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Parties in hunt for diaspora votes in 6 more countries

By Grace Ng'ang'a | September 28th 2021

A poll worker helps K. Maki (left) fill out a provisional ballot at Park Tavern polling station on November 3, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. [Getty]

Increased migration to other countries has in one way or another taken away some of the rights of the immigrants from their original home countries.

While the Constitution of Kenya guarantees the right to vote for all citizens, in reality, voters who are outside the country when elections take place are often disenfranchised because of absence of procedures enabling them to exercise that fundamental right.

Many countries, just like Kenya, only allow the enjoyment of this right by citizens living within its sovereign boundaries.

As 2022 inches closer, big wigs who have been traversing the country, marketing their State House bids, will also be battling for the diaspora votes.

Leaders cannot ignore the millions of votes abroad, which can tilt the scales to attain the 50-plus-one mark.

Infographics: The Standard

According to the 2019 World Bank report, majority of Kenyans in the diaspora were in the USA (600,000), while the UK had 300,000, Canada 200,000, European Union at 100,000, as South Africa and South Sudan each had 8,000.

This is as Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairperson Wafula Chebukati announced six new voting stations in the diaspora, which has now been classified as Kenya’s 48th county and a possible swing vote that will be the epicentre of a titanic political battle between the top presidential contenders.

The additional six are in some of the countries pointed by the World Bank’s 2019 report to host the majority of Kenyans in the diaspora. They are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the USA, UK, Canada, Qatar, and South Sudan.

Chebukati said the countries meet the requirement of the electoral agency, which must have at least 3,000 eligible voters.

IEBC chairperson Wafula Chebukati. [File, Standard]

The six are additional to the existing Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Africa, which participated in the 2017 presidential election.

During the polls, President Uhuru Kenyatta, under the Jubilee ticket, garnered 1,504 votes ahead of National Super Alliance (NASA) candidate Raila Odinga, who got 1,321 votes.

In Tanzania and Burundi, Raila garnered 394 and 48 votes, beating Uhuru, who had 393 and 47 respectively.

The statement by Mr Chebukati is likely to open a new battlefront among the top presidential contenders Deputy President William Ruto, Raila and Musalia Mudavadi of Amani National Congress (ANC).

Economic model

Already Ruto has spread out his agenda under the bottom-up economic model and so far has a 14-member campaign secretariat leading his campaigns in the diaspora coordinated from Nairobi by campaign strategist and management consultant Eliud Owalo.

It comprises four representatives from eight regional chapters in North America, referred to as the National Governing Council.

The team is chaired by Daniel Sambu, deputised by David Okoth and Kennedy Karanja (secretary-general).

Lugari MP Ayub Savula has also said that ANC has formed a committee that will work on how to come up with strategies to help the party garner the diaspora votes as “they are critical for the presidency”.

“The only way to attract the diaspora votes is by promising to turn around the economy. The economy needs to be stabilised; one where if they send money back home, they will be able to invest in an economy that is growing,” he said.

In 2017, diaspora voters were restricted to East Africa and 4,393 Kenyans registered to vote.

Dismissed the calls

Chebukati has since dismissed calls for electronic voting for those living abroad, saying voting will only take place in Kenyan embassies.

According to him, the law does not allow electronic voting. That means voting in the diaspora will be conducted as it will be in Kenya. 

“We shall send ballot boxes and papers. Voting will be done and the results will be sent back,” he said.

He also noted that voting requirements would not change for the 2022 polls, as only persons with valid identity cards and passports would be allowed to vote.

“According to the Supreme Court advisory, diaspora voting is implemented in phases because of the expenses involved. Currently, we only have the East Africa region. As a commission, we have engaged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we intend to add six countries,” Chebukati said.

In 2017, diaspora voters were restricted to East Africa and 4,393 Kenyans registered to vote. [File, Standard]

The opportunity for people living abroad to vote has, however, not been a walk in the park.

Speaking to The Standard, Kenya Diaspora Association chairperson Shem Ochuodho said it took a struggle for citizens abroad to be able to exercise that right.

He said it took them moving from one court to the another, but in the end it bore fruit.

Recalling the struggle, Mr Ochuodho said they first went to court in 2010, but were shown the door since at the time no law allowed voting abroad.

He said the judge at the time ruled that they could not be registered since Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) was racing against time in preparation for the referendum.

Two weeks away

“The referendum vote was only two weeks away at the time and stopping it or delaying it was not practical; so we understood the ruling, but we told ourselves that fight would not end there,” he said.

He added: “But the judge instructed the IIEC to ensure that in future they make early preparations for the diaspora to vote so that we do not lose any other chance.”

Ochuodho argued that although they moved to the court during the constitutional dispensation, they were happy because after the passing of the 2010 Constitution they are now recognised.

“The 2010 Constitution worked in favour of the people living in the diaspora,” he said.

That, however, did not come automatically, as the journey of heading to court in pursuit of inclusivity continued.

This time he decided to engage with the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) on whether they would be included in 2013 polls, as they were recognised in the Constitution.

“We decided to act early so that we would be included in the 2013 vote. However, the chairperson of ECK at the time said if you want to vote from the diaspora, sue me. Initially, we thought he was joking,” he said.

Kenya Diaspora Association chairperson Shem Ochuodho. [Courtesy]

However, things did not turn out as they hoped from the corridors of justice.

“Unfortunately, the court was not very friendly to us. We were asked to either fly back home to vote or forget about it.”

Dissatisfied with the High Court ruling, they went to the Court of Appeal, but it took longer than they expected.

Ochuodho recalls that the ruling was heard after the 2013 General Election. They did not, therefore, vote in the said polls.

They continued to sue the elections body for failure to implement diaspora voting rights. Winning a lawsuit in 2015, in which the Supreme Court directed IEBC to enable the diaspora to exercise their right to vote, did not make much difference.

Although they got a green light to vote in 2017, Kenyans in diaspora are still facing various challenges.

Thomas Letangule, a former IEBC commissioner, had said it was difficult to estimate how many diaspora votes were there, arguing that some challenging factors revolved around that.

“The votes around the globe are not easy to estimate because data is not accurate. The data is mostly kept by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but due to certain factors, for example the legal immigrants, they do not register with the ministry,” he said.

Letangule maintained that aspirants had to woo the voters because their election register was very important in any election.

The Constitution, in Article 82 (1) (e), allows “progressive registration of citizens residing outside Kenya, and the progressive realisation of their right to vote.”

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