International election observation: Some lessons from Obote-era Uganda

As is now the norm, various international organisations will have sent pre-election monitors to Uganda for the February election, with more to follow.

But what role do such missions play? Do they help to ensure credible elections? Or do they sometimes fear calling problematic elections into question and, as a result, help to legitimise elections that are neither free nor fair? Ugandans would be forgiven for offering sceptical answers to such questions.

Some 35 years ago, Uganda witnessed one of the earliest — and most controversial — election observation missions when a Commonwealth team judged that year’s election “a valid electoral exercise.” Many Ugandans disagreed.

Indeed, it was the belief that the elections were rigged that led Yoweri Museveni to begin a long — and ultimately successful — guerrilla war against the government of Dr Milton Obote, whose Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) had been declared the winner.

Stories of malpractice in those elections are commonplace, with the allegation of a conspiracy — by Tanzania, Britain or the Commonwealth — to return Obote to power. However, the truth is more complicated, and that election offers useful insights into the challenges that observers regularly face.

Even before Idi Amin was overthrown in 1979, various opposition groups had agreed that elections would be held after a period of interim government. Many saw elections as a key test of state legitimacy and a reassertion of the very viability of Uganda as a nation. Even Gaafar Nimeiri in neighbouring Sudan, who seized power in a 1969 coup, staged multiple elections and referenda in a bid to show that Sudan was a “real” nation and he was a “real” president.

Initially, elections were to be a “no-party” affair candidates would vie as individuals to avoid the religious and ethnic rivalries that some blamed for the political crisis of the 1960s. But this was opposed by various politicians — including Obote and his old political foes in the Democratic Party (DP) — who feared that “no-partyism” would hamper their political ambitions.

So it was that Paulo Muwanga — the head of the Military Commission, close ally of Obote and, from May 1980, de facto head of state — announced that elections would be held on a multiparty basis.

Immense aantage

From the outset, it was clear that UPC enjoyed an immense aantage. The occupying Tanzanian army, the indisciplined Uganda National Liberation Army and the state-owned media were consistently biased towards the UPC.

In turn, Muwanga used his control of imports to favour UPC supporters and candidates. Opposition parties, including Museveni’s fledgling Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), faced harassment and intimidation.

Nevertheless, opposition parties opted to participate in the elections — since to boycott them would be to abandon a shared dream of a civilian-ruled, orderly Uganda, a recurrent dilemma for democrats anywhere facing the prospect of unfair polls.

There were similar concerns internationally. Indeed, few believed that the elections could be fair — especially after several DP and UPM candidates were disqualified on technicalities waiting UPC to win 17 of the 126 parliamentary seats before polling day.

In this context, and in a bid to improve the quality of elections and ensure stability, the Commonwealth sent observers. The UK — together with the US, Australia and Canada — agreed to help pay for the elections. This was despite the diplomats’ belief that Obote — who was still unfavourably remembered for his leftist policies of the late 1960s — was certain to win. So why did they then support and monitor the elections?

The British believed that if there were no elections Obote would take power in a coup, leading to further instability. There was also a Cold War twist: British diplomats thought an unelected Obote would be more likely to turn to Cuba and East Germany for support. On the eve of the polls, a British Foreign Office memo summed up the likely outcome: “A UPC victory secured with a measure of intimidation and dirty tricks.”

The observers — a small group that arrived just before election day and left soon after — were hampered by multiple problems. But they were impressed by the voters’ enthusiasm and patience, and their initial judgment (expressed before results were announced) was that the elections “should broadly reflect the freely expressed choice of the people of Uganda.”

The wisdom of that judgement was quickly called into question as, in the face of claims by DP that it had won the election, Muwanga issued a proclamation giving himself the sole power to announce results and to decide their validity.

This was widely taken as a sign that there could only be one acceptable outcome: The formal announcement that UPC had won 74 seats and would therefore form the government and choose the president was greeted with widespread scepticism.

Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Observer Group’s final report repeated its qualified endorsement. Revealingly, it cited the extent of popular participation as a key factor in that endorsement: “The people of Uganda, like some great tidal wave, carried the electoral process to a worthy and valid conclusion.”

Observer missions now last at least a couple of weeks and are more sophisticated and better-resourced, but they often face similar dilemmas. The reason is that elections are not simply about choosing a government but tests of the very legitimacy of the state and of voters’ commitment to citizenship and nation.

This is one of the reasons why politicians and others often tell the public that “the eyes of the world are upon us” at election time. Indeed, to pronounce any ballot as unfair challenges legitimacy in a fundamental way.

In 1980 Uganda, the observers — like the donors who supported the elections — thought they were acting for the best, and that bad elections were better than no elections. Whether that was the right call or not, such a history reminds us that, faced with problematic elections, there are no easy options for election observers.

Observers try to ensure their presence reduces electoral malpractice but often prove reluctant — like the Commonwealth team in Kenya in 1992 (to name just one other example) — to call a problematic election into question lest this trigger the kind of chaos and instability that the same election was meant to avoid.

Gabrielle Lynch is (associate professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK and Justin Willis is professor of Modern African History, Durham University, UK) @GabrielleLynch6