Free, Fair and Peaceful

UNTAG Journal | Jan 5, 1990

They came from all over the Namibian people, young and old, educated and illiterate, rich and poor, of all colours and tithes and many religions, drove in cars, rode buses Or bakkies, flew in by air or trudged long miles in the summer sun to discharge their sacred trust to vote for freedom and change. They stood patiently in long, serpentine queues for many hours, in some cases even overnight, with a rare eagerness and stoicism — firm of purpose, resolute and determined. Some fainted, others walked home to fetch meals, young mothers shyly fed their babies, chairs quickly materialised for the old and infirm. The Namibian people braved the inconveniences with dignity and fortitude. And. even more importantly – peacefully, like mature citizens. There was not a single incident of mischief. Over five gruelling days they voted – almost every eligible woman and man. And. they won. It was the people’s victory. ‘There are no losers,” said Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, the Special Representative in Namibia of the Secretary General of the United Nations. In a text book demonstration of democracy, the Namibian people exercised their long awaited franchise in a manner worthy of a great civilisation. Namibia held a torch to Africa – indeed to the whole world – and silenced the critics who had been predicting violence and bloodshed and doom. Also, UNTAG’s successful supervision of the registration, campaigning and the elections, gave a new impetus to the relevance of the United Nations in finding amicable solutions to the numerous problems faced by our strife-tom world.

The Organisation

Following the completion of registration of voters in September 1989 (a total of 701,483 voters had been registered), a fairly lively election campaign ensued. There were 10 political parties in the fray and each launched a vigourous campaign to propagate its election manifesto and to seek the people’s vote. 72 members were to be elected for the Constituent Assembly: each party winning “seats” indirect proportion to the total number of votes polled by it in the whole country. Numerous political rallies were held. The speeches made at them were given wide coverage by the media which, though not always entirely objective – some newspapers. particularly, made no secret of their political affiliations – played a stellar role in the election process. Party T-shirts. buttons and flags were much in evidence, as also posters and hoardings. The Administrator-General’s advertisement campaign to allay fears and encourage people to cast their ballots freely, went a long way in contributing to the massive turnout during the elections. All the political parties behaved very responsibly and. barring stray incidents of alleged  intimidation, electioneering was entirely peaceful and dignified. UNTAG district and regional chiefs kept a close watch on the proceedings and were often instrumental in preventing minor disagreements from developing into ugly conflagrations. UNTAG CIVPOL (Civil Police) monitors attended each rally, carried out extensive patrolling, showed the t IN Flag in remote areas and speedily investigated complaints made by aggrieved citizens.

Meanwhile, the UNTAG Electoral Division spared no effort to ensure that preparations for the poll and counting of votes proceeded smoothly. It was a herculean task. Mr Hisham Omayad, the Director of the Electoral Division, Mr John Lee Truman, his deputy and their staff worked tirelessly on a war footing — in fact a military style operations room was also set up— to get together, train, equip and move the UNTAG election supervisors to their duty stations on time. They also had to closely coordinate their activities with the AG’s Chief Electoral Officer and his staff and keep UNTAG regional and district chiefs posted of all developments and aware of their own responsibilities.

Ultimately, it was an exercise in logistics. In the 23 electoral districts into which Namibia had been divided, a total of 358 polling stations were to be established. Of these, 215 were static (open daily at the same place in urban areas) and 143 were mobile (open at a new place everyday in rural area) The number of polling stations in each district varied in accordance with the number of register voters.  While Bethanie had one static and one mobile polling station each, Owambo had 124 static and 13 mobile stations, including four which were air-mobile in helicopters.

The UNTAG staffing pattern in the polling stations complemented that of the AG’s staff. In static polling stations, the UNTAG team leader was from the UN Secretariat, there were two team members from UN member states and one military member who was either an observer/ monitor or from one of the units of the UNTAG Military Force. In mobile polling stations too the staffing pattern was the same except that there was only one team member from the UN member states. In stations where the AG’s staff had a larger number of members, UNTAG team strengths were correspondingly increased.

27 UN member states contributed 885 election supervisors who were flown in from their home countries in a number of chartered flights. All of them were government officials who were well experienced in conducting elections in their own countries. However, they gamely sat through a concentrated training capsule on the conduct of the Namibian elections and the duties of UNTAG election supervisors, organised at various places by the Electoral Division. UNTAG T-shirts sold like hot cakes as these officials prepared to sally forth for the elections donning UNTAG colours. They were obviously elated with their experience and eager to do their bit for Namibia and the United Nations. Their keenness was infectious and enlivened the sagging spirits of UNTAG members who had been withering under the Desert sun for over eight months.

The United Nation Secretariat provided

The United Nations Secretariat provide 510 election supervisor whom 200 were form the UNTAG civilian already in situ. Of the remaining 310,160 had been in  Namibia previously during the registration process and Only 150 were on their first field trip to Namibia. They too came by chartered and commercial flights from Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Bangkok, Geneva, Nairobi, New York, San Tiago and Vienna and attended training seminars on arrival. Accommodating all the incoming election supervisors at Windhoek was a harrowing experience as all hotels were full (in one hotel the occupancy rate was 135 percent!). They were lodged in primary and secondary school campuses and dined at the UNTAG cafeteria in Troskie build-ing. Some were, of course, despatched straight to their field destinations on arrival.

The Force Commander of the UNTAG Military Force graciously agreed to provide 358 election monitors. The AG’s people were not prepared to have them in uniform in the polling booths and the military monitors did not look too kindly on performing this task, beyond the call of normal duty, in civilian dress. After all, an army uniform is a badge of honour and a matter of pride for a soldier. But, soldiers obey orders and they turned out for the elections in their Sunday best.

They received extensive training for their unusual assignment and soon acquired the all-pervading UNTAG election spirit. The military member of each UNTAG team was the odd-job-cum-handyman. He manned the VHF radio (“walkie-talkie”),  drove the much feared  Landcruiser (civilian staff had been warned to stay away form driving the landcruiser because of its propensity to turn turtle without notice in the hands of inexperienced drivers), and acted as the UNTAG Ballot Box Officer. UN military observers are known to be a hardy lot who are often called upon to perform diverse tasks in each mission, but acting as election supervisors was a unique assignment and a new feather in their famed Blue Berets.

The UN ClVPOL provided approximately 1000 police monitors, two to three per polling station. They assisted SWAPOL in the maintenance of law and order around the polling stations, provided escorts for ballot boxes being transported to counting areas, provided guards for ballot boxes and generally maintained a reassuring presence. They endured long hours of duty without relief with commendable fortitude and set an example worthy of emulation.

Communications, engineer and logistics support for the elections was provided by the Military Force. It was meticulously planned and painstakingly executed. “Operation Order Number I of 1989 – Namibia Elections” was issued by the Force Commander and most of the civilian staff saw for the first time the elaborate layout and deep detail of an operation order. The logistics tasks included the setting up of reception centres at Windhoek International Airport and at some places in the North, the transportation of the electoral teams up to their deployment areas, the issue of individual camp kits, medical aid, fuel, repair and recovery. Individual camp kits included camp cots, mattresses, flashlights, anti-malaria kits, mosquito repellants, mosquito i nets, composite pack rations and a host of other items. Mobile teams were given quick lessons in elementary map reading by their military members. Reconnaissana the location of each poling station was carried out How-ever, inspite of all these precautions, one mobile team got lost in Kaokoland on the first day and could be found only after a frantic search of the area by an Italian helicopter patrol. Finally, by 6 November 1989, all the teams were in place, ready for the big day.

The Conduct

7 November 1989 dawned bright and clear over Windhoek. At  0700 hours the polling stations in the city were ready to receive the voters. In Katutura the long queues had to be seen to be believed. Those up front had joined the queue the previous evening. By 0800 hours, the queues were more than a kilometre long, winding through by-lanes and side streets. Hundreds of thousands of voters waited patiently for their turn in an orderly manner, showing commendable restraint. No slogans were shouted, there was no inter-party bickering, no attempts at intimidation or “booth capturing”, no garish music. In fact, everything was so normal and peaceful that the posse of foreign mediapersons who had descended on Namibia in the hundreds over the previous weekend, had nothing sensational to report and seemed visibly disappointed. In the event, the peaceful and orderly poll in Namibia was relegated to lower priority by TV and news editors the world over because of the spectacular and hitherto unimaginable breaking down of the Berlin Wall.

Elsewhere in Namibia too there was a massive turnout on the first day of polling. The queues in Owambo were equally long and many polling stations remained open well beyond the appointed time of 1900 hours. As in Windhoek. at other places too the voters were equally resolute and determined — and equally peaceful. As the day wore on and the queues moved inexorably on, it soon became quite clear that the Namibian voters were going to create a record of with their unprecedented turnout for the pre-independence elections.

The voting process itself was stringent and incorporated several checks and balances. The voter first had to produce his registration card and an identity document to prove that she or he was in fact eligible to vote. Voters who had registered in districts other than those in which they wished to vote, had to cast a “tendered ballot” — for subsequent verification of the registration documents in Windhoek. Then the voter’s fingers were inspected under ultraviolet light to determine whether they had been previously marked with the dye. The voter now surrendered his registration card after signing or affixing his thumbprint at the right place. The fingers were then marked with the dye. Then a ballot paper was torn off from the book, stamped on the back with the official stamp and issued to the voter. The voter now proceeded to one of the vacant compartments or booths to mark a cross in the box against the name of the party for which she or he wished to vote, folded the ballot paper and, after showing the official stamp at its back to the ballot box supervisor, put it in the ballot box. The whole process was closely monitored at every stage by the UNTAG election supervisors. Disputed cases were mutually resolved by the AG’s and UNTAG team leaders in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. Most of the election supervisors from UN member states commented that they had never before seen so elaborately organised an election and one so strictly controlled and monitored.

The bulk of the registered voters cast their ballot on the first two days. On 7 and 8 November, 32.84 and 31.85 percent, respectively, of the registered voters cast their votes. On 9 November the figure dropped to 18.62 percent and long queues were no longer evident. On 10 November it was only 8.64 percent. On Saturday, 11 November, the last day of polling, only 4.44 percent of the voters turned up at nearly empty polling stations. Overall, 96.40 percent of the registered voters actually voted — an all time record for any democratic election in which voting was not compulsory.

The AG’s staff and UNTAG election teams worked closely together through the five days of polling. The initial hesitation and aloofness quickly gave way to camaraderie and close cooperation. Many new friendships developed and many tall tales (from all corners of the world) were exchanged during the long hours of waiting on the last two days. When at 1900 hours on 11 November the “end of poll” message came over the radio, in most polling stations, the AG’s and UNTAG poll supervisors were ready to begin their farewell parties. Champagne flowed freely and there was a lot of back-slapping. The polling agents of the contending political parties had also developed close bonds of friendship with the election staff and they too joined in the merriment. In Katutura Career Training Centre polling station in Katutura, after the two team leaders had said a word of thanks to all present, everyone held hands and together sang Auld Langsyne — in Afrikaans, English, German, Japanese and a few not so easily discernible languages. After the inevitable exchange of souvenirs (including. in one case, the T-shirt off a guy’s back!) hugs, kisses and handshakes, everyone went home. The pattern was the same all over Namibia — at most polling stations, the proceedings ended with champagne and a braai. With such a spirit in evidence, Nambia’s future seems safe and bright.

Late in the evening on 11 November, Mr Martti Ahtisaari expressed his satisfaction with the polling and declared the voting process as free and fair.

The Result

The counting of votes commenced in each district centre on Monday 13 November. The tendered ballots were all verified individually at the Showgrounds Hall in Windhoek before being counted. By Monday evening the counting had been completed in small districts such as Bethanie and overall “trends” began to emerge. Counting continued through the night. As the results of each district came in, they were jointly verified by the Chief Electoral Officer and the Director of UNTAG’s Electoral Division, before being made public. Special hourly election bulletins on radio kept the people informed. By late Tues-day evening the picture was clear. SWAPO (the South West Africa People’s Organisation) and DTA (the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance) were the main contenders as anticipated. Only the tendered ballots remained to be counted. Of the total 701,483 registered voters, 680,688 had voted— a remarkable 96.40percent. Of these, 11.28 percent were tendered ballots. While Luderitz recorded the highest Percentage of votes, 105.24 percent (of which 24.90 percent were tendered ballots), Windhoek recorded the lowest, 90.71 percent. Owambo with an overall voting figure of 98.39 percent, had the lowest ratio of tendered ballots, 5.80 percent.

Another gratifying fact was that only 9,858 votes, 1.45 percent, were rejected. Obviously, the vigorous voter education drives launched by the AG, UNTAG and the political parties had paid rich dividends. As Mr. Martti Ahtisaari remarked at a press conference, “Some of the voters may be illiterate, but none of them are stupid.” It was an impressive track record for a people who were voting in only the first truly free and fair elections in their lives. By mid-day on Wednesday, 15 November, it was all over bar the shouting. The AG’s staff and Harry Neufeld’s UNTAG Computerisation and Central Registration Section spent the afternoon in collating and tallying the final results. At 1900 hours, in the lengthening shadows of the setting sun, the Chief Spokesman for the AG, Mr. Gerhard Roux, stepped up to a plethora of microphones and, as the world media waited with bated breath, announced the final results. In Namibia the proceedings were telecast live. He announced the total number of votes polled by each party, the number of seats won by each party in the Constituent Assembly and read out the list of members of the Constituent Assembly.

SWAPO polled 56.50 percent of the votes cast and obtained 41 seats in the Constituent Assembly. Its list of candidates was headed by Mr Sam Nujoma who had re_ turned to Namibia earlier in the year after over 30 years in exile. The DTA polled 28.14 percent of the votes cast and obtained 21 seats in the Constituent Assembly. The other successful parties were ACN with 3 seats, FCN and NNF and NPF with 1 seat each and UDF with 4 seats. Of the 72 members of the Constituent Assembly five are women.

At 2015 hours, Mr Martti Ahtisaari, the Special Representative of the UN  Secretay – General, held a press conference on the steps of Troskie Building. He compliment the Namibian People, the UNTAG Election teams and the AG’s staff and finally, certified the Namibian Independence Elections as free and FAIR.  And thus the curtain came down on Act II of the Namibian Independence Plan.

The Future

On Thursday, 16 November, SWAPO supporters organised a spontaneous Victory March though the streets of Windhoek, Khomasdal and Katutura. There was much waving of SWAPO flags and clenched fists. Hundreds of car horns blared forth in gay abandon. The joy on the participants faces came from the feeling that after years of colonial rule, they could at last expect to be their own masters. But, there was no violence, no drunken escapades, no intimidatory incidents, no loot or arson. The celebration was responsible, dignified and entirely peaceful. Its worst fall out was temporarily disrupted traffic.

This too was entirely in keeping with the conciliatory tone of the election campaign and SWAPO President Sam Nujoma’s call to the Namibian people to forget the past and work together to build a new nation. Some of the whites who had been disappointed with the results of the election, were heartened by the winning party’s restraint and exemplary behaviour. One of them wore a T-shirt which conveyed a message which augurs well for Namibia’s future: “I am staying”.

As we go to Press, the Constituent Assembly is in session and is making rapid progress in formulating a Constitution for an independent Namibia. The proceedings are taking place in a spirit of cooperation, goodwill and give and take.

As the last Act in the Namibian Independence plan gradually unfolds, one thing is certain: the Namibian people will get a Constitution and a Government worthy of their sacrifices, in consonance with their aspirations and capable of fulfilling their dreams. The comity of nations which Namibia will soon join in its own right will fervently hope that this young multi-party democracy will disprove the cliche that democracy in Africa means “One man, One vote- once”.