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Ethnicity, clan, race are challenges to electoral boundaries

By | Published Thu, March 15th 2012 at 00:00, Updated Thu, March 15th 2012 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Lilian Mahiri-Zaja

When Michela Wrong published, 'It's Our Turn To Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower', there was outrage amongst some of our political class. The book gives an account of how the British colonial government introduced ethnicity in Kenya when it took a decision to divide the land into Native Reserve lands which were occupied on tribal basis thereby literally drawing ethnic boundaries in our society. It was the beginning of "the call of the tribe".

It is a reality that the politics of identity have taken centre-stage the world over. There is now a never-ending debate over what defines us as a nation, what our public values are and so on. We are divided on whether we want to be defined by the "politics of difference" or the "politics of homogeneity".

In his book, Diversity and Distrust, Stephen Macedo defines diversity as "a heightened consciousness of gender, race and ethnicity."

This brings us to the big question-is diversity synonymous with difference? The classical form of the nation-state, where the state controlled heterogeneous populations no longer exists. Instead, globalisation and control of economic and political power is encouraging those who cannot fit into the emerging competitive systems to call for distinctiveness and identity. Everyone claims to be marginalised but you never get to hear by whom or by what.

Unless deliberate efforts are made to guide diversity, we end up killing collective identity. The triangle of democracy, human rights and cultural diversity provides an opportunity for new public policies that transform and re-ignite the notion of nation-state.

Parochial dimension

Although elections are about leadership and representation, in young democracies like Kenya, it is often perceived as a process of indentifying a protector-cum-provider for the community, clan and sometimes the individual. Elections thus become the vehicle with which voters identify the brave and endowed to protect and provide for the community.

This mind-set and practice hugely contributes to the negative attributes associated with elections. They are the cause of the emotive and divisive of politics and electioneering. Add the demarcation of electoral units and you have a volatile, polarising situation.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) recently carried out the boundary delimitation exercise for constituencies and wards. Almost each of the eight teams in the county forums was confronted by passionate appeals to curve out enclaves of tribal or clan uniformity for them. However, the Constitution also requires the IEBC to ensure equitable representation of the people and it stipulates a criterion which was adhered to by the Commission.

The Constitution envisages that the boundary delimitation will be conducted in a manner that entrenches objectivity and consistency taking into account our diversity.

At the conclusion of the exercise, the Commission observed that there is a general perception that delimitation of boundaries is linked to resource allocation.

The electorate believe their socio-economic survival is pegged on getting their own candidate to articulate their issues. The "we-ness", the "togetherness" takes a parochial dimension to mean immediate community concerns and not national concerns.

It is then that they consider it a virtue engaging in electoral fraud because the overriding goal of getting one of their own at the top position is a cherished gesture, the means notwithstanding. The delimitation was mistaken for devolution and allocation of resources and the public fought for resources and institutions such as schools and factories.

Ethnicity encourages electoral fraud. The stuffing of ballot boxes is a product of ethnicity. When all officials at a polling station are all from the same race, it is most likely they connive to stuff the ballots boxes with some of the ballots belonging to voters who do not turn up. They believe they must do a favour to "their candidate".

IEBC has made effort to ensure its processes are transparent and fair. We advertised for positions and for procurement of goods. We have automated processes, both administrative and electoral, to ensure efficiency and transparency.

Embrace diversity

The predecessor of IEBC, the IIEC, successfully piloted the electronic voter registration in 2010. The registration of voters and tallying of results during the by-elections and the Referendum on a new Constitution were accomplished efficiency because of technology. IEBC will continue to explore was of strengthening democracy through technological innovations.

But we can never achieve cohesion in diversity if there is no fairness and democracy. The sense of belonging is essentially an economic and survival function. A leader with strong values would always nurture diversity.

The Constitution provides us with a great opportunity to nurture true democratic practice and embrace diversity positively for developmentand to break out of our ethnic enclaves and build a borderless nation.

Writer is Vice-Chairperson, IEBC.