On October 4th 2021, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) kicked off a 30 days enhanced voter registration exercise in preparation to the 2022 general elections. The commission launched the drive with a target of registering 6 million new voters across the country. The registration mainly targeted the young people who are eligible voters but had not yet registered. However, the registration centres received very low numbers of registering voters. As at October 18th 2021, two weeks after the process began, the IEBC had managed to register only 491,968 new voters from a possible target of 3million. By the time IEBC closed the mass voter registration exercise on November 5th 2021, only a meager 1.4 million new voters had been registered against the target of 6 million voters. The low numbers in voter registration surprised many. Why was the number of the newly registered voters so low especially among the youth?
It is against this background that the Kenya Human Rights Commission organized a webinar to attempt to unravel the puzzle and offer some recommendations to state institutions mandated with enhancing electoral justice and good governance. The webinar brought together experts from various thematic areas consisting of youth, academia, civil society and grassroots mobilizers. The rationale of the webinar was to synthesis views from a wide perspective so as to unravel the puzzle of the low numbers registered.
Several issues were identified as contributing to the low numbers of newly registered voters especially among the youth. The first was disillusionment with the electoral process as aptly postulated by Mugambi Kiai in an article published in the Star on November 8th 2021. The youth have completely lost trust with the electoral management institutions in particular and with governance in general. The youth and indeed the entire electorate hopes that engaging in the electoral process will bring about positive change only to be thoroughly disappointed afterwards. Mugambi argued that the current voter apathy is attributable to the disappointments associated with the 2002, 2007, 2013 and the 2017 general elections. He concludes that the youth should not be blamed for the low numbers of registered voters.
In further elaborating the frustrations faced by the youth, Mr. Davis Malombe, the Executive Director of KHRC argued that participation is both a human rights and as well as a governance issue. He cited article 38 sub article 3 which provides the right of every adult citizen to be registered as a voter and to participate in the electoral process and article 55(b) which obligates the state to take measures to ensure the youth participate in all spheres of life. The participation envisioned by these provisions should not only be free, active and meaningful but accrue benefits for the youth. Therefore disillusionment is contributed by lack of legitimacy, credibility and accountability of the electoral process and outcomes on top of the usual freeness and fairness of the process and outcomes.
Apart from the loss of trust in the electoral and governance processes and institutions, participation in electoral and governance processes should also be understood as being linked with the wider array of related services such as access to registration of persons and Identity cards. Structural and bureaucratic barriers to accessing vital documentation needed for registration as voters should also be addressed. Nonetheless, most young people are more worried of current challenges such as the high levels of unemployment, the rising cost of living, the high taxation and therefore don’t seem to understand why they should pay attention to an election that is 10 months away while there are more pressing needs at the moment.
The failure to appreciate the connection between participation or lack thereof in electoral and governance process and improving or worsening socioeconomic and political situation was another issue identified. The transactional nature of Kenyan political process also obscures the long term benefits of meaningful engagements in political process for short term transient benefits. A lot of young people have a strong believe that the system is already rigged and therefore participating is a waste of time. The legitimacy of outcomes and institutions is highly questioned. Political parties which are ideally meant to be carriers of ideologies and policies to better people’s lives are not only deficient of ideologies but also keep on changing and shifting from one alliance to the other. The youth are neither involved nor consulted and therefore they have decided that they don’t want to be conveyer belts of legitimizing illegitimate processes and outcomes.
Even worse is situations where the youth especially from poor backgrounds or informal settlement associate elections and governance with negative consequences on their lives as government criminalizes youth and poverty. After voting, youths become victims of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearance and other state excesses. The low numbers in voter registration therefore should be seen as a rebellion or a revolt against an abusive system.
After extensive deliberations, the webinar came up with the following recommendations;
- The IEBC should realize that they have the constitutional mandate to consciencetize citizens to meaningfully and effectively participate in electoral process. Civic education should be provided on a regular basis and not one off during electioneering period. Perhaps even more important than civic education, is political education which is meant to consciencetize the citizens to fully appreciate the importance of meaningful engagement.
- Civil society organizations also ought to undertake civic and political education targeting grassroot communities, and institutions of higher learning.
- The IEBC ought to consider digitizing the process of voter registration so as to enhance convenience to encourage voter registration.
The IEBC should fast track realisation of institutional reforms to guarantee the youth and general citizenry of integrity of their votes. Civil society therefore have a big role in holding IEBC accountable towards mainstreaming transparency in the management of electoral processes in 2022 and beyond.
Author: Robert Waweru