Ugandan Diaspora vote
The first Uganda Diaspora solidarity convention UK was held in 2008 chaired by Mr Sam Lubega. It was attended by key note speakers like Prof Walimba and the then Kenyan High Commissioner, H. E Joseph Muchemi. The audience consisted of persons from all walks of life. This was on a background of years of dissatisfaction amongst Ugandans living in the Diaspora UK on the issue about having a right to participate in the voting processes in Uganda or their respective homelands. This grievance is not only restricted to the UK Diaspora alone.
So far almost a dozen African countries including Burkina Faso, Mali and South Africa allow their citizens living abroad to cast their votes. And Ghana and Morocco are in the process of giving their expats the same rights. But in 2000, Zimbabwe stripped its nationals living abroad of their right to vote. That’s a story for another time…
Background insight. In 2010, Rwanda faced its presidential elections which could be seen as a pace-setter for the rest of the East African Community and Africa at large. The Rwanda Electoral Commission and government allowed their nationals in the Diaspora to exercise their fundamental rights to vote. In the same year, a proposal was put to the Uganda Parliament and Electoral Commission (EC) to make provisions for Ugandans in the Diaspora to exercise their constitutional right to cast their votes from their respective locations as absentee voters. The suggested criteria to EC to do this were very simple and fraud-proof: Only Ugandans with valid Ugandan passports and those who have naturalised into the citizenry of the adopted country of residents should be allowed to vote. The second suggestion was to set up a Uganda Diaspora Electoral desk in Kampala. But with the Eng Badru Kiggundu led EC apparently mired in chasing its own credibility shadows, it looks set to be that Diaspora Ugandans may never even register on the EC radar. Thing is, there are some Ugandan Diaspora who do vote – much depends on which party the vote is for!
A number of hypotheses may explain EC’s silence on Diaspora Ugandans voting. First of all, since the NRM party has the majority in Parliament, the onus of passing a Bill to affect this solely rests on the ruling party. As separate opinion polls by The Daily Monitor and New Vision newspaper (government owned paper) put NRM ahead of opposition parties if votes had been cast last September 2010, this may have given the ruling party the impression that they can win the 2011 elections without the Diaspora votes.
Secondly, there is a general perception among ruling party leaders that Diaspora Ugandans are unpatriotic and agents of opposition parties.
This misconception may have evolved from a number of anti NRM/Museveni demonstrations by Ugandan nationals in European and US cities in recent past during some of President Museveni’s foreign trips.
The ability to vote or not should never be pegged to desired expectations of a particular political group or individual.
So why is it that the Diaspora Ugandans are without official or Ministerial representation? One might refer the answer as lying with the Ugandan High commissions or embassies abroad – however this would make the issue become too convoluted and or too simple. If there is one thing one comes to learn when doing business or dealing with the Ugandan diplomatic missions is that theory is a far cry from practice. The answer might be that since most Ugandan political leaders are “uncomfortable” with public demonstrations and take them to be a sign of opposition, instead of citizens having the right to express their constitutionally mandated opinion, the possibility of branding majority of Diaspora Ugandans as “opposition elements” cannot be ruled out. You might well ask – but what of the opposition politicians in Uganda.
Where do political parties in Uganda stand on the Diaspora vote? Two of the prominent opposition members and indeed the incumbent presidential leader Yoweri Museveni, Mao and Besigye have at some point in their lives been part of the Diaspora.
Yoweri Museveni Ruling NRM and incumbent – as cited previously, they do not believe it is necessary to have the Diaspora vote as they feel confident in winning without it. To the NRM party it would appear – the Diaspora vote is more of a hindrance than a priority.
Kiiza Besigye: The Inter-Party Cooperation announced that Kiiza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, had been chosen to take on President Museveni in elections this coming February. Besigye ran against Museveni in 2006 and 2001. In 2006, he officially won 37% of the vote, though there were allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation. No mention of Diaspora vote.
Olara Otunnu Despite efforts to unite the opposition, the Uganda People’s Congress pulled out of the coalition on Monday over a dispute on the Electoral Commission, and Olara Otunnu will continue to run for the presidency. No mention of Diaspora vote.
Norbert Mao There is no question Mr. Mao has demonstrated a cunning ability to garner the most followers on Facebook more than any other Ugandan politician. And this is not because he is the youngest, but because he is the most adept and fully engaging politician on this new social networking platform. This palpable ambience resonates among his followers. Albeit his stint at one of the world’s greatest academic institutes (Yale -USA) cannot equate to similar time as those above him were resident out of Uganda, still there is no clear definition on the Diaspora vote in his current manifesto mandate aside from promising to engage in forums that could utilise the legal framework of bringing it about.
Where does this leave the Ugandan Diaspora? The burning issue that remains amongst some Ugandan Diasporians heightened over the recent couple of months leading up to the presidential elections which are taking place, has been their denied right and access to voting. In addition to the reasons cited about, the fact remains that the Ugandan economy is heavily subsidised by those in the Diaspora. Irrespective of official government figures that put the net percentage to 1/3 in direct equivalent to that also received from donors, the reality is actually much higher I suspect. Why? In summation right now, one need to realise that not all funds come through official channels of identifying as reported by the Bank of Uganda (BOU). Persons at times take funds on their persons directly or use other channels of money transfer which offer them better personal dividends from that accorded by official channels like the bank.
Examples of Ugandan Diaspora’s impact on the Ugandan economy
- Building industry. Many houses have been built by Diaspora persons funding. This has resulted in jobs for the average person.
- Healthcare industry. Private owned clinics and hospitals benefit from visiting Diaspora in addition to sustained funding for relatives on ground in light of lack of a national healthcare programme other than charitable organisations. Healthcare from non-government owned hospitals or clinic (where regulated) in most cases tends to be better and in some instances has seen an increasing number of Uganda Diaspora seeking to utilise it more.
- Education industry. Ugandan Diaspora contribution to school fees (family support) alongside donor agencies and international charity organisation in comparison to government investment in this industry is not something to be scoffed at or brushed aside as a non-entity. I would estimate this percentage to be at 75% if not more given first-hand experience such as close to my own family support given to extended relatives at home. For example a brother of mine spends over £10,000 in fees for 2 nieces and 1 nephews a year who in theory should be on government sponsorship. We also have have to bear the heavy tax burden for doing so in addition of also being responsible to our immediate committments in our adoptive country.
- Export and Import industry. Most Ugandan owned business (indigenous persons) find it “challenging” to access government owned programmes by financing companies – but instead look to external support for their start up capital. In addition, and just as important, Ugandans abroad do a lot of networking with various agencies to assist and support projects that can be replicated and or sustained with Uganda – something that in theory should be done through Embassies or High commissions.
- Entertainment industry. The financial support given to entertainers from Uganda is immense with promoters for this industry now operating predominantly from out of Uganda.
I might have left out some areas where Uganda Diaspora contributes greatly to warrant a case for recognition and value that could even be cited as a human rights abuse to the International courts! Albeit, surely the above would more than enough for the Ugandan parliament and her ministers to agree on a ruling that allows her citizen abroad to exercise this right.
What we need first is the recognition that those in the Diaspora are making a significant contribution to the Ugandan economy. We need a voice and representation in government, and to allow us to exercise our right to vote transparently without favour to a given political pressure but for the progressive development that benefits Ugandans as a whole. Lack or failure to engage Ugandan parliament/government leads some of us to consider taking steps such as ones below.
- Combined lobbying of both passive and active targeting donors to withdraw their “donations” combined with sanctions.
The challenge lies in the Uganda Diaspora finding a unifying cause they can all agree upon as each person has their reasons for being out of the country and might not put much value to carrying out a sacrifice that defeats their reasons for being abroad. Indeed some are out of the country because of political persecution and the very idea of having to register their whereabouts to the very regime they are escaping or hiding from fills them with horror. However, the great majority is out of the country because of “economical ill-health” and thus need to be able to continue to work from abroad to support their families who the Ugandan government has failed. In addition, they may be illegally residing where they are in the Diaspora that even accessing debating forums or information that can alleviate their situation is not a priority.
Either way – We the Uganda Diaspora inadvertently perpetuates the continued cycle of dependency and exploitation which keeps the status quo and indeed contributes to the very regime that milks us indirectly. We are the bridging gap or “filler” in-between the non-election months when all the election gifts have dried up.
Perhaps the Uganda Diaspora should quit wanting to change things on ground for those who by their voting hand continue to show they are “happy with things as they are” and instead focus on integrating in their respective adopted countries. The sacrifice Uganda Diaspora makes in order to ensure their relatives are taken care of impacts on their own lifestyles and relationships towards their immediate family members and career development abroad. For starters – the identity of Ugandan youths borne out in the Diaspora is a major concern to me…