By Onghwens Kisangala
Three weeks ago, the British High Commissioner to Uganda, Martin Shearman who is the current chairman of the Partners for Greater Democracy and Good Governance, (PDG) a grouping of western embassies in Uganda, published donor concerns about the political developments in Uganda ahead of 2011 elections. The Independent’s Onghwens Kisangala talked to the Netherlands Ambassador Jeroem Verheul regarding the position of the donor community on the matter. Below, excerpts:-
You recently published the donor community’s concerns about the progress of electoral reforms. But this seems a ritual donors engage in at every election cycle. Is this one of them or something serious this time?
I am not a witchdoctor so I try to refrain myself as much as possible from engaging in rituals. But it is a serious message that the international community is trying to get across to the Ugandan government. It is beyond rituals because it signals the joint concerns of a number of embassies represented in Uganda that are working together as Partners in Greater Democracy and Good Governance (PDG). We are concerned by the slow progress in electoral reforms. It has been more than three years since the last elections, more than three years since the Supreme Court ruled on the petition by Dr [Kizza] Besigye against the Electoral Commission. It is also three years since the election observers reports came out; all those reports and the Supreme Court judgment indicated serious weaknesses with the electoral processes in Uganda. We have all been waiting quite impatiently what the response of government will be; unfortunately, there have been a lot of discussions but no real proposals.
You said you have been waiting for these reforms impatiently, what happens when your patience runs out?
The issue of patience or impatience is one that is in Ugandans’ hands. The people of Uganda and the political parties are quite impatient about electoral reforms. As we clearly say in the statement that we have just published, it is primarily the duty of Ugandans to come up with those reforms. This is a domestic process. What we point out is that we are watching the situation closely. We are concerned about the slowness in the process that might have a consequence in the conduct and outcome of the elections. What we are trying to prevent is that in 2011 when elections take place and the observers come up with a lot of findings and recommendations there should be no excuses.
How is the PDG prepared to push for these reforms?
I have been here since 2007 and I got this question already ongoing. But diplomatic work in most cases takes place behind closed doors, to which I can tell you that there have been a lot of discussions with key stakeholders. For example there have been several discussions with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, minister of Justice, Attorney General, Minister of Foreign Affairs, the President himself on those issues. We have been very consistent in the message that we have now published on paper.
Compared to how donors, led by former US ambassador Smith Hempstone, pushed for reforms in Kenya in 1990s, donors have been quite pussyfooted on Uganda. Why?
I was not in Kenya in 1990s so I can’t compare the activities in that period vis- -vis the donor community in Uganda. But I wish to take issue with your statement that the donor community is not very vocal on reforms here. I recall that even when I was not yet here, there were serious discussions between the donor community and government on democracy in Uganda. I also recollect quite distinctively that the donor community was quite instrumental in the introduction of multiparty politics here. So I don’t agree with your statement that the donor community has been silent on those issues in the past and we are not silent now.
In 2005, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and others cut back aid in protest to the government’s handling of the democratisation process. Shall we see the same should reforms not come through?
We shouldn’t speculate what is going to happen in 2011. The purpose of speaking out now is to prevent these things from happening in 2011. It is also to encourage stakeholders to play constructive roles, because one of the reasons this statement has come out is due to the current sharpening of political debate, deeper polarisation and disrespect between political players. This can make it difficult to organise proper elections in the future. So we say we can change the course of events and it requires the participation of all. In this respect, we are for dialogue between opposition and government.
Government recently waited for the 11th hour and stampeded Parliament into approving reappointment of the electoral commissioners despite opposition protests. What does this indicate?
I note that the opposition has used this opportunity to challenge the reappointment of electoral commissioners in court. So I think there will be an occasion to revisit this issue when the matter has been ruled over. But like I said, we have been in dialogue with government for a long time and that on our side we have emphasised the need to use the process of nominating the commissioners to strengthen confidence in the Electoral Commission (EC). We have seen in Kenya how important it is to have a reliable and trustworthy EC that respects and also commands respect of the stakeholders. We would like to see an EC in Uganda that is independent, impartial and trustworthy. But I hope time is not lost. I hope there will be time to re-establish trustworthiness and confidence in the EC before elections.
EC is already crying of lack of or delay in release of funds to prepare for elections” even when its legitimacy is being contested. Are you going to fund EC in the coming elections?
If you look at the roadmap that the EC has prepared, the amount that they have come up with as what is needed to organise elections is quite impressive. It is close to Shs 100 billion. It is quite substantial. If you look at the support provided for by the Deepening Democracy Programme, it is to the tune of about Shs 5 billion. It is only a fraction of the resources needed. The huge bulk of the resources have to come from the Ugandan government. Donors are not in position to provide that kind of money for elections. So the answer to your question is NO!