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59: From Afghanistan Today writer to politician

Khushqadam Usmani
Former Afghanistan Today reporter Khushqadam Usmani recounts why he ran as an independent candidate in the April 5 provincial council elections in the northern province of Badakhshan.
10.04.2014  |  Faizabad
Youth favourite: Usmani's campaign poster reads: 'Ustad (Teacher) Khushqadam Usmani, independent candidate for provincial  council in Badakhshan. Honesty, faith, service to people and  patriotism.' The lowest caption reads: 'A new face for a new beginning'. (Photos: Courtesy of Khushqadam Usmani)
Youth favourite: Usmani's campaign poster reads: 'Ustad (Teacher) Khushqadam Usmani, independent candidate for provincial council in Badakhshan. Honesty, faith, service to people and patriotism.' The lowest caption reads: 'A new face for a new beginning'. (Photos: Courtesy of Khushqadam Usmani)

I am Khushqadam Usmani. I was born into a farmer's family in Maimi Village, Darwaaz-e-Baala District in Badakhshan Province, where I did my elementary and secondary education.

After graduating from Fetrat High School, I wanted to enrol in higher education, but given my financial difficulties, I wasn't too hopeful. Nevertheless, I walked for 13 days to get to the capital of Badakhshan Province, Fayzabad and took the entrance exam for college. I passed. In 2006 I graduated from the School of Dari Literature at Badakhshan University.

College media pioneer

At university I was part of a group that founded a radio named Amo in Fayzabad to disseminate information. Later, we founded a weekly named Ebtehaaj.

I was extremely disturbed by the problems happening in my city. So I galvanized young people into peaceful demonstrations to make officials aware of the issues and seek ways to address them.

After graduating from the School of Dari Literature of Badakhshan University, I was recruited as a professor for the local Teacher Training College. I enjoyed the role and besides teaching my students, I got to talk to them about their responsibilities.

Time to run

Usmani talking to supporters at a campaign meeting in the candidate's hometown.

A while back, I decided to run for the provincial council in the April 5 elections that took place last week. I have two reasons for my decision. First, in the previous elections for the provincial council, the majority of the candidates were mullahs, illiterate community leaders and powerful individuals. Unfortunately, the youth were not represented and this meant that there was no contact between the provincial council, young people and civil society.

The second reason is that I am extremely disturbed by the problems my birthplace has been struggling with. Within the scope of my authority as a member of the provincial council, I hope that I would be able to address some of these problems. In my birthplace, people are very deprived of pretty much anything. In clinics, you can barely find any medicine. Officials say that the reason for this is that we still do not have roads. Officials walk on, but there are still no roads.

I resigned from my teaching job and I ran for the provincial council. It wasn't the money that encouraged me - I didn't even have enough to print posters. My friends’ encouragement and my own determination kept me going.

Youth appeal

My campaign relied heavily on young people, especially students. I did most of my campaigning through Facebook. Even before I ran for the provincial council, I did a poll to seek the youth’s opinion of my decision and the majority of poll respondents said they supported me. They sent in messages too. For instance, Najeeb Dehzaad, a poet, a journalist and comedy writer, wrote:

“Dear Usmani, I am very happy that you have decided to run for the provincial council. I am going to support you and I am proud that a professor runs for the provincial council. But in a society where votes are exchanged for head scarves and sandals, having an education or knowledge will serve nothing.”

I knew this was true. In a poor community like ours in Badakhshan, the issue of education and knowledge does not seem to be as important. What is important for people is money and power. It has never affected my decision, though.

When the provincial council campaigns officially began on March 4, other candidates spent a lot of money on renting facilities for their campaign teams and other extravagant daily costs. Since I did not have money to rent a house or a room, I decided to hold my meetings in my guest room at home and in local coffee shops. The majority of my campaign team were people I already knew or former students who worked for free and with no expectation for anything in return, putting up posters and arranging meetings for me.

No banknote, no vote

Campaign trail leads home: members of Khushqadam Usmani's campaign team hike to the former Afghanistan Today reporter and current Badakhshan Provincial Council candidate's home in the mountains in northern Afghanistan.

Some people contacted me and asked for money after meeting me. I had nothing to give them, nor did I want to give them anything. These people will just take money from anyone they can, not only me: They will take from other candidates too. They are just deceiving candidates and people. Unfortunately, it has now become a culture. Now, you have to pay to get people’s votes.

In March, together with my friends, I went to my birthplace for the first time in five years. Only people of that area who know it well can walk through the mountains. Those who are not used to the road are not able to.

Back home, I was warmly welcomed. Together with some mullahs, I went from mosque to mosque and after every prayer, I talked to the people. It was cold, so I was not able to hold a gathering outside, and there is no public space bigger than the mosque.

I gave a speech and people responded by asking me to address their problems if I won. Their demands were mainly for drinking water, clinics and bridges.

No fake promises

I did not make fake promises. I made promises based on the scope of the authorities of a member of the provincial council. My meetings with people went pretty well. The biggest problem was meeting with women. I did not get to talk to women other than my family members. In rural areas, I think it is men who make decisions for their women. 

Throughout my campaign I was welcomed by ordinary people, but I was threatened by local commanders too who now work for the government of Afghanistan. The reason is that they work for other candidates. Local commanders threatened my campaign team and supporters too. On the day of the elections, one of my supporters was even physically assaulted.

The campaign of terror worked and made my supporters afraid. Some would only agree to meet with me in the middle of the night. There are still gangs and powerful people in Fayzabad and Badakhshan Province at large and every week, another young man or woman gets knifed by one.

People, especially women, are mostly in support of good people, but they are afraid of powerful individuals. I got most of the votes in my birthplace and they were mostly female votes. But in several other places in the district, these powerful individuals stuffed ballot boxes for their own candidates.

Poll stations out of ballots by 10am

Unfortunately, it has now become a culture. Now, you have to pay to get people’s votes.

The main challenge in this election was not having enough ballots. For instance, in Chahar Bagh Village of Maimi District of Darwaz-e-Baala, only 1800 ballots were provided.for 9500 voters.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) was well aware of this issue, but somehow did not pay attention to it.

In terms of security, the Taliban threatened people not to vote in some areas, but people mostly defied the threats and came out in large numbers to vote anyway. In most designated voting areas, there were no ballots left at 10am. Other poll centres ran out by 2pm. Many people simply could not vote.

There was extensive fraud in the elections too.  But what is important for the people of Afghanistan is that the government must change. They wanted the elections to happen, even if not perfectly, and they wanted to change their future for the better through elections.

As of now, I do not know if I am a winner or not. What is important to me is that I got to tell voters that poor people are also citizens and can run for office. And for that, I am happy.