Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

Observer effect

The EU Election Observation Mission in Uganda today (21 April) gave their verdict on February’s disputed ballot. But do election observers do any good?


What is the point? Nobody asked it, but it was the question on many people’s minds today as the European Union Election Observation Mission presented their final report on the 2016 Ugandan elections. The observers had arrived in the country with great fanfare, and a team of 130 was deployed across the country on polling day. ‘They will help make the election fair,’ I heard several times from ordinary Ugandans during the campaigns. But now here the observers were, in an expensive hotel with a free buffet, seated in front of an enormous EU flag – to tell Ugandans what they already knew, that February’s elections were flawed.

The observers’ report was frank, detailed, and critical in many ways. The Electoral Commission, they noted, ‘lacked independence and transparency’. State actors ‘were instrumental in creating an intimidating atmosphere for both voters and candidates’. The elections were held ‘against the backdrop of a long-standing overlap between the ruling party and the state’. They also criticized media bias, polling day irregularities, and post-election repression. In a list of recommendations they called for electoral reform and the repeal of controversial provisions in the Public Order Management Act (2013). There was sufficient criticism of the regime for opposition leader Kizza Besigye to describe it as ‘a good final report’.

But there was nothing new here: indeed, the report told us less than was publicly known. The EU had sent observers, not detectives. Eduard Kukan, the Chief Observer, took pains to stress that the observers could only report what they had seen, not what they had heard second-hand. There was an echo of the Supreme Court judges, who last month rejected a legal challenge to the election result: they would only accept the evidence brought before them, the justices had said, rather than digging up evidence themselves (see ‘Court Out’, 31 March).

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few months about mandates, or the lack of them. Today the EU observers were scrupulous in not overstepping theirs. There were repeated questions from Ugandan journalists about what this report meant for European policy towards the country. But the mandate is only to observe, Kukan said. Was there any way the EU could follow up on its recommendations? ‘No’.

Holding back

That is proper of course: it would hardly do for the observation team to start making up policy on the hoof. But the observers were cautious in other ways too. Kukan didn’t want to comment on the heavy security presence on the streets. He didn’t want to say whether the election was ‘free and fair’ (‘that’s not terminology we use’).

There are three reasons for this. The first is political. Westerners lecturing Africans is not a good look. Museveni knows this: in an attack on the US ambassador last week, he said that ‘I don’t like foreigners lecturing me on Uganda – Uganda is ours’. That is how it should be, in principle. But when African leaders invoke anti-imperialism to oppress African citizens, it’s not clear where the balance lies. Kukan repeatedly stressed that Europe wanted to work ‘in partnership’ with Uganda – but did he mean the Ugandan government, or the Ugandan people?

A second reason for caution is the tense political climate in Uganda. The opposition is calling for mass civil disobedience to ‘dismantle the dictatorship’ of Museveni and his National Resistance Movement. After the 2011 elections, as journalist Daniel Kalinaki has documented, Western diplomats met privately with Besigye to try to dissuade him from such a path; it seems likely that similar discussions have occurred again. Election observers are wary of stoking the fires of instability. This is not an idle concern: Ursula Daxecker, an academic at the University of Amsterdam, has shown that the presence of international observers can make post-election violence more likely in fraudulent African elections, as observers validate opposition complaints.

The third factor is the nature of the observation mission itself. The observers are only in the country for a few months. Their greatest energies are concentrated on polling day itself. That might deter obvious vote-rigging, but also limits the scope of the observers’ findings. Though there was malpractice on polling day, Museveni probably had the election sewn up long before: the problem is the entire structure of the state, not a few pre-ticked ballots (see ‘Winner takes all’, 4 March). The observers, to their credit, raised some of these broader issues. But they did not, and could not, make them their focus.

Indeed, there is evidence that election observers can hinder democratic progress. In a 2012 paper, Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno, academics at the Universities of Chicago and Pittsburgh, examined data on 144 countries between 1990 and 2007. They found that election monitoring tended to displace, rather than eliminate, manipulation. Instead of ballot-stuffing, autocratic leaders resort to other tactics: stuffing key institutions with their supporters, and repressing the media. These tactics, the authors point out, are in fact ‘more damaging to domestic institutions, governance, and freedoms’ than simple vote-rigging would be.

Same ruler, new tactics

Something similar seems to have happened in Uganda. After all, Museveni invited the observers in, conforming to an evolving international norm that has emerged since the end of the Cold War (nearly 80% of all national elections are now monitored). A critical report always seemed likely. But a truly damning report – findings, say, of large-scale vote-rigging – was not going to materialize. It wasn’t on polling day that the election was won.

Indeed, there has been a distinct ‘late Museveni’ aesthetic to this election (see ‘Previously, in Ugandan elections’, 10 April). Gone, in many areas, is the crude pre-election violence of earlier contests. Gone, to some extent, is the naked repression of opposition campaigns (there was repression, no doubt, but nothing on the scale of 2001 or 2006). Instead, there is the constant but more subtle communication of threat, the heavy post- (not pre-) election security deployment, and the wider use of bribery, both explicit and implicit. Underpinning it all is the widespread belief – even among opposition supporters – that a Museveni victory is inevitable.

Some things are harder to observe. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there.


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This entry was posted on April 21, 2016 by in African Politics and tagged , , .
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