Background Briefing

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Recent Elections and the 2005 Referendum

The government of President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 through force of arms after a disputed election.  During the twenty years of the “Movement” political system he pioneered, the National Resistance Movement, now a political party (the NRM-O), has held power while denying other political parties the right to operate.4  Museveni and the National Resistance Movement have long stated that Uganda’s unfortunate history of civil conflict is a result of “sectarian” and “confusing” multiparty political systems.5 

Two previous presidential elections have been held under the Movement system, in 1996 and 2001.  Both were marred by violence, the latter one seriously so.  The two main contenders in 2001, as in 2006, were the incumbent Museveni and his former personal physician and fellow insurgent, Dr. (Ret. Col.) Kiiza Besigye. 

Dr. Besigye challenged the results of the 2001 election in the Supreme Court, which upheld President Museveni’s re-election. It ruled by a vote of 3 to 2, that there had been substantial electoral malpractice, but also ruled 3 to 2 that the intimidation, ballot stuffing, and “cheating in a significant number of polling stations” was insufficient to affect the result of the elections “in a substantial manner.”6

A Select Committee on Election Violence was established by Parliament to investigate violence and intimidation during the 2001 presidential election.7 Its September 2002 report, never tabled in Parliament, documented violence, intimidation, and vote rigging primarily by the government.  

Since 2001, Uganda has undergone a political reorganization in reaction to a combination of internal civic pressure and external pressure from donors and the World Bank. While the 2001 election was conducted under the “Movement” system without political party participation, in 2005 the NRM-O government announced a referendum which included a proposal on a return to multiparty democracy (an earlier referendum in 2000 having endorsed the Movement political system). The 2005 referendum, in which the Movement campaigned for a “yes” vote on a multiparty system, saw that vote prevail, and political parties were thus free to officially participate in the 2006 elections.

The opposition boycotted the 2005 referendum, however. They were protesting that alongside the vote on a multiparty system, the same referendum included a vote to amend the Constitution to lift the two-term limitation on the office of president—and that only the Parliament could officially repeal the ban on political parties in the Constitution.  The Constitutional Court ruled though, that since the 2000 referendum had endorsed the Movement system, another referendum was valid.  According to the Ugandan Democracy Monitoring Group (DEM Group), the turnout for the referendum was “very low” and the “referendum campaigns fell short of a fair contest.”8

Institutional and Legal Context

The legal framework for the switch to multipartyism for the 2006 elections was presented to Parliament by the Attorney General very late in the day, and legislation was passed in a rush. The Parliamentary Elections Act, the Presidential Elections Act, the Electoral Commission Act and the Political Parties and Organisations Act of 2005 were finally gazetted on November 21, 2005.9  This late passage of the legislation created a very tight timetable for campaigns and for the Electoral Commission to get its house in order before voting day, which it set as February 23, 2006. It provided only three months for the first multiparty electoral campaigns in more than two decades. 10 Voter education and the recruitment of extra policeman for polling day are still incomplete as of the writing of this report.


The government described the “Movement” or “no-party” ideology as a political “system” in which all Ugandans had membership; members of local and national government were chosen on merit from within the Movement.  In fact the Movement worked more like a traditional one-party state where all other parties were banned.  Indeed, the Constitutional Court ruled on a 2002 petition that the Movement is in fact a political party.11

The one-party state technically still exists. The amended Constitution does not provide for the dismantling of the Movement system or the closing of its offices until after the elections on February 23.12 According to a 1997 law that is still in effect, the Movement organization should be funded by “monies as may be from time to time appropriated by Parliament.”13 The National Resistance Movement Organisation (NRM-O) still occupies Movement offices and draws government funds.  The effects of NRM-O use of state resources for campaigning are discussed below.

The Presidential Elections Act of 2005 provides that the election of the president can only be annulled for:

non-compliance with the provisions of this Act, if the court is satisfied that the election was not conducted in accordance with the principles laid down in those provisions and that non-compliance affected the result of the election in a substantial manner.14  

There can nonetheless be considerable vote rigging or other serious malfeasance that does not meet this standard of substantially affecting the election results.15 

The police have formed an Electoral Offences Squad intended to investigate allegations of violence (including threatening or inciting violence), defacing posters, malicious damage, rigging, bribery and forgery, among others.  According to the Electoral Offences Squad Summary published on January 30, 2006, the NRM-O had 135 complaints made against it, the Forum for Democratic Change 65 complaints, the Democratic Party (DP) eight, and there were seventy general cases.16

Militarization of Public Office

The 2006 elections are taking place in the context of increasing militarization of public office in Uganda. High-ranking UPDF officers (or recent former officers) have been appointed to many civilian positions in the last several months.  The present and former Inspector General of Police (IGP) are both active duty military men: current post-holder Kale Kayihura was an army general leading the now internationally-discredited UPDF campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Col. Noble Mayombo, for many years the vigorous head of military intelligence (the Chieftancy of Military Intelligence, CMI), is now both permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence and Chairman of the Board of the New Vision newspaper.  The high-profile role played by the military in Ugandan society is highlighted by the recent appointment of Gen. Elly Tumwiine (head of the General Court Martial—see below) as manager of the national soccer team.17

The history of the army’s role, especially in the northern region, compromises its ability to be seen as honest brokers by the population. The culture of impunity within the army and the continuing activities of the CMI military intelligence in detaining suspects without charges in “safe houses” or unofficial and illegal places of detention, and sometimes torturing them, has been the subject of several reports by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.18  Various interventions by the military into events and activities related to the election are noted below.

[4] For more information on Uganda’s “no-party” political system and the suppression of political freedoms see Human Rights Watch, Hostile to Democracy: The Movement System and Political Repression in Uganda, (New York: Human Rights Watch, September 1999), [online]; and Sabiti Makara et al., Voting for Democracy in Uganda, (Kampala: LDC Publishers, 2003).

[5] Sabiti Makara et al, Voting for Democracy in Uganda, p.2.

[6] Dr. Kizza Besigye vs. Yoweri Museveni and Electoral Commission, Petition No.1 of 2001, Supreme Court of Uganda, April 21, 2001.   

[7]  Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Election Violence, Parliament of Uganda, Kampala, September 2002.

[8] “Statement on the Monitoring of the Referendum on Change of Political Systems In Uganda,” DEM Group Press Release, July 30, 2005.

[9] The Parliamentary Elections Act 2005 is almost identical to the Presidential Elections Act 2005: Section 23 provides for equal treatment, freedom of expression and access to information of candidates, and states in point 1 that “During the campaign period, every public officer and public authority and public institution shall, give equal treatment to all candidates and their agents.” Section 24, on the Rights of Candidates, states in point 1 that “All presidential candidates shall be given equal treatment on the state owned media to present their programmes to the people.” Section 26 prohibits “interference with electioneering activities of other persons”; and  Section 27, on use of Government Resources, states that “no candidate shall use Government resources for the purposes of campaigning for election.” 

[10] The legislation was gazetted after the voter registration period had closed, on October 31. 

[11] P. K. Ssemogerere and five others vs. Attorney General, Petition No 5 of 2002

[12] For a full description of the Movement system, see Human Rights Watch, Hostile to Democracy: The Movement System and Political Repression in Uganda.  See also the concerns expressed in a recent report, Chr. Michelson Institute and Makerere University, “The Legal and Institutional Context of the 2006 Elections in Uganda, Research Report: Lessons from the referendum for the 2006 elections,” p. 15, [online]

[13] Movement Act 1997, Section 32 (1).  Under the Movement Act, state and Movement structures were effectively fused by creating an identical “Movement” pyramid structure that precisely mirrored local government structures. Many offices in both structures were held by the same people.

[14] Parliamentary Elections Act 2005, Section 59 (6).

[15] One member of the Supreme Court said in the 2001 elections ruling, "There must be evidence adduced by the petitioner to prove that because of non-compliance with the principle of free and fair election, [President Museveni] unfairly obtained so many votes, which the petitioner would have got; and that because of lack of transparency, [President Museveni] unfairly got so many votes, which he ought not to have got." Justice of the Supreme Court Alfred N. Karakora, in Supreme Court Judgment, Petition No.1 of 2001.

[16] “Summary of Election Offences Reported and Being Handled by Electoral Offences Squad Country Wide,” CID, Kampala, January 30, 2006.

[17] Mandazi Brother, “Elly Tumwiine to Manage Cranes,” Sunday Monitor, January 29, 2006.

[18] See Human Rights Watch, “Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 17, no. 12(A), September 2005.

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