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Voter listing says a lot about you

By | March 24th 2010

Andrew Kipkemboi

For a while, the villager in me wrestled with the urbane and enlightened part of me. Where do I register as a voter in the ongoing voter registration? In Nairobi or in the village?

Certainly, after the turbulence of 2007/2008, it is natural that most of us make considerations on what stake we have in future electoral processes. No, I don’t buy the idea that I abdicate from our role to chose our leaders as a protest. But it is disheartening that someone could wish to be divorced from matters as grave as determining who their next President or MP is.

So, impulsively, I started to plan to travel the 300-plus kilometres to register at my place of birth. You may find that not only wasteful but also laughable. Why would an adult male of sound mind travel all that far to a place he hardly spends no more than seven days a year to cast his vote and then come back to the city where he spends 300 days of the year complaining of bad roads, poor water connection and garbage?

Trust me, there is always an irresistible inclination to always have your village constituency as a point of reference. Often among the many pleasantries that we exchange when we meet strangers is: Who is your MP? On the face of it, it means nothing more than an innocuous statement of how far you have come. Yet it is the embodiment of the deep-seated chauvinism and an indictment of our brittle unity.

In truth, ours is a society devoid of any shared feeling of belonging or destiny and where a mild strain exposes the deep fissures of ethnicity and the crushing group-think, that is the bane of our democracy. We feel safe when we congregate with like-minded villagers and vote for one of our own.

Obviously, it is what tribe means for many of us that has led to the fierce competition that often results in fatal consequences. The end has justified the means often blurring the line between democracy and the fierce, and often brutal rivalry. I may be wrong, but I am sure that a cunning politician is willing to pay for his voters in Nairobi to travel home and register.

Dismaying Apathy

This hazardous mix of tribe, poverty, mind-boggling illiteracy and unawareness continues to hobble our development. With most of the poor villagers consistently and unquestioningly put in the pocket of one man, it will take more than will and civic education to draw the well of bewildering ignorance and dismaying apathy. Ultimately, it is the voters’ prerogative to choose whomever they want to represent them.

Most of those women and men know what is good for them, but the invidious way in which the moneyed and the rich elite have infiltrated and abused leadership is worrying. What is more worrying, however, is how the citizens have been reduced to passive victims of a dysfunctional political system rather than masters of their destiny.

It is the safe refuge in tribe that has partly fed the culture of corruption and impunity. Because all his people were behind him at the ballot box, a politician feels he has been given carte blanche to loot, corrupt and even kill in the name of his tribe.

Most of us invariably filter ourselves into tribes, clan and even families first. It is this allegiance to tribe that invariably breeds the blind devotion to corrupt, ruthless tribal kings.

Make no mistake; I am not in any way denigrating our culture. In fact our rich cultural diversity has been the glue that holds us together. Yet the alacrity to cluster into tribes has been the bane of our national politics typified by mental vacuity and lack of principled political debate. As we enlist ourselves in the new register, it is important that we turn over a new leaf where we will hold our leaders to account. The voter registration offers a chance for self-renewal and renewed sense of duty to our country and patriotism. Duty means looking beyond tribe and class to elect our leaders. It means embracing democracy in totality.

Paul Collier, an Oxford professor, says on their own unless they are held in the context of a functioning democracy, elections can retard rather than advance a country’s progress.

In Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Collier says creating a national identity helps to trump politics of ethnic division by persuading people not to vote blindly for the party of their ethnic group as happened in 2008 in Kenya, but for the party with policies geared towards development.

Limited aspiration

In the rituals we call elections, politicians deliberately foster tribal and even class animosity because it works for them.

So voters will elect strangers with world-views completely different from theirs and other than the timid campaign forays and a house gleaming with fresh paint in the village, some of the elected Members of Parliament have a limited grasp of the needs and aspirations of the people they want to represent. A month down the road they all want him out. Why did they elect him in the first place? Ask yourself why.

The writer is The Standard’s Foreign News Editor.

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