NAIROBI, Kenya: The enhanced continuous voter registration abroad officially ended yesterday, with hardly 10,000 new registrations. This against an anticipated 1 million potential voters, or so. Was it worth it? The impact of it will only be seen in the coming months and years. This was the right thing to do, even if we were to register only 100 voters! It is their inalienable, God-given right, and also a civic duty. Those who make great effort to register and/or mobilize others to do so, in some cases at great expense financially and time-wise, must be complimented.
Nonetheless, the question must be asked: why were the actual registrations so low? The Kenya Diaspora Alliance (KDA) and affiliates have been at the forefront of agitation for diaspora voting and other citizen rights for about 30 years. The efforts have included litigation up to the Supreme Court, lobbying highest offices on the land, presenting petitions, roadshows across the globe, and many more. Below is our take on the dismal performance:-
1) Failing to Plan (Properly), is Planning to Fail
We consider this old adage the singular most significant reason for the low registration levels, and we communicated as much to IEBC through open letters. The diaspora constituency is a very complex and diverse one. It requires proper planning. The Supreme Court in “KDA vs Republic of 2015” ruling directed IEBC to file reports every year of plans and infrastructure put in place to register diaspora voters with both Speakers of Parliament and the President. This has never happened. Adequate preparation and planning is an absolute requisite for successful enlightenment, mobilization and registration of diasporas. And it is not enough to do this only with Embassies and High Commissions. Mistake #2.
At the beginning of last November, KDA hosted a very successful ‘Diaspora Mainstreaming’ Webinar that was meant to be a build-up for a successful diaspora voter enfranchisement. The promotion ran thereafter for a month, with over 1.6 million views from 127 different countries recorded. It culminated into the 8th Annual Kenya Diaspora Homecoming Convention in December, whose theme, however, was ‘remittances’. While IEBC participated at the Webinar through a senior officer, the will to collaborate, build and maintain momentum thereafter (and clarity of plans) was absent. The event was co-hosted with Elections Observation Group (ELOG), which later hosted a National Conference on ‘Election Preparedness’, graced also by IEBC and KDA, among other key actors. During the Conference, KDA submitted to IEBC that ‘with the arrangements in place, should they register 100,000 diaspora voters, they would be very lucky’. Time has vindicated us. This even after IEBC Chair traveled to London, and during a presentation he estimated they would be able to register at least 50% of those eligible. It turns out that even getting 1% is not child play. Had we built upon the November Webinar, and maintained momentum especially on social media where most diasporas are, results would have been different. KDA has in the past been an Official Partner and Stakeholder in IEBC’s planning. Going forward, this is a matter hopefully to revisit for common good.
2) Embassies & High Commissions elected to Work with Newcomers Juba (South Sudan) and Doha (Qatar) appear to be the only two stations that were able to break the magic 1,000 strand. While the idea of KDA was mooted in Delaware, USA, it was first actualized in Juba. For Qatar, the compliments must be shared with the Qatar Diaspora SACCO. Elsewhere, the figures weren’t impressive at all. Worse, the major destinations, USA and UK. The Missions elected to work with and rolled red carpets to new comers in this game, neglecting traditional, established community networks and their leaders. Work with the new, yes, but don’t discard the old. They are gold! A few government emissaries and IEBC officials were sent to target destinations across the globe. The results are out there for all to see. And no single entity can lay claim to the majority of those who ended up registering. In this regard, efforts by Ambassador in Qatar, and Commissioner Justus Nyang’aya in the USA are exceptions, and deserve commendation. This despite the USA turning low numbers. The mistake to rely exclusively on Embassies is not new; it happened first in 2012, during the National Manpower Survey by KNBS that was meant to cover diaspora as well. The recent Remittances Survey by CBK wasn’t an exception either. Kila mji ina Mzee wake; you go to Berlin or Kigali, people will tell you for matters Kenyan, look for so and so!
Embassies are important, but on their own way inadequate. On average, barely more than 5-10% of Kenyans in a jurisdiction ever visit or have anything to do with an Embassy. And the story is the same in Canberra as it is in Pretoria. Perhaps this was planned to fail from day 1: voter suppression?
3) Inconvenience and Cost to Register
The only day we shall have true ‘democratic inclusion – theoretically 100%’, is the day we shall introduce mobile and online (electronic) voting. We pioneered this with MPesa, why can’t we use MKura, M-Vote and i-Vote.net, all which are proudly Kenyan products that are secure and available? Some use cutting edge trust technologies – block-chain. To expect a senior diasporian residing in Fiji to pay $5,000 to travel 1st class to Kenya (spending over 30 hours), and repeat the same 3 months later to vote is to ask for too much. That’s 1 million Shillings, and you haven’t factored in spouse, children etc. The situation isn’t any better from someone who has to travel from Seattle to Los Angeles or Washington DC, or Aberdeen (Scotland) to London to register, and stay overnight in costly hotels. There were even senior community members who offered their offices to be used, hired shuttles to ferry voters across cities, hosted barbeque parties, ran media shows, etc. With proper coordination and cooperation, much more would have been achieved. It is unacceptable for IEBC to feign lack of laws on electronic voting, while aspects of our electoral process is already electronic, notably biometrics.
In the absence of mobile/electronic registration, the next best thing would be to have mobile registration centres. The Embassies and High Commissions could lease temporary office space, for instance in Johannesburg where significant numbers of Kenyans reside, to facilitate easy registration. But then, one may ask: how come even those in Tswane (formerly Pretoria) itself didn’t come out to register? Apathy.
4) Voter Apathy and Disillusionment
To say that Kenyans (including diasporas) have been deeply disappointed and disgruntled by leadership, past and present – more so the Jubilee Administration is an understatement. There are many Kenyans on social media who have said: can’t they just give us back our country the way they found it? These are not idle concerns, despite the few positive notable achievements. The massive public debt, with no commensurate ROI to show for it is a dark spot. Besides, despite the new Constitution proffering public participation, the government has rarely involved the citizenry in governance. To the extent that even a popular initiative to change the Constitution has to be chaperoned by leadership! Matters haven’t been helped by claims of election rigging: it is not those who vote, but those who count the votes that matter. Even devolution that was meant to help, hasn’t. Few counties have much to show for it. Joblessness, ravaging poverty, hopelessness, nepotism, clientelism, etc are very much order of the day. Leaving youth and diasporas with little to no enthusiasm to register to vote. It will be an uphill task to surmount this sad predicament. Yet the elite prefer it that way – a perfect form of voter suppression. Abated, deliberately or inadvertently with administrative hurdles.
5) Administrative and Logistical Hurdles
Last but not least, were the glaring impediments that IEBC itself put on the way of diaspora voter registration! Why on earth, for instance, would IEBC insist on voters using exclusively (valid) passports, while the law allows the option of national ID? And this despite the earlier experience with EAC voters that prompted KDA in 2015 (and now, Patriot Okiya Omtatah) to go to court to remove that restriction? Had IEBC consulted sufficiently with diaspora community leaders, such mistakes would have been avoided pronto. Then in the case of Germany, the registration materials understandably were taken to another city, far away from the target, Berlin. In London, officials were days late on arrival ostensibly for lack of travel documents which one would have thought were prepared earlier, and with no prompt communication even to the High Commission. Then, why give diasporas only 2 weeks to register, while voters at home had a combined 7 weeks? Diasporas actually needed more, given the circumstances of distance, geography, and above else the fact that there is no continuous voter registration in those centres. And more. Then of course there were factors beyond human control: storms and snow in some places, ravaging COVID-19 that impaired one arrangement or another, etc.
All in all, there are many useful lessons learnt. It was a worthy effort, and despite the fact that the 13 destinations alone, out of a possible 50, where Kenya has embassies and high commissions is far inadequate, as KDA and affiliates we are grateful that at least some effort has been made to enfranchise diasporas. We appeal to all those who have registered to ensure they turn up on voting day to cast their vote and exercise their democratic right to elect leaders of choice.