With just six months to go until Kenya’s general elections, preparations are in full swing. But the Kenyan authorities seem to be struggling in at least one area: voter registration.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has been trying to get young adults who have become eligible to vote since the last polls in 2017 to register for the upcoming elections. In October, the commission set an ambitious target of adding 6 million people to the voter register within a month, but only a quarter of that number showed interest. In January, the IEBC tried again. Today, near the end of the exercise, it has only netted 12 percent of the remaining 4.5 million potential voters it was targeting.
This has set off alarm bells among the political classes and commentariat. Politicians eyeing a run for office and their allies have been issuing increasingly strident calls for youth to go out and register, especially those in what they consider to be their strongholds. One county governor, after only 5,500 out of 130,000 potential new voters in his region turned up to register, took the unprecedented step of giving all county workers two days off to get family members and friends to register. Another has illegally directed hospitals in his county to deny services to people who have not registered.
Among civil society types, the concern is also mounting, with suggestions that by refusing to vote, the youth would be locking themselves out of the decision-making rooms where their future will be decided. “It is not elections that will bring change but, rather, the robust participation of the youth in these elections as both voters and aspirants (at all available levels),” wrote ARTICLE 19’s Eastern Africa Regional Director Mugambi Kiai.
I do not share in the angst. Quite the opposite, in fact. The fetishization of elections as the primary vehicles for increased and effective popular participation in governance runs counter to evidence from around the world that elections primarily benefit politicians, not voters. Kiai acknowledges as much in his article when he asks, “How many times have we repeated to [the youth] that voting will change things—only for that promise to be promptly broken and translate into their hollow realities and futures?”
In Kenya, as elsewhere across the globe, the preoccupation with elections to the detriment of other, more important forms of democratic participation is destroying democracy. And it reflects a crucial change in attitudes to state power that has intensified over the last two decades, following the demise of the quarter-century dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi at the end of 2002.
Prior to that, resistance to the regime had focused on putting pressure on those in power in the executive branch and in parliament to implement reforms safeguarding personal and political freedoms and free and fair democratic competition, including elections. It was about fixing the system rather than taking power.
Though the civil society organizations that formed the bulwark of that resistance—the media, community groups, non-governmental organizations, faith-based entities—worked with opposition politicians, they remained, as a group, largely distinct from them. It is this struggle that ultimately birthed a new constitution in 2010.
However, the wave that unseated Moi and the KANU party—which had ruled for nearly 40 years, reestablishing the colonial state that independence was meant to abolish—also demolished this Chinese wall between civil society and politics. After a quarter century of struggle, Moi and KANU had become the personification of all that was wrong in Kenya.
Coupled with a narrative coming out of the West blaming African problems on the lack of good leaders and good governance, rather than the systems of extraction inherited from colonialism, this seeded the idea that change required capturing state power. It was not enough to work for a system that protected Kenyans’ rights regardless of who was in power. State power was the solution, not the problem. And it needed to be wielded by the “right” people, which meant Kenyans had to vote “wisely.”
So in 2002, Kenyans did indeed vote wisely, putting in power members of the opposition—civil society and media stalwarts who had been loudest in demanding change. It was a time of unprecedented euphoria. An opinion poll found Kenyans to be the most optimistic people on earth. On the streets, citizens were arresting policemen for demanding bribes. It seemed the country had been cleansed of the filth of Moi and KANU, and was now set for a new era of justice and abundance.
Of course, it did not turn out that way. Moi was gone, but the new crop of “good” rulers have, in the last 20 years, proven to be just as adept at running a corrupt, brutal kleptocracy as he was. Voting wisely, and even running for office, did not prove to protect against an oppressive system. As Kenyans once again prepare to cast ballots, the 2010 constitution continues to be more honored in the breach than the observance, and the system of colonial plunder it was meant to undo continues to chug away.
In such circumstances, urging young people to register to vote is simply making them fodder for voter turnout machines, legitimizing electoral contests that feed the winners into a colonial system that incentivizes and rewards corruption. For more than 60 years, Kenyans have queued up to vote, and, at every election, thrown out between half and two-thirds of “bad” incumbents. Yet their “good” replacements have proven little better. So rather than bemoan the fact that the youth do not want to play this game of musical chairs, we who have been playing should recognize that the problem is not who is sitting when the music stops. It is the game itself.