Letter From Uganda
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The Use of Indelible Ink to Prevent Duplicate Voting

Polling Guideline 1.4:

Where the voter has no thumb, the process shall be applied to the finger nearest;

Where the voter has no right hand, the process shall be applied to the left;

Where the voter has no fingers on either hand, the voter may dip the tip of any hand into the indelible ink;

Where the voter has no hands, the process shall be applied to any other conspicuous part of the voterìs body, as determined by the Polling Assistant.

* * * *

It was barely light. We made our way uphill to the designated tree. A mongrel was scratching idly in the dust. The place seemed deserted. It was hard to believe that this small, square patch of dry ground was a polling station. The Election Gazette listing was of little help: ‘Under the Mango Tree, Kisugu.’ Bordered on three sides by cracked concrete flats, the fourth side was an improvised cordon – a piece of limp string looped from a telegraph pole to a lopsided fence. As the day went on, we learnt that pieces of string like this were the best way of identifying the many polling stations dotted around. Our designated division was an occasional slum, slithered down the side of one of Kampala’s many hills.

There were four tables. A battered wooden table and two chairs near the string cordon. A smaller table with an orange plastic bowl on it was placed in the centre ground. And there were two more tables in opposite corners. A smartly dressed middle-aged man in blazer, pink open-necked shirt and flannels emerged purposefully from the gloom. Our Presiding Officer. We introduced ourselves. He dealt briskly with the formalities, unfazed by the sudden appearance of International Monitors Nos 160 and 161, two young western women in white baseball caps – ice-cream sellers in another incarnation.

He called over his Polling Assistant, a man dressed almost as smartly as himself, who was tearing down one of the candidate’s posters from the concrete flats. Polling guidelines: No Campaign Literature may be Displayed inside a Polling Station. (Even when all polling stations are outdoors.) The President lost his nose.

Together, they gave a demonstration of the station’s procedure. The voters would line up alongside the piece of string, facing the wooden table. As they approached, they would call out their names for all to hear, and then present their identity card to the Presiding Officer. He would tick their names off the voters’ register in clear sight of the candidates’ agents, seated beside the table. Then he would issue the voters with a ballot paper, folded lengthways. The voters would make their way to the orange plastic basin. There they could either thumb-print or tick the box next to the picture of the candidate of their choice. The ballot box rested on the next table. At the fourth and last table, the Polling Assistant would dip their right thumb in indelible purple ink to ensure they couldn’t vote again.

This lay-out and procedure was faithfully replicated throughout the day, though with unexpected local variations. At the polling station beside the quarry (‘the Block factory’), the plastic basin and ballot box were perched on stacks of roughly quarried stone. At the Wabigalo Parish Church, the register table and ballot basin were on one side of the mud road, along the church porch, while the ballot box and ink tables were on the other side, in front of someone’s house.

At Wabigalo Main Street – differentiating the two stations proved difficult – people kept ducking under the string cordons to carry their yellow jerry cans to the local water pump. In clear but inevitable contravention of Polling Guideline 1.6 : ‘all persons in the vicinity of the polling station shall stand at least twenty metres away from the polling table.’

We had a number of questions. How many voters were there on the register? 687. How many voters had been issued with cards? 575. The issue of voters’ cards and voters registers was contentious, because of widespread concern about electoral fraud. Just five days before the original polling date, the election had been postponed for a week – to allow the Electoral Commission to complete the issue of voters’ cards. Even so, some registered voters were still without cards, and some people who weren’t on the register had been issued with cards. There were rumours – of ghost voters, of the President’s agents distributing cards from brown paper envelopes, of his rival’s supporters being deliberately deleted from registers. What will happen to voters with cards who aren’t on the register? They won’t be allowed to vote. What will happen to voters on the register who don’t have cards? A ruling from the Electoral Commission was expected to be transmitted nationwide by radio. (Registered voters without cards would be allowed to vote, it transpired, as long as they could identify themselves. Though potentially problematic, identification was less difficult than might have been expected: most people were either known personally to the Presiding Officer, or to several other voters/relatives in the queue.)

By now it was almost daylight. The grey clouds did not look particularly encouraging. In the event of rain – inevitably a torrential downpour – polling would be postponed till the following day, since all polling stations were outdoors. Which would entail extra chaos and additional scope for ballot rigging. The candidates’ agents presented their credentials and sat themselves beside the wooden table, and a number of voters formed an orderly queue alongside the string cordon. It was barely 7 a.m.. We waited for the arrival of the ballot box. The Polling Assistant re-arranged his ink pots. The Presiding Officer nailed a poster to the mango tree – a cartoon explaining the layout of the polling station. I spotted a couple of my neighbours in the voting queue. Gertrude, a former nun, chatted to Tony Taxi, her daughter Immaculate balanced on her hip.

Some twenty minutes later, a dark-blue Toyota pick-up, with government number plates, slewed to a halt beside the station. A man in a check shirt, clutching a mobile phone, leapt out, shouting instructions – and a black tin box was tossed out from the back. The man ducked back into the passenger seat. The pick-up reversed, pointed itself down the hill, switched off and free-wheeled downwards at speed. Fuel saving.

The Presiding Officer opened the ballot box and removed the ballot papers. He showed the queue, now a pressing crowd, that there was nothing else inside. Then the box was sealed with great ceremony and placed on its designated table beyond the plastic tub. The queue re-formed. The mongrel took up its unofficial station between the plastic basin and the ballot box. Voting, we were told, could begin.

The rhythm of voting barely altered all day. Voters queued patiently, came forward, marked their ballots, dipped their thumbs and left. At one station, a woman in her nineties, veteran of two world wars, colonialism and Idi Amin, was supported to the ballot box by a relative. At another, a drunk, chin on his chest, shirt out, wearing a single flip-flop, reeled in to exercise his franchise. Women with babies strapped to their backs waited their turn to print or tick. Friends and relatives greeted one another in the queue. Now and then, voters were apprehended on suspicion of malpractice by polling officials. Beads of sweat gathering on their brows, they miserably awaited the arrival of the police. Sporadically, matters became difficult when rival supporters suspected the voting procedures favoured another candidate the Presiding Officer would then assert his authority by yelling at the queue until the commotion subsided. Our arrival was invariably greeted with cries of ‘eh the international monitors are here!’ We never admitted that, far from having jetted in from London the day before, we lived just round the corner.

When we finally returned to our original polling station for the count, orange with dust, our Presiding Officer’s blazer had long been discarded. His pink shirt was now maroon and semi-transparent with sweat – the wooden table shifted under the mango tree to avoid the sun. The Polling Assistant was sitting stoically at his table in the far corner under a striped golfing umbrella, hands purpled with indelible ink. There was no sign of the mongrel. An argument took place about a voter suspected to be under-age by the candidates’ agents. His aunt was called to vouch for him. She explained he was small for his age because his mother was from the Congo. Reluctantly, he was waved through. An elderly gentleman apologetically presented the remnants of his voter’s card in a transparent plastic bag – a misunderstanding with his wife. A few final voters straggled in before the Presiding Officer declared the station closed on the dot of 5 p.m.

Word spread rapidly that the ballot box was about to be opened. As the Presiding Officer tipped its contents on to the wooden table, at least a hundred people surged forward. The election constable, after a day spent resting idly on his rifle, could barely keep them in check. A breeze started to blow the ballot papers off the table. The Presiding Officer restored order with a rapid volley of abuse and the Polling Assistant retrieved the swirling papers. The number of ballots cast was counted for all to see, with the crowd chanting out the numbers one by one. ‘Emu, bbiri, satuƒ bitaano mu ataano mu emu’. 551.

The vote tally then began in earnest. The Presiding Officer shouted out the name of the candidate for whom the vote was cast, before showing the ballot paper to the crowd. Votes for each main candidate were met with loud cheers by their respective supporters. One woman accompanied each vote for the President with an inexplicable cry of ‘Daadi!’. When a candidate received more than two or three votes in a row, the noise crescendo-ed aggressively. Potentially invalid ballots were subject to crowd scrutiny. Valid votes were declared invalid by opposing supporters vying to deny rival votes, shouting down objections. The mounting tension was only periodically relieved by a vote for one of the ‘joke’ candidates. Universal jeers and laughter.

As the last votes were counted, disaster. There were 553 votes this time, not 551. The crowd pressed forward, sure it was being cheated. The light was fading. A recount in the dark was impossible. Calming the crowd almost equally impossible. The President’s margin over his rival was 33 votes, not two. So what? The crowd was incensed. Its shouting became ever more insistent. A young man who had spent much of the count at the back of the crowd, relaying events on three mobile phones, suddenly turned on us. ‘You – international monitors – how is this free and fair?’ The crowd momentarily fell silent.

As monitors we had no remit to intervene, yet we had little option but to speak. Slowly the white baseball caps explained. 660 ballot papers had been issued in the morning. There were now 107 unused ballots remaining. Mathematically, 553 cast ballots was correct. The crowd was in no mood for a maths lesson. At all. Then a lone voice shouted ‘Kituuful!’ It is right. The Presiding Officer seized the opportunity to declare the results. Sensing the drama was over, the crowd slowly dispersed into the semi-darkness.

Another polling day seen to its close.


The election was won by the President. The opposition made accusations of vote rigging. A week later, we learnt that the total number of votes declared for our division exceeded the number of registered voters by about 9,000. The Electoral Commission could offer no explanation for this discrepancy. I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to those 107 uncast ballots after they had been remitted to the district headquarters.

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