Elections will make sense only if voters question candidates

The setting of the previous venue for the Presidential Debate. [File, Standard] 

Five-minute democracies have their limitations. We knew this when we voted for Article 1 of the Constitution. With the elections 37 days away, several communities have begun to exercise their right to interview political candidates. What are they saying so far? 

The first elections under British colonial rule happened in 1920. Only settlers of European, Indian, and Arab descent voted. It took four decades of anti-colonial resistance for everyone to have the right to vote. Unlike American electoral history where it took 100 years for women to vote, African women and men voted together for the first time in the 1961 General Election.

A further five decades would pass before Kenyans extended this fundamental freedom by writing Article 1 of the Constitution.

Article 1 states that all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya either directly through their own thoughts and actions or through those of their democratically elected representatives. Furthermore, every person is constitutionally bound to respect, uphold, and defend the Constitution. There are no less than seven additional references to public participation in the Constitution. The articles are our own expression of that famous phrase by American democracy founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Vigilance means public participation in governance. It starts with electing the right men and women to office.  

Inadequate investment in state civic education and the roadblocks placed before development partners contributed to the apathy during the recent voter registration drive. Public suspicions that the electoral commission will either be incapable, divided or partisan is another factor. So are the arguments that politicians are driven more by their private interests and elections will not change the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Influenced by these preoccupations, the IEBC reached only 30 per cent of their six million registration target and most political candidates have resorted to voter bribery, an election offence, to attract voters to their rallies.

Fortunately, several communities across the 47 counties are organising townhalls to interview candidates. Public dialogues have distinguished parental neglect by children unemployment, violence, gender and disability-based discrimination (Uasin Gishu) as well as insecurity and police brutality, high cost of health and sexual crimes and lack of safe houses for victims (Kisumu).

The lack of physical planning, water shortages and the high cost of living have also featured (Nairobi) and insecurity for the elderly, gender-based violence (Kilifi) and labour rights abuses and insecurity (Nakuru). Youth unemployment and rising levels of crime cut across several counties.

Public outcry by victims’ families and human rights organisations catalysed swift police and interior ministry responses to recent gang related violence connected to Nakuru politicians this week. We can welcome Monday’s community security dialogue attended by opposing candidates Lee Kinyanjui and Susan Kihika and the promise of stern action by Interior CS Fred Matiang’i.

The CS’s request not to be lectured on human rights was confusing. A former lecturer himself, it is worth reminding the good minister that lectures are educational and specifically, of that April 16th, 2020 lecture by President Kenyatta.

Police officers who exercise illegal, excessive and lethal force will face the full force of the law alone.

Organising our Kilimani ward and Dagoretti North constituency dialogues has given us the opportunity to create the power of respectful rapport with candidates. Requiring future employees to sign charters, memoranda and declarations is an effective first-step in building accountability post-election.

Residents’ associations and media associations must lead public dialogues over the few remaining days. All several party manifestos must be debated for the elections to make sense. Issue based dialogues are fundamental for restoring the power of the vote for cynical and undecided voters. The quality of our elections cannot be left to five minutes in a voting booth.