The following is an opinion piece by Ramadhan Obiero, Coordinator for the Kasarani Chapter:
It’s sad to see the way most Kenyans vote. Voting is our power. It’s our most obvious opportunity to exercise democracy. It’s the best chance we have to impact change. Yet, the system of elections in Kenya prevents wananchi (citizens) from voting for their best interests.
In the 2007 election, many people didn’t focus on quality leadership. Instead they turned to voting for political parties. But in Kenya, there are too many parties, too many acronyms floating around, too many empty campaign promises. It creates confusion easily. It’s far too difficult to research the candidates for every party, leaving many voters ignorant of the candidates. Even attempts to research parties could turn fruitless since political parties are all too willing to cover up their candidate’s tarnished records. If we were to dive deep into the records of the government workers who create these parties, we’d find massive corruption scandals. Unfortunately most voters still end up going to the polls to vote for the political party, not the candidate.
Those who are voted into office are same people who have already had a hand in government. They’re voted in over and over again. As they become greedy with power they find ways to avoid accountability for the money and programs that should be for wananchi. Yet, we don’t see this cycle we’re stuck in. We find it much easier to align ourselves with a political party.
Why is it Kenyans are so tied to voting along party lines? Besides the complex nature of Kenya’s party system, the most prominent cause is tribalism. In the 2007 election, the front-runners were known to be leaders of their respective tribes. Voters elected whoever they felt would favor their people most. They believe they’re voting for their best interests, yet it is not always the case. For example, having the ever-coveted Parliamentary majority doesn’t always mean your tribe will benefit the most. Ultimately, the wealthy benefit most, regardless of tribe.
The second reason parties dictate voter behavior is a general lack of awareness. People tend to vote with the masses, wanting to align themselves with the winner. The candidate who puts on the best show is perceived as the likely “winner.” If he looks tough and talks smooth he’s won the voters. They don’t see that he may be corrupt, dishonest, and dangerous for Kenya. With so many parties to research, most people don’t have the time or resources to educate themselves enough. So they end up voting for the big parties, the ones that are famous. Unfortunately those are ones that have always been part of the government. They are not the ones we can trust to affect change.
The third reason we see such party allegiance is the lack of employment. Unemployment makes people desperate for jobs. It gives candidates the opportunity to take advantage of such desperation. By claiming he will create tons of new jobs, a candidate wins the unemployed population’s votes. When you cannot feed your family, and someone promises you the opportunity to work, why would you need to do any more research on him? That candidate will get a huge percentage of the votes without standing for anything but an empty campaign promise.
So how do we move past this issue? How do we get people educated enough to use their votes wisely? Education and awareness have to start at the grassroots level. Today, most organizations see a large problem and try to create a equally large band-aid solution. Many civic education initiatives are not community-driven, meaning that they are unable to create sustainable solutions. A common approach is for organizations to come into a community like Baba Dogo and tell citizens a few things so we feel informed, so we feel empowered. Yet, there’s so much information lacking, which means that organization will need to return in the future.
Soon, we’ll be electing county governments. I would say more than half of slum residents have no idea how this system will work. There’s a need for community education, but a single colorful chart or forum, at the end of the day, leaves the community hanging, still in the dark about many things, and means that the organization needs to keep seeking more funds to come back and do more education in the future.
The most sustainable solution involves local community education. We need grassroots movements to create awareness and unity. The big leaders will divide us, and big organizations often do the same by privileging some community members over others and creating competition over the resources they provide.
We need to take control over what happens to our community. That’s one of the reasons Sisi ni Amani is creating the Community Manifesto. If we elect a leader in 2012, he needs to do what we ask for our community. We can’t be afraid of losing CDF funds. We can’t be afraid of being punished by our leaders. We need to do what’s best in the long run for our community. That involves educating our neighbors so we can elect the best leader possible.
If a grassroots movement is going to be successful it needs to be gradual. We can’t model ourselves after the big leaders in this country, who only do anything in the year leading up to their reelection. We need to do small things over a long period of time. That’s how you change a system. We fight a little, then live a little. People in this country—both politicians and voters—need to learn that real power lies down here at the bottom. Businesses are learning it. Safaricom is so successful because they began catering to the slum communities by creating 10 and 20 bob scratch cards. Their profits increased tremendously. There are enough of us here to make a real impact. This is where the power is and the sooner our people realize that, the better for us all.
It’s our power to put the best leader in office and hold them accountable for their actions. We can either be enslaved by voting or we can be freed by voting. It’s our decision. And we will be freed by the way we vote if we can forget ethnicity and wealth, and focus on leadership and vision.