TUESDAY, MAY 17, 1994 THE HERALD-SUN, DURHAM, N.C.
From Africa, a sign of hope: Uganda takes promising step toward Democracy
By JOEL SOLKOFF
It is six o’clock in the morning in Tira, a community near the Kenyan border that does not appear on the detailed Uganda map I am carrying with me. The sun is coming up over the grain shed containing dried-out sunflower seeds and discarded speeches on agriculture.
Ugandans should work harder, a 1968 draft urges.
The advice seems silly today, especially here in Tira where crops are well-tended and plentiful and livestock is getting fat.
Uganda is once again exporting food.This has happened after decades of incompetent, oppressive government by Idi Amin and Milton Obote, mass murderers on an impressive scale.
The country is also taking a significant step forward toward democracy by holding its first nationwide election in over 14 years. President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, brought competence to the military, positioned the economy for economic recovery, and restored once-strained ties to the United States. Museveni called for elections and invited international observers to monitor them.
That is why I am here in Tira on Monday, March 28, to observe the polling for delegates to a constituent assembly. The assembly will write the country’s constitution and determine future presidential and other elections. The African-American Institute invited me to join its group of Ugandan election monitors, and for months AAI has been working in Uganda on an intensive voter education project.
There are 109 international observers in the country and our logistics are coordinated by the United Nations, which has teamed me up with Bettina Consten, a German foreign service officer and also an international observer. The U.N. has provided us with a jeep, driver, and security officer.
The German government donated flashlights for the election and at 5:45 this morning one of the flashlights was used as the polling officer unlocked the shed door and opened it. Inside were several ballot boxes, each containing such necessary material as indelible ink, to mark the voter’s right index finger as a precaution against voting more than once. The polling officer summoned several bicyclists, putting a ballot box on the back of each bicycle and sending a soldier with a sub-machine gun to guard each box as it goes along mountainous trails.
Now, 15 minutes later, poll workers are putting string on the tree branches inserted in the dirt. The string will act as an aid for an orderly line when the polls open at 7 o’clock. Polling will take place around a large and beautiful tree. Already, more than 30 of Tira’s 600 registered voters are waiting to vote. As I look at the crowd, I see the thatched huts (straw roof and mud brick walls) appear in the morning light. This is a community which has no electricity, telephone, or running water.
Then I hear a strange sound. It is the sound of ”Yankee Doodle” being played. One of the candidate’s poll watchers is carrying a transistor radio. “Yankee Doodle” is the sign-on theme music for the Voice of America which is giving news about preparations for the Uganda election. “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Impossible to explain.
The election was a success. Bettina and I visited some 12 polling places, but we returned to Tira for the vote count. We had chosen Tira because it was as far from the urban center of Busia as possible and because our security officer said it was inconvenient to get to and advised us to go somewhere else. We figured, if you want to find something wrong, the best place to look is a place that’s hard to get to and where officials don’t want you to go. Watching as the polling officials dumped out the ballots on a large plastic garbage bag and then solemnly began to count, I realize how profoundly moving the democratic process can be. It is like suddenly being cast into a Frank Capra movie.
When the observers return to Kampala, the capital city, we write a U.N. report that says, “The over-all assessments of the international observers…is that the polling was a positive event and represented an important step forward toward democracy.”
When I return to Durham, I find that news of the killings in Rwanda. a small country on Uganda’s southwestern border, has dominated discussion about Africa. “Thank God you’re back,” one friend says. Another says, “I’ll bet you’re glad you got out in time.”
All Africa is not the same. It is a large continent with differences more diverse than North America because it is larger. And there is also good news coming out of Africa.
Stick a feather in your cap and call it macaroni.
Joel Solkoff is a technical writer who lives in Durham, NC with his wife and two children. His most recent book is The Politics of Food.