Credible elections a far dream in East Africa – study

Saturday May 30 2015

A demonstration in Bujumbura on April 17, 2015 against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to run for a third term. PHOTO | AFP

As elections get underway in East Africa, countries’ electoral management bodies (EMBs) appear unlikely to deliver on their core mission of organising free, fair and credible processes and outcomes, a new report notes.

This is due to the way they are structured, funded and how they operate, notes the report, titled Election Management Bodies in East Africa: A Comparative Study of the Contribution of Electoral Commissions to the Strengthening of Democracy.

The study was commissioned by the Open Society Initiative East Africa (OSIEA) three years ago. It was aimed at increasing the understanding of the contribution these institutions make to the democratisation process in the region, and encouraging reforms in the management, oversight and credibility of the electoral process.

The challenges facing these bodies spring from their autonomy, which is a source of endless debate.

In principle, constitutions in all the five East African countries state that electoral bodies are supposed to be free and independent of any external influence. However, in practice, “the system for appointment and removal of commissioners has not assuaged anxieties about independence from the executive.”

In all but one country — Kenya — the president has unrestricted powers to appoint the commission’s chair and its entire executive management team. In addition, he and his close associates may second people to other positions. Critics say this inevitably compromises the body’s independence, integrity and output.


Even Kenya has not entirely eliminated political interference in selecting the executive team at its Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

“EMBs have been the object of deep-seated mistrust for their real or perceived lack of political independence,” states the study.

In Uganda for example, only 34 per cent of the public expect the 2016 General Election to be completely free and fair, according to results of a survey by the America-based International Republican Institute released in March. It is a drop from 41 per cent who rated the last elections highly. What is worse, only 20 per cent of the public have unwavering trust in the country’s electoral commission.

Demand for a complete overhaul of electoral management systems has caught fire across the region whose election season got off to a chaotic start in Burundi.

The country’s main opposition parties have asked for the suspension of parliamentary and presidential elections due on June 5 and June 26. They are followed by Tanzania’s in October. Uganda will conduct its polls in February 2016. Afterwards will be Kenya and Rwanda in 2017.

As the opposition in Bujumbura sees it, the already weak and grossly underfunded National Independent Electoral Commission has no way to guarantee an acceptable outcome in the prevailing situation.

“The country has sunk into a political and security mess which in no way can allow for peaceful, transparent, free or credible elections,” read the parties’ joint statement issued on May 27.

For six weeks now, Burundi has been gripped by deadly civil unrest in which up to 25 people have died, over 200 have been injured, and up to 200,000 have been forced to flee the country.

Protests in Burundi

The protests followed incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run again, in what many term a violation of the Constitution.

READ: It’s not over yet: 10 crises Nkurunziza still faces

In Uganda, similar demands to postpone next year’s polls have sprung up from ongoing parliamentary hearings into the proposed constitutional amendments. This follows widespread dissatisfaction over the volume and quality of proposals the government submitted to parliament for consideration.

“Instead of handling amendments piecemeal, maybe we should take our time, even if it requires extending the life of parliament, so that there is ample time to consider the views from all the stakeholders,” said Stephen Tashobya, a ruling NRM party legislator, who chairs the legal and parliamentary affairs committee, on May 28.

For campaigners of free and fair elections, nothing appears to incense them more than the government’s change of name of the electoral commission by affixing “Independent” before it when what they ask for is a complete overhaul of the commission and the attendant electoral management system.

“Clearly, if we changed our name to the Independent European Union, you would be entitled to ask us what difference that new name makes,” Kristian Schmidt, the EU ambassador to Uganda, told the country’s Prime Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda on May 7 during celebrations to mark Europe Day. “We hope Uganda’s political parties will come together and agree on how to ensure that [real independence] in reality, in law and in practice.”

Reforms in Tanzania

In Tanzania, the demand for electoral reforms is one of the centrepieces of the country’s proposed new constitution. A referendum on it that had been planned for April 30 has been postponed indefinitely, casting doubt on the credibility of the general polls later in the year.

READ: Tanzania referendum in limbo as NEC defies party

“Elections play an important role in shaping the political destiny of countries in East Africa, not only because of the legitimacy they confer on the political leadership, but also as a peaceful way of resolving competition and differences,” observes the OSIEA study.

It recommends that policy-makers in the five East African nations strengthen the legal framework for elections, and that all pending reforms and revisions of laws to streamline operations and improve other aspects of elections be promptly concluded.