circumstances under which a presidential election can be nullified that have proved controversial.

Reason? The immediate beneficiary of these will be President Uhuru Kenyatta whose victory in the August 8 poll was invalidated by the Supreme Court because electoral laws were not followed to the letter; lapses which the incumbent and the electoral commission defended as mere administrative oversights that do not warrant repeating the poll.

These events fell in the same week as Diane Rwigara who was barred from contesting against President Paul Kagame in their August 4 election and is due to face prosecution in Rwanda on various charges after a week behind bars.

Nine other opposition party figures arrested around the same time are waiting to know their fate even as Rwanda sought to rebut assertions made at a US Congressional hearing that intolerance of dissent was rising in the country.

Over in Burundi, unexplained disappearances, harassment of the media and President Pierre Nkurunziza’s critics have continued since the controversial 2015 elections when the country’s top court ruled that the incumbent was yet to serve his second term under the law. The President has been in power since 2005.

In Tanzania, a beacon of uninterrupted transfer of power in East Africa, there is a niggling suspicion that President John Pombe Magufuli who was elected two years ago could reverse this tradition.

His decrees touching on the public service and on mining companies suspected to be fleecing the country with little regard to due process has betrayed the makings of a strongman.

The banning of political rallies, altercations pitting law enforcers against lawmakers critical of the government, the yet-to-be resolved near-fatal shooting of legislator Tundu Lissu who is recovering at a Nairobi hospital and the banning of some newspapers are cited by civil society as evidence of encroachment and trampling over fundamental freedoms.

That the civil society is lobbying for changes in law to allow for a presidential election to be challenged in court speaks volumes about the changing political landscape in the region.