At the press conference where they presented their preliminary report on Uganda’s February 2016 elections, the European Union observation mission refused to answer a question as to whether the elections were ‘free and fair’. Instead, they directed the audience to read the report, and ‘draw their own conclusions’. The report is a classic of a particular genre which has emerged over the recent decades of electoral observation in Africa. It lists multiple problems: the immense advantage enjoyed by a ruling party which draws freely on state resources for its campaign; the local-level intimidation faced by the opposition; the obstructions placed in the way of opposition presidential campaigns by the police. But the report commended the public for their ‘remarkable determination while waiting for long hours on the election day to cast their ballots’; and it implicitly offered this ‘voter enthusiasm for the democratic process’ as an endorsement – not for the results of this particular election, but for the possibilities of the electoral change.
Ugandans might be forgiven for listening with to this with a slightly weary air. This particular literary genre was, after all, born in Uganda – in the troubled 1980 elections. After the polls then, a Commonwealth Election Observation mission – the first ever such mission in a sovereign state in Africa – released a report which looks not unlike the recent EU report. Multiple parallels are evident in the electoral process itself, as well as in the report. The 1980 election, which followed the fall of Idi Amin, was organized by a government under the effective control of a Military Commission which was well known to be sympathetic towards the leader of one of the contending parties, Milton Obote of the Uganda People’s Congress. Obote, and the parliamentary candidates for his party, benefited throughout their campaign from the support of the military (including the Tanzanian army, which was still present in Uganda after toppling Amin). The UPC had preferential access to all kinds of imported commodities, and used them as campaign tools. The government-controlled media – the Uganda Times newspaper, but more importantly the radio – were flagrantly biased in favour of Obote, covering his campaign and movements in approving detail while ignoring or mocking those of the opposition. Candidates and activists from opposing parties – principally the Democratic Party (DP), but also the smaller Uganda People’s Movement – faced harassment from soldiers, and violence from night-time attackers who worked with apparent impunity. On the day of the elections, the polling stations in and around Kampala – known to be a stronghold of the DP – were late in opening, because polling materials were inexplicably late in arriving.
The observer group in 1980 had been specifically mandated to judge whether the elections had been ‘free and fair’ – but like their successors thirty-six years later, they avoided using that expression, and their report detailed the multiple malpractices which had marred the polls. But they did not condemn the polls. Instead – in a phrase which has become notorious in Uganda – they described the elections as a ‘valid electoral exercise’.
Their report did two kinds of work, each profoundly political, which were in some ways in tension. The careful listing of derogations from acceptable practice was in itself an assertion of the desirability and importance of that practice; and it seemed to call the legitimacy of the election into practice. But the report also evoked popular involvement as an endorsement: ‘[s]urmounting all obstacles, the people of Uganda, like some great tidal wave, carried the electoral process to a worthy and valid conclusion’. That shifted the significance of the polls – away from the results, and onto their role as a collective, orderly political action, which asserted the viability of the electoral process, and of the state itself. Despite the failures in process, willing popular participation was in itself a kind of success, and that success made the observers unwilling to denounce the elections as a whole – because they feared that if they did so, a coup or civil war were very real possibilities.
The parallels between 1980 and 2016 are not exact, of course. The race in 1980 was closer; in 2016, the multiple advantages enjoyed by the NRM gave them what was – likely malpractice aside – an apparent majority in the popular vote. And in 2016, the country does not feel as though it is on the verge of a coup or civil war. But the observers faced a not dissimilar dilemma. They could not endorse the results of elections which were so evidently uneven; but nor could they condemn the process entirely, for that would both imply that Uganda’s government has no legitimacy (an awkward implication for a regional ally) and suggest that elections can never bring political change. And so, like the observers of 1980, they must criticize the process while praising popular involvement which shows that elections could work, if only the government were willing to let them do so. The electoral exercise must be judged valid, for it is hard to imagine an alternative.