‘What could we have done?’: Donors and the limits of international democracy promotion in Uganda

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Jonathan FisherIn this article, Dr Jonathan Fisher explores the role that donors played in the 2011 elections in Uganda. Fisher asks what this shows us about international democracy promotion, and its limits. His research has recently been published in the Journal of East African Studies.

Africa’s democratic landscape has – on the face of it – changed dramatically in the last two decades. Prior to 1990, peaceful and democratic transfers of power on the continent were virtually unheard of and multi-party elections largely outlawed. Today, predictable and constitutional alternations of power are commonplace and all but a handful of African states hold multi-party polls at regular intervals. Western donor governments played a role in this formal transformation of political space through a variety of means during the 1990s, albeit not necessarily the central and edifying one that some of their number have argued.

The legalization of multi-partyism in much of Africa – what some scholars might term ‘formal democracy’ – has not, however, led to genuine, substantive democracy – where the governed are able to participate in policy-making and vote out leaders the majority do not support – in many parts of the continent. The governments of contemporary Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda today – to take just a few examples – face little challenge to their hold on power despite holding regular, multi-party elections. This is not necessarily because of the support they may or may not enjoy among the populace but, instead, because they maintain a firm control over the crucial mechanisms which are meant to ensure polls take place on a level playing field and that the power is exercised within a structure regulated by checks and balances. Dealing with this regime ‘capture’ of theoretically independent institutions in many states represents, as Diana Cammack has argued, the new challenge for Western donors interested in democracy promotion in Africa.

How Uganda’s donors approached regime capture of that country’s Electoral Commission (EC) in the lead-up to the 2011 Ugandan elections is the subject of my recent article in Journal of Eastern African Studies. The EC were, putatively, the independent arbitrators of Uganda’s second multi-party poll since 1980. However, their seven commissioners were appointed by President Yoweri Museveni in 2002 and included six individuals who had previously been mobilizers for, or official candidates of, his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Empowered to dismiss them at any time, Museveni rail-roaded their re-appointments through Parliament in 2009 – having previously reassured donors and opposition actors that a lengthy, consultative process would precede their nomination – to ensure that the 2011 elections would be overseen and managed by his own supporters, as those in 2006 had been. Having previously been viewed as a partisan institution by many Ugandans, the 2009 EC’s legitimacy was also quickly called into question, not least by opposition parties who declared that they would view a poll organized by it as ‘not credible’.

The legitimacy – or perceived illegitimacy – of electoral management bodies has been an important destabilizing factor in several recent African elections, notably Ethiopia in 2005 and Kenya in 2007. Donors in Uganda, keen to ‘avoid a Kenya [post-election violence] scenario’ in 2011, focused on pressuring the Museveni regime between 2008-2009 to disband the EC and to consult widely with opposition and civil society groups in nominating its replacement. This involved, on several occasions, Washington’s chief Africa diplomat – Johnnie Carson – personally ‘suggesting’ this strategy to Museveni himself (in private) while simultaneously insisting publicly in Nigeria that Abuja also dismiss its discredited electoral management body head, Maurice Iwu. Following the EC’s re-appointment in 2009, and the replacement of its one non-NRM supporter with an NRM partisan, however, donors rapidly drew back from what some have labelled this ‘political approach’ to the matter. Publicly and privately donors retreated to a ‘technical’ position, which focused on building the Commission’s capacity. Concerns about its perceived partiality were no longer expressed. Following the election – the results of which were rejected by the opposition as a ‘sham’ owing to their management by the ‘partisan EC’ – donors nevertheless resurrected their pre-2009 position, arguing publicly and privately that ‘an independent electoral commission’ was needed before the next polls, due in 2016.

The article explores the reasons why the Ugandan donor community abandoned this ‘political approach’ to the EC issue so easily and so quickly. In doing so, it highlights the significance of other donor interests in Uganda which made damaging the relationship with Kampala inadvisable (notably the UK and oil and the UK, US, EU and others on Somalia). It also emphasizes the impact of inter – and intra-donor – disagreements on the overall donor approach and the influence of donors’ bureaucratic incentives on actions and stances taken.

A final explanation suggested, however, relates to donor perceptions of their own influence in the country. Rhetorically, Western donors in Uganda – and elsewhere – contend that they do not want to ‘dictate’ policy changes to African governments. Their reticence in ‘pushing the envelope’ on governance reforms, however, often derives more from their pessimistic assessment of their own ability to influence key policy-makers and decisions. ‘What could we have done?’ was a common refrain in private among donor officials in Uganda when reflecting on their failure to maintain pressure on the Museveni regime after its 2009 re-appointment of the EC. Though the article does not take a normative position on this issue it nonetheless questions the validity of this assumption, particularly given the significant financial, military and political support the Museveni government continues to receive from a small group of Western donors. It also highlights the role of Ugandan officials themselves in persuading donors of their putative limited influence in Kampala.

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