Many Ugandans are angry and disappointed that former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu has withdrawn his election petition, which had raised people’s hopes that at least the Supreme Court would provide space and time to discuss the just concluded chaotic presidential polls that left close to a hundred people dead and hundreds of others abducted whose whereabouts are still unknown.
Even though majority of Ugandans believe the highest court doesn’t have the spine to overturn a fraudulent election since they are dealing with a military regime, people were eager to hear court pronounce itself on the involvement of the military in elections that resulted into abduction and torture of political activists and opposition supporters, the conduct of the Electoral Commission and the mishandling of presidential contenders by security forces.
“An impression has been created that Uganda is now a police state. Dissatisfaction should be recognized and dealt with. That is why court pronouncement would have assisted,” said Prof Fredrick Ssempebwa, the former chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission.
This is the first time (out of four times) a presidential election petition has been withdrawn since 1996 when Uganda started organizing proper elections under the 1995 people’s constitution. This decision casts court in bad light especially after the petitioner questioned the integrity of some of the justices accusing them of bias and partiality. Apparently, the Chief Justice Alphonse Owinyi Dollo worked as President Museveni’s personal lawyer in the past.
“It is catastrophic for court. There is a lot of explaining to do,” said Prof Ssempebwa.
In 2011, Dr Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change, the main challenger of President Yoweri Museveni’s victory, who had in 2001 and 2006 petitioned court challenging his election loss declined to seek redress, also citing bias.
Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine, the leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP) says he instructed his lawyers to withdraw the 2021 presidential election petition challenging President Yoweri Museveni’s election because court exhibited bias during pre-hearing when the bench took a decision to limit admission of his evidence in regard to voter bribery, illegalities and lack of qualifications by President Museveni to occupy the highest office in the land.
Kyagulunyi had submitted 53 affidavits challenging Museveni’s victory. Initially, the petitioner applied to increase grounds for deliberation but the application was thrown out.
Then a few days later Kyagulanyi applied to submit another 136 affidavits, which the Supreme Court also rejected arguing that the application was time barred.
Kyagulanyi’s argument that he didn’t have sufficient time to gather evidence because he was subjected to house arrest for 11 days immediately after elections and the blockading his political organization’s offices by security was ignored.
The law gives a petitioner challenging presidential election 15 days to file a petition with evidence. In the previous petitions, both Dr Kizza Besigye (2006) and Amama Mbabazi (2016) were allowed to adduce more evidence throughout the hearing. However, this time court blocked Bobi Wine yet it was just a few hours after the February 14 deadline.
“A presidential election petition has very strict timelines. It is not a free fall,” Ahmed Kalule Mukasa, lawyer for one of the respondents, President Museveni, argues.
In addition, court told Bobi Wine’s lawyers they would present all their evidence in 30 minutes. Court also instructed the petitioner to make written submissions on evidence on nine pages with words written in font size “14” and double spacing.
Oral submissions help people follow the case. By insisting on written submissions court was denying Ugandans opportunity to comprehend the legal arguments. This makes dispensation of justice largely beneficial to parties in the court yet Article 126 (1) of the 1996 Constitution states that judicial power is derived from the people and shall be exercised by the courts established under this Constitution in the name of the people and in conformity with law and with the values, norms and aspirations of the people.
“This was a very serious case that was taken lightly by court. We have been preparing this petition in hiding (Because of harassment by the state),” Anthony Wameli, one of Kyagulanyi’s lawyers said while appearing on state broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, on February 24.
Secondly, Kyagulanyi at a press conference, claimed that three of the court judges including the Chief Justice Owinyi Dollo were staunch cronies of Mr Museveni who should recuse themselves from the hearing.
During the pre-hearing the Chief Justice was visibly angry and kept quarrelling with the litigants even suggesting that if Bobi Wine wanted to pursue “plan B” he didn’t need court’s permission. Plan B has largely been interpreted by the state especially security services as violent means to remove Mr Museveni and his National Resistance Movement government.
“We have decided to remove our case from Owiny Dollo’s court, we shall now take the matter to the court of public opinion but we are not opting for violence. Just like Museveni sought to challenge the victory of Obote in 1980 and later withdrew the case and chose to go to the bush, we have also sought the same since the circumstances are not any different,”Kyagulanyi told journalists on Monday February 21 at the NUP headquarters in Kamwokya.
Since Bobi Wine has promised not to instigate an insurrection he has the option of conducting an audit of what transpired during elections and publish findings and evidence for the public to judge whether the process was free and fair.
But the state maintains that Bobi Wine and his supporters are considering the option of violence to settle their grievances.
“The writing for riots by the Kyagulanyi group is on the wall. These people want to burn the country. Majority of Ugandans don’t want Uganda to return to violence,” says Chris Baryomunsi, the Vice Chairman of the NRM-western Uganda and State Minister for Housing.
To cripple Bobi Wine politically, the NRM hopes to slap the NUP leader with a heavy sentence of court costs. “Kyagulanyi wasn’t a serious petitioner. We can’t allow such lousy behaviour,” says Mr Museveni’s lawyer, Ahmed Kalule,
Withdrawal of the election petition is an indictment on Uganda’s constitutionalism. With the lifting of the presidential term limits and scrapping of the presidential age limit as safety nets that constrain dictatorship the hope for Ugandans was left in the hands of the court. But this, as Bobi Wine has demonstrated, may nolonger be the case.
In parliament there is a stampede to change the constitution. Some Members of Parliament want the term limits and age limit for the president restored. They also want army representatives thrown out of parliament. The lawmakers are debating to specify qualifications for Resident District Commissioners, who have been instrumental in buttressing Museveni’s government.
“We have fallen short of following rule of law. People have lost trust not only in the judiciary but other state institutions of government. We need a bigger conversation on how to rebuild and correct the situation. We need to start looking at other power centres like the religious and cultural leaders to move the country forward. This is about citizens of Ugandans. Healing is inevitable if we are to move forward,” argues Daniel Ruhweza, a constitutional lawyer.
Prof Ssempebwa also agrees that a national dialogue should precede constitutional amendment.
He said; “We need to do a thorough discussion as a country on how to live together peacefully especially on matters of governance and the economy. Then a new constitution can be written. The country is not convinced of an orderly succession.”
Some commentators argue that whatever discussion to extinguish the current political impasse discussions may have to involve President Museveni on his terms.
President Museveni is a key stakeholder on how the country moves forward. Ugandans seem to be losing patience with him and the country appears to be going astray. The main problem is the lack of an obvious successor to Museveni. The president has not groomed an heir — at least not openly. Ugandans are yet to witness a peaceful transfer of power since Independence in 1962.
President Museveni has often warded off the succession question, arguing that the constitution is clear on the process and that the NRM party will have the last word on his candidature.
“How do we redefine sharing of power? Chances of defeating Museveni in an election all very slim. Also chances of winning in court are very slim. Therefore, incentives (for Museveni) can only work on sharing power and not giving away power,” says Ramadhan Ggoobi, an economist and academic.
But what appears to be bothering Mr Museveni are the youth that make a huge percentage of the population. Most are disadvantaged yearning for reasonable employment and better living standards, a reason why they support Bobi Wine, who was raised in the ghetto and identifies with them.
Museveni’s government has responded to this situation by giving these youth hand-outs particularly to under-employed youth, designed to secure political support.
He has also created more new administrative districts and cities with justification to improve local services, but instead this decision has increased the size of the public sector, straining an already overwhelmed public purse.
Mr Museveni is also having hard time convincing development partners particularly the Americans and the Europeans that he is still the right man for the job. Already, they have threatened to impose sanctions on his officials. And going by the current rhetoric in the West, Mr Museveni could be forced out of power by a number of diplomatic weapons.
However, Mr Museveni still has an opportunity to rally the country from degenerating into an irreversible political crisis and ease tensions if appeals to Ugandans hold a national dialogue on presidential succession, reform the partisan security forces and land reform. Time though is running out.
It appears Museveni has realized that time is not on his side, which is why he is courting former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to return to his government as a substantive Vice President and NRM Secretary General to hold reclaim the lost political territory. Mr Mbabazi had bitterly fallen out with his childhood friend, Museveni, and in 2016 the former contested against the latter as a sign of vote of no confidence.
When Mbabazi returns he is likely to again take charge of the country and impose sanity once again.
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