Uganda: Behind the Scenes At Kampala Voting Stations

18 January 2021

On arrival at the first polling station on Thursday morning, the policeman on duty asked one of us to present his accreditation.

On presenting his work ID , he was told they needed a media council accreditation. It took the journalist about ten minutes to convince the police officer that a work ID was sufficient identification at the polling stations and accreditation was only vital at the tallying centres. Besides that, all reporters were equipped with Monitor caps, Press jackets and monitor press t-shirts.

Early for polling

On polling day, people were already at the polling stations before 7am. But they waited for hours before the voting started.

"Are you a journalist," asked a voter and before she could get an answer, she went on to make her case, "We have been here for over an hour and these people are just taking us in circles."

The voters were peaceful and focused though, but easily got agitated when say, they spied a damaged box containing presidential ballot papers. They were also vigilant when they noticed someone trying to disturb their peace. At Kyebando-Katale for instance, a drunkard that seemed to cause commotion was carried to the front to enable him vote and leave.

At Buwanika zone in Kisenyi, Central Division of Kampala, the voting materials were at the polling stations by 7am but voting started at 9am. The chairman, Prince Swaleh Tibamwenda, said the delay in voting was mainly due to matters that the presiding officer reportedly needed to solve.

"This time, the materials arrived early and the people were already in place to vote but the process delayed because the presiding officer it seems had some issues to sort out. But luckily enough the process went on well until some issues emerged," said the chairman.

You are not in the register

"I have a resident in my area called Ndyomugenyi who has lived in Buwanika for the past twenty or so years but has not voted because his name was not in the register and the biometric machine didn't recognize him as well. He, however, has a national ID which qualifies him," added Mr Tibamwenda.

Three others were in the same situation as Ndyomugenyi but we noticed that one was able to vote.

When we asked her how she managed to, she revealed to the press team that she used someone's voter slip. But this was done in the evening when the voter numbers had reduced. Our efforts to confirm this with the polling assistants didn't yield anything as they refused to answer our questions.

The triple voter?

This man told us he had voted thrice. We doubted him. But he is a common face in Kisenyi. He said at the first polling station he avoided the ink after voting. At the second he voted without credentials. Again he dodged the ink. At the third, he was even escorted by the village chairperson to vote, after all he is a voter for a popular candidate here.

No journalist allowed?

Earlier in the day, journalists were allowed access to every point of the polling station but at 2pm as we were doing our rounds at one of the stations, a policeman arrived and asked us to leave. Asked why all of a sudden we were being denied entry, he told us press was prohibited. "But we were here not less than an hour ago and you were also around. What could have changed now?" we asked. His superior just affirmed the dismissal. This polling station was now empty, with no polling activity happening then.

There was, however, a lot of mystery surrounding journalists, which said a lot about the orders the security personnel got from their superiors.

For instance, most polling stations easily allowed journalists to work after presenting their work identification.

In other places though, especially those where so little was going on, they seemed suspicious of the media most of the time and would ask for a media council identification even when they were sure it wasn't needed.

Protective of journalists

However, the public were very protective of the media, asking that we report fairly on their candidate and highlight the various irregularities in the polls.

When the situation became tense, for instance when the army was deployed to get rid of the people that had stayed around to see the tallying, members of the public easily stopped an army man in his tracks as he tried to confront a journalist.

"You touch him, we finish you off," said one and indeed, the man in camouflage walked away.

And they did little to hide who they were going to vote for - they did not mention the candidates but somehow indicated in various ways, like casually asking a lady if she needed to be under an umbrella on her way to cast the ballot.

At Kyebando-Katale, where Muhammed Ssegirinya cast his ballot, some people were familiar with him, many were not. However, they voted and anxiously waited for him, eager to take pictures with him or simply wave at him. And indeed when he arrived, there were chants and dances. He took all of it in, promising to get so many votes that he would give some to his competitors.

Ssegirinya is a people magnet in this community, his arrival easily saw a spike in the number of people showing up to vote, suddenly, a line that stretched out of the station ground became longer, eating up the pavement near the road.

For dad's sake

Boda-bodas were prohibited at polling stations but at 10am, a boda-boda carrying a man with crutches and one leg in plasters, arrived at Buwanika polling station. The boda went straight to the polling assistant's table, where the man got the ballot papers and voted while sitting on the bike.

Another elderly blind man came with his daughter to the polling station, received the ballots and instructed her which candidates he liked to vote for. But the father's candidates were not the daughter's candidates. "All the same, I couldn't change my dad's choice. He doesn't see but God was watching me," she said.

Food Samaritan

At Katoogo and St Francis zones in Bwaise, voters could not handle the long wait in the queue while hungry. Some entered the queues with cups of porridge. One placed the cup in the polling basin but the others waiting shouted at him, "Obuuji busse wansi ojja kwonoona akalulu ka Bobi, (put away the porridge, or you shall spoil Bobi Wine's vote).

Elsewhere, the polling assistants were yawning during a hectic day. It was past lunchtime but they had not eaten anything, until a Good Samaritan sent them silver plates. "Finally someone has rescued us," one said as she munched on the sumptuous rice and meat, courtesy of one of the contestants in the Local Council elections. Chances are these very assistants shall work at the same station on January 20.

For an election that had been going on since morning, very many people had left their homes without breakfast - staying at the station longer proved challenging that some carried not only food but also their businesses to the polling stations.

For instance, those selling snacks and fruits moved with their baskets to the lines in Kawempe Mbogo, while others were selling pens thanks to a rumour that the ink in EC pens would vanish shortly after people had voted.

The compromise

At Yiga Park Yard, one of the polling centres in Bwaise, along Nabweru Road in Kawempe Division, one of the voters forced the polling officers to bend the rules. The man, seemingly in his upper 20s or lower 30s, had messed his ballot by ticking beyond the right margin of the ballot paper. That rendered his vote for the Woman Member of Parliament invalid. He realised his mistake and dashed to the polling officers' desk. He wanted another ballot.

Fellow voters waiting in the queues backed him. Soon, some crossed the road, jumped the tape, to preach the law to polling officers. "Byabakama yagambye... " they yelled claiming that the Electoral Commission boss Simon Byabakama permits one to have another ballot if one gets spoilt as long as it is not yet cast. The police tried but failed to silence the noise. The Returning Officer reminded everyone that she was the boss.

But the voters never relented. She finally gave in and told the voter to cast the invalid ballot, then gave him a new one. She ordered him to tick against it in the open to avoid another mistake "after all we already knew who you had voted for." With a smile, he ticked his candidate and majestically cast it amid applause.

"Does the law permit that?" we asked. The Returning Officer replied, "it doesn't "but the Police failed to control the situation and we feared the worst."

Thirst for internet

At most polling stations in Kawempe, voting started past 10am because of the failure of biometric machines. Either the network connection was slow, or the machine would recognise the voter's electoral number but reject the thumbprint.

Habib Kisekka, a returning officer at one of the polling stations at Mbogo Primary School, told us that only he could permit one to vote under these circumstances. At some stations, polling officers just substituted the faulty machines with manual verification, to manage the agitated crowds.

The failure of the machines was attributed to internet shutdown by the government. But it seems everyone was affected. "How do you access the internet?" a curious police officer, or a random voter, asked, whenever they saw us typing updates on our phones. "No way, I'm just sending SMS," came the answer.

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