Every four to five years, we suffer campaigns by people vying to win seats and represent us after the general election, many of whom harp on and on about how it is our civic duty to vote. That if we don’t vote, we must not complain about “poor leadership” and the thieves that will get into power. This year, the man leading this hype train is Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, who has never missed an opportunity to insult Kenyans when he sees it.
He was in Meru County when he said that billions of shillings go to the county governments for grassroots development to spur economic growth, but this would not happen if the right leaders – who care about the welfare of Kenyans – are not elected. This man does not see the irony of his words. He is currently presiding over the largest and longest doctors’ strike in our nation’s history, and health is directly linked to our welfare as citizens. He does not seem to care that people are dying because of his refusal to honour his government’s agreement with our healthcare providers.
He has presided over the most corrupt government in Kenyan history, and has been known to deflect back to us, his employers, whenever he is put to task about his failures. According to him, corruption begins with us. Yet it is during his tenure that the national government’s corruption scandals have been most prominent – the NYS scandal and the Afya House scandal, for example. So I fail to understand whether he is trying to shoot himself in the foot or not – because given his words, he and his cabal should be the first to leave.
I could rail against his leadership, or lack thereof, for a long time. However, I want to focus on his statement that implies it is our duty to vote, and that those who don’t vote should not complain about poor leadership. This does not have any basis in reality, because in Kenya, neither voter registration nor voting are compulsory. Many Kenyans, however, espouse his views. It is usually in response to prejudicial (mostly tribal) dog whistle politics that say “register to vote so that our guy may win, if you don’t, the other guy will win, and it will be your fault.”
Voting in Kenya is a right, not a duty. Our constitution states that every adult citizen has the right, without unreasonable restrictions to be registered as a voter; to vote by secret ballot in any election or referendum; and to be a candidate for public office, or office within a political party of which the citizen is a member and, if elected, to hold office. It also states that the rights and freedoms stated therein belong to each individual and are not granted by the State, and that it is a fundamental duty of the State and every State organ to observe, respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights and fundamental freedoms in the Bill of Rights.
Yet, the right to vote is the only right that politicians, including the president, are willing to promote. They regularly infringe on our human dignity by failing to provide adequate services such as education and healthcare, our right to equality and freedom from discrimination by failing to pass the two-thirds gender bill, our freedom of expression through Ezekiel Mutua’s relentless campaign against creativity, freedom of the media by attacking press freedom – the list goes on.
We have had Kenyans using their votes to bargain with officials – Mau Mau war veterans from Tharaka Nithi, for example, have threatened to boycott the 2017 elections due to neglect by the national government. They have resolved not to register as voters because the government has failed to honour pledges to reward them for liberating the country from colonialism. The government has also failed to release compensation from the British government for the crimes committed against them – it’s anyone’s guess what may have happened to the money.
In Isiolo, people have also said that they will not register to vote if the government does not address the water shortage in Kinna ward specifically. This shortage has been ongoing for two years, and the women and children of these communities have to walk four kilometres to get water. There are five boreholes with more than enough water, and more than enough tanks provided by NGOs and the government, but there are no generators to pump the water. This is the height of callous and inept government.
Kenyans should not have to barter their right to vote for their rights to public goods and services that their taxes pay for – this is modern day colonialism. How are we supposed to make informed choices at the ballot when voter education programmes are being scrapped? There is undue emphasis placed on the single act of voting and little to none placed on the work that should happen afterwards to sustain our democracy and ensure that both national and county governments deliver their mandate.
Kenne Mwikya says:
I refused to register or to vote for this reason, my refusal to participate in reducing the democratic process, from an expansive democracy to the act or event of voting.
To which Okwiri Oduor responds:
I did not register for a similar reason. It was not out of apathy, I shared in the concerns and anxieties that gripped Kenya. But the ruling elite, no matter what masks they wore, had interests more similar to each other than different. And for me, the prognosis was poor. There was little I could identify with, and even that little was flimsy. It was not enough for me to take part in empty ritual.
I was very interested in the youth and women agendas, for example, but the political parties presented them in a way that was completely different from anything I had in mind. After looking at what the parties said about women and the youth, there was no way for me to select any of the aspirants. Had I chosen to vote, I would have been forced to use different criteria to make decisions on the political leadership. This was unacceptable.
You mentioned democracy, earlier. I have qualms about the nature of our democracy itself. It did not matter whether one went to the polls or not; the ruling class had its own agenda and we were there to make sure it was the legitimate agenda. I dispute the idea that the vote was the ultimate culmination of a citizen’s civic responsibilities, that after this event, one was required to do little else for five years.
Voting in Kenya as it stands is a farce – the public only goes to the polls to rubber-stamp the ruling class’s agenda, after which they disappear, rob and pillage our country, and return after five years to yet again manipulate us into doing this all over again. We need to expand our vision for our democracy past election cycles – focus on the provision of public goods and services, institutional reform, and protection of human rights. This requires considerable time, effort and commitment, and will not be achieved when we dance to the tune of our politicians whenever they throw a look or shilling our way.
Until then, watakula nyama, na tutaendelea kumeza mate.