Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unclear on the concept

A brief anecdote that I think captures a larger theme in Uganda: systems are put in place by the Ugandan government because they're told that they're "important" or "necessary" for effective governance, yet the way they're implemented reveals that the real purpose for putting in place these systems is either not actually understood or considered to actually be important.

For one of my projects, a partner organization in Mbarara needed to sign a document which then needed to be registered with the Government of Uganda Registrar of Documents in Kampala. Without going into detail about why, the signing of this document was at this point three months late, so a speedy turn-around was of the essence. But, when I brought the document in to the Registrar to have it registered, I was informed that it needed to be witnessed by an "advocate" (an attorney). Somehow, despite having registered four previous documents of the same type, this requirement had never before been mentioned to me.

I mentioned this inconsistency to the woman at the Registrar, but she was firm in her conviction. I was more than a little bit crestfallen, thinking I would have to send it back to the partner in Mbarara and have them re-sign with an attorney present. Given how the process had gone up to this point, I was not optimistic about how quickly the partner would be able to do this, and was already feeling another month slip through my fingers. My countenance must have shown my frustration, because the woman at the Registrar said "you can just go to the building at the end of the street where there lots of advocates, and they should be able to sign it for you now!"

Wait... isn't the point of having someone "witness" a document being signed that they actually, uh, witness it being signed?

I decided not to mention this inconsistency in logic to her and sought out one of these 'advocates", expecting all the while that they would tell me the obvious: they can't sign as a witness on something they haven't actually witnessed. Lo and behold... I was wrong. 50,000 UGX (~$22) and an hour later, I had a document signed by an advocate, validating that she had witnessed the document being signed by the other signatories. I brought this back to the Registrar, and the woman there registered it - knowing it had just been "witnessed" at the end of the street, by someone who in no way could have possibly actually been witness to the rest of the signatories - with a smile on her face.

Go figure.

I could launch into a long treatise on the larger-order critiques of development implied by this little incident by a government heavily subsidized by other (well-structured) governments, but I'll choose instead to let you draw your own conclusions.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A different type of "democracy"

I wrote this on Saturday the 19th, then decided that I'd wait to publish it until after I'd seen that things weren't going to explode. I figured this fell - with skydiving - in the category of activities about which my parents would say "just tell us about it afterwards".

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is, once again, "president" of Uganda, amid loud allegations of massive vote-buying, ballot-stuffing and myriad varieties of vote-rigging, misappropriation of state funds for campaigning and massive intimidation (just passed a few dozen fully-kitted soldiers marching along a main road on my drive home this evening). The man who will by the end of this term have been ruling Uganda for 30 years said in his 1986 inaugural speech "the problems of Africa, and Uganda in particular, are caused by leaders who overstay in power". Someone needs to sit ol' M7 down and read that speech back to him.

Friday the 18th of February was voting-day for the Ugandan presidential elections. The last elections were widely known to be massively rigged in favor of (now 25-year) incumbent Yoweri Museveni, and were pretty violent. By comparison, at this point it seems like things were much calmer this time around.

I've only ever take one Ugandan or American public holiday off in the 1.5 years I've been here, so I was also thrilled to take my first ever Ugandan public holiday off!

Passed a polling place in Bukoto in the morning

Arrived at a friend's house for an all-day cook-and-eat-and-drink-and-game-athon.

It probably took us 45 damn minutes to finish that game 'cause neither of us knew any strategy

FOOD. Everything turned out pretty phenomenally, despite most peoples' experimental bent

Grillin', chapatti-in' and beerin'

This was the one failure of the day, by my standards: supposed to be a "Breakfast White Russian" - milk infused with frosted flakes + chocolate milk + vodka + bacon for a swizzle stick

goat-cheese eggplant rolls

When the polls closed at 5:00pm, we headed to Kamwokya to watch the votes be counted at a nearby polling station.

5pm on a Friday, and Kira road is EMPTY. Weird.

Voting finishes up at a polling station in Kamwokya

Voters would register with the guys seated at the right, then take the three ballots (president, member of parliament and woman member of parliament) to be filled out in a bucket. Theoretically the bucket shields the voter's selection from on-lookers. A big problem, though: the ballot paper is pretty long and the incumbent is at the very bottom while the main opposition candidate is at the very top, so it's pretty easy to tell from the voter's body position who he or she is voting for. Slick.

At 5pm, the people with the voter registers count how many people came through. Each polling station was supposed to have 800 registered voters. Some, like this one, split those 800 into two sub-stations alphabetically.

This station wound up about 600 voters - pretty damn impressive turnout by American standards.

This was definitely a necessary expense by the Electoral Commission.

The sorting begins. There is one plastic bin for each ballot. Sorting at this station began with the Woman MP. One official representative for each candidate stands by the Presiding Officer (see the few guys standing behind the dude with the ballot), who then holds up each ballot one-by-one for public viewing, and hands the ballot to a candidate-representative according to who the ballot is for. Before the sorting began, the Presiding Officer would pat down each of the representatives to ensure he didn't have any extra ballots tucked away anywhere to use for stuffing.

Not a quick process, but remarkably transparent - notice how many onlookers are actively watching.

The other two bins to the right are for MP and President

Significant police presence. One cop is in the polling station, and one or two outside, the entire time. Other police passed by at different times, and at one point a truck carrying 20ish cops in full samurai-armor looking riot gear passed by. Gotta love intimidation!

The other half of the alphabet. I love how many people turn out just to watch the counting!

Also a good proportion of the onlookers were... drunk.

You know who would have won the presidential race here, no problem?

Once the ballots had been sorted, the Presiding Officer would go through the ballots held by each candidate's representative, one at a time, and hold each up as he counted aloud. The crowd counted along.

One man I stood next to for a period of time was very closely watching and counting. As soon as the counting finished, he noted the results on his hand and speed-walked away, immediately pulling out his phone. I'm thinking he was a representative for the opposition, submitting his report to the opposition's parallel counting-center

Once counting for a box is completed, the ballots are put back in the box and the lid fastened with serial-numbered zip ties (but how easy would it be for duplicate zip ties to be made and a box still to be opened, emptied and re-filled with different ballots en route to the electoral commission?)

Kids across the street while parents watch the counting...

Another couple guys kept their own score - I love how many people took it upon themselves to do their own counting and reporting.

The polling station police officer shows that the box of clean ballots is empty - nothing around to stuff a box with!

The crowd. I was chatting with a Local Council Chairperson for a bit who told me that this has historically been a pretty violent polling place (I swallowed hard) - he was thrilled with how smoothly everything was going this time around.

Finally as it started getting dark, we headed back to my friend's place for the grand finale of food... LAMB.

My meat-inclined and epicurially-talented buddy marinated and skewered it, then hung it in the chimney of a clay oven
Eaten with tzatziki, it was terrific.

And the nigh ended with some clay-oven bread baking.

So far, with about 50% of polling stations reporting, preliminary results show Museveni with ~70% of the vote and Besigye (main opposition) has ~24%. There's only been one large incident of violence that I heard of - out in Sironko - and mild other cases of uncleanliness. One candidate - Otunno - refused to vote yesterday and has come out saying he will not accept the results of the election, calling it a "sham". Besigye has yet to make any comments, but is supposed to be holding a press conference momentarily.

I was overall impressed by the degree of transparency, but it was not hard to think of a number of ways to rig things, even in this system. More importantly - as a friend mentioned - it's clear that most of the "rigging" happened long before the ballots even landed in Uganda: ministers and voters being bought, mechanisms for opposition-oversight being prohibited and a massively partisan Electoral Commission refusing to be replaced.

Official results will be announced tomorrow, so we're not out of the woods yet. Besigye has stated that if the vote was (in his perception) in any way not perfectly clean & clear, he will not appeal to the Supreme Court - he will instead appeal to "the court of public opinion", intimating that he would do his best to start public upheaval or even start another bush war (as he and Museveni did to oust Obote 25 years ago). So we continue to wait and watch and listen.