Boundaries review could jolt national census

[Photo: Courtesy]
Last week, I analysed the politics of the boundaries review and promised to look at the politics of the forthcoming census this week. Every 10 years, the country carries out a national census, counting the number of people living in Kenya and assessing their socio-economic status. While this process is often presented as an non-controversial, technical process, census are known to be politically charged processes. Nonetheless, this time round, the census is likely to be more politically-charged because of the boundaries review which is happening at around the same time and which depends partly on the outcome of the census.

World over, censuses and other processes of gathering and analysing demographic data are often highly political processes across the world. In the developed countries, news of “minority“ populations increasing faster rate than the “dominant“ groups gives rise to moral panics about declining cultural and political power of the dominant group. But such issues are even more pertinent in the developing countries where Judith Butler’s view that how states organise populations places some people at a higher risk of death than others, is real and material. The violent contestations of census processes and outcomes in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, are well known.

Here at home we just need to look back to our 2009 census for a reminder of how political this process can be. Given that sentence, a few points of contestation arose. The first regarded the question on ethnicity which some people felt should not have been asked because it simply didn’t matter. However, others think that information about peoples ethnicity is important to know. The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), the agency charged with carrying out the census, noted that people responded to the question positively during the pilot. As such it was not removed from the data collection tools. The other major issue revolved around the numbers that emerged from some areas including Turkana, Wanjiru and Mandera, which even occasioned a delay in the announcement of the official census results. Wycliffe Oparanya, then Planning minister, reported inconsistencies including high growth rates but what inconsistent with birth and death rates as well as age and sex profiles that deviated from the normal. This was, unsurprisingly, disputed by leaders from the region. Similarly, Muslim leaders disputed that only 11 per cent of the population professed the Islamic faith – with some timing this is an effort by the government to diminish the influence of Muslims in the country.     

Donald Campbell, a psychologist and social scientist, argued that “The more a quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures.” Where it is already known that population numbers will be a key determinant of political decisions about the distribution of resources, it’s not surprising that people will attempt to influence the process.

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This leads me to the second point which relates to the boundaries review. That the census and the boundaries review will be unfolding concurrently – even as the boundaries review is meant to be informed by the results of the census – portends some challenges. For one, we already know not only that disputes will emerge from each process independently but that disputes from the census will speed over to the boundaries review process. Additionally, following Campbell’s Law, it is obvious that politicians – knowing too well the consequences of this census result – will stop at nothing in their efforts to influence the outcome. IEBC must be prepared to handle the flow over of disputes emanating from this process.

KNBS has already indicated that they will digitise the process this time around. This is a welcome move but they should note that the introduction of technology to politically sensitive processes does not eliminate contestation. One hopes that the KNBS leadership was taking notes as the election drama was unfolding – and that they are ready for the forthcoming encounter.

- The writer is a PhD Candidate in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. [email protected]

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