Violence is inevitable. Chaos surrounding elections is unstoppable. There is no such thing as a clean campaign. This was the wisdom imparted to me and my Ugandan journalist friends when we set out to investigate in Fort Portal.
Six of us set out from Steve Youngblood’s Peace Journalism seminar with one question: What are local politicians going to do to stop election violence before it starts?
This is a particularly important question, as Uganda is mere months away from their national presidential election. Historically, the time immediately surrounding the elections is filled with violence from angry citizens. The elections are unfair, they say.
In Uganda, there is one major political party, the NRM. There are countless minor parties that collectively gather less than half the votes. This ensures that the NRM wins every election from small-town mayor to national president.
For our radio piece, we first spoke to a minor party candidate. I never would have found his office on my own – we walked down a trash-strewn alley, across a balance beam-like ledge surrounded by what smelled like swamp water, into the basement of a hotel, and finally into a tiny room marked “secretarial services & fotocopying”.
There he was, sitting at an empty desk, staring off into space as a Jesus Christ mournfully looked upon him from the poster on the wall. We filed in and awkwardly wedged all six journalists around the copy machine next to his desk. I felt very awkward as I sat with the other women on the red velvet couch.
He refused to be taped for his first comments. When told about our mission – to reduce violence surrounding elections by bringing nonpartisan truth to local radio audiences – he scoffed. He told us that violence is “inevitable”. My heart sank. I began to wonder if we can do anything if even the minor party doesn’t see a better tomorrow for Uganda.
When he allowed the interview to formally begin, he spoke of how violence during election season is caused by mismanaged publicity and he intends to run things differently. He spoke at great length but barely said anything. I asked him to clarify how his campaign would differently manage publicity, and as the candidate looked at me quizzically, my fellow journalists hushed me. He had already answered the question, they said. No need to press for details.
I was astonished. My experience with journalism has primarily consisted of requesting details, clarification, and committal to an idea. I have never taken a first answer as a final answer, even for seemingly inconsequential things like opinions about athletic pride at Park University. Something like this – something real, something that impacts lives – made me feel even more strongly that we should call the politician to task on his wishy-washy statement. “I’ll do it differently” would never be enough of an answer to me. I want to know: What would he do differently? and Why does he think this new way will work? I felt frustrated.
We thanked him for his interview and began winding back through the city. We went past a craft shop and the library, and came across a building marked “The Former Youth Soldier Foundation”. My team directed me to follow them upstairs. I soon discovered that the foundation didn’t exist, but it was instead the Fort Portal headquarters of major party NRM – and also a dentist office.
A NRM officer greeted us. He eyed me suspiciously and asked one of the journalists why they would bring a “munzungu” (white person) to the NRM office. I explained that I’m a university student from the United States. He said, “Uh huh. What school?” I answered and that seemed to satisfy him, though he watched me with caution. I was on edge. I felt unwelcome, like an intruder. I wondered if I should leave. I didn’t ask any questions during this interview, because I felt that any questions would be seen as a judgement.
This officer was also wary of our mission and refused to be recorded for his initial statements. He echoed the minority party candidate’s sentiments that we are dreaming an impossible dream and generally wasting time. We might as well accept that elections will always mean violence in Uganda, he said.
When we didn’t leave, he conceded to the interview. However, he insisted that we give him several practice interviews and help him write down something to say that sounded intelligent. My eyes nearly fell out of my head as a journalist coached him on what to say – never would I instruct a source on what to say and what points to make! “Make sure you talk about the democratic ideals of the NRM,” said one.
Finally, we turned on the recorder. The officer spoke of educating the public as to peaceful protesting and other calm methods of self expression. When asked how the party intends to educate the public (a question we hadn’t prepped him on), he answered: “With education, of course.”
The journalists were very – and I would say, overly – polite in their investigations. They were satisfied with simplistic non-statements. Not even the elaborate spin we’re used to in the States, but dismissive (and very long-winded) answers. The politicians were very noncommittal and pessimistic. Perhaps they hope to wear down their audience by speaking for an excessive amount of time, so no one has the energy left to ask a question!
If I had been conducting the interviews myself, I would have asked for them to expand on specific statements. The NRM politician kept mentioning charts and graphs that would be helpful in developing peace, but didn’t offer to share those and my journalist friends never asked to see them. The fact that he was talking about them was enough.
It was a very different form of interviewing than I’ve experienced before. But, as Steve said, if I wanted to experience things as I’ve experienced them before, I would have stayed in Kansas City.