WANJURAH: When Elections Are Not a Matter of Life and Death – A Lesson to Kenya from the UK


A voter casts her ballot on Sunday, October 25th, 2015
A voter casts her ballot on Sunday, October 25th, 2015
 After what I hoped was a well-received presentation at the end of a difficult, anxiety-filled week, I had retreated to my flat hungry for a quick nap.
 
It was early evening on Friday and my eyes were aching. Checking them in the mirror, they appeared bloodshot as if Thabelo, my lazy roommate with a growing appetite for stealing my food, had shared his weed. I knew I was suffering from the consequences of many nights without sleep.
 
I had barely slept for ten minutes when I startled myself out of sleep with a dream that Jeremy Corbyn – Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom- had pickpocketed me. He was running away with the spoils of his act: my wallet with five pounds and many student-related cards, his corduroy jacket threatening to blow away from his haggard body like a cheap umbrella succumbing to the wind.
 
A classmate’s interesting perspectives on the British media portrayal of Corbyn must have triggered my disturbing dream. She had talked of his roughhewn image being closer to a seamy street operative than a top British politician. It reminded me of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, sharing with Parliament his mother’s concerns that Corbyn’s horrible dressing risked corrupting UK’s youth sense of fashion!
 
A more immediate problem for me was that the dream had stolen my hopes of easing my fatigue with some sleep. That has been my recurrent nightmare. I have to endure long, sleepless nights often because a bad dream woke me. For instance, I dream of my own funeral and get depressed witnessing the poor attendance. I only see a few sworn enemies at my final journey in a cheap coffin!
 
Corbyn treatment in the media is rather unfair. He may lack the charisma of Tony Blair or the flashy looks of Ed Milliband. But he is certainly not a political pushover and is already savouring a major fete in leading Labour to wrestle the London mayoral seat from the Tories. The win is the more profound because Sadiq Khan is the first Muslim voted mayor of a major European city amid growing anti-Islamism in the West.
 
Labour was, of course, whitewashed in Scotland and saw its political grip loosened in Wales. But the British media predictions of the inevitability of the poll inciting a palace coup against Corbyn proved farfetched. The party seems destined to remain under the leadership of the old man with the worried look of a Kenyan Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioner looking out for the next Cord invasion!
 
As the polls went on, I couldn’t help marvelling at how they uninterruptedly gelled with normal lives. There were no noisy campaigns taking over towns or showy politicians hijacking streets with boisterous road shows. Two days after voting, results of the hotly contested London mayoral seat remained undeclared. But apart from a few murmurs of impatience, life ebbed normally. 
 
It wasn’t just the absence of political ruckus that sets the UK polls apart from the Kenyan ones. I thought the simplicity of the whole process; the minimal cost of the exercise and the ‘no-big-deal’ attitude around it offers useful lessons for our exorbitantly priced elections.
 
The build-up to the election in the UK is equally inconspicuous. I had entirely missed many of the signs despite some of them happening right under my nose. For instance, when I saw a lorry unload a container in the middle of the road, I mused at the evidence that the UK was not, after all, immune to open space grabbers.
Until then, I had admired the country’s sense of order; the obsession with urban planning; the apparent impossibility of some kiosk sprouting at the corner of the street or the implausibility of peripatetic traders appropriating public open space like our infamous hawkers.
 
But on this Wednesday afternoon, my hitherto impression was being challenged right in front of my eyes. It was a 20-feet container, painted white in colour. It was placed just outside the local medical centre and along the barrier bordering two cul-de-sacs roads leading to opposite directions.
 
On reflection, the location appeared perfect for a busy business. It was in a middle class and populated suburb. There were huge student accommodation centres in the neighbourhood. Across the road is the active Jubilee Social Centre that has no association with the Kenyan coalition in power. And the container was not occupying any part of the used roads!
 
The unloading crew included electricians who quickly connected the container to the nearby power line. Though I had no idea yet what it would me merchandising, I smiled at the thought of the new business easing my shopping. Just a road across my flat and on my direct route to campus, it would be ideal to grab milk and some eggs in the evening.
For three weeks, the container remained closed. Influenced by my Kenyan grabber mind-set, I imagined the owner was wisely staying out to test how it would be received. Just wait until the transient attention of usual troublemakers who might oppose it has moved to other things.
 
Then it opened on Thursday morning. I walked in to find a smiley lady with bracelets on her teeth and a man sitting behind a desk. The lady was playing with her phone. Her youngish-looking colleague, his huge tummy spilling out of his blue tee shirt onto the table, was fiddling with a crossword puzzle.
 
Blinded by my excitement, I had not even seen the ‘Polling Station’ that had since been emblazoned at the container’s front. But the nature of its business was self-evident from ballot papers and the ballot box on the table. At the corner was a voting booth where a huge, black man was bent over apparently ticking his choices.
 
I knew from the news that it was a voting day. But prejudiced by my experiences with the IEBC, I struggled to reconcile myself with the rudimentary nature of the facilities I was witnessing.  
 
The ballot papers in a major election in a country that is home to Smith and Ouzman and the infamous Chickengate scandal were so basic that they would not merit IEBC training material. The ballot boxes were old, black, opaque and unsealed; a throwback from the Zacheus Chesoni Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) days!
 
There was no sign of police or any other security around. There were no busybodies called election observers that crowd Kenyan polling stations or hawkish troublemakers disguised as agents. The voters register looked like a do-it-yourself printout from a cyber café.
 
Reading my shock, the lady calmly wondered if I had turned up at the wrong polling station. I explained I wasn’t even a voter. But out of curiosity, I asked her what would happen had I missed my station. No problems, she assured. I would still vote and she’d notify ‘my station’ that I had already voted.  
 
I didn’t stay long enough to witness the counting of the votes. This tends to be a do-or-die affair in our elections. But the fat guy, the boredom of inactivity rubbing off on his chubby face, shrugged off his shoulders: “We’l be done in a few after close…then we’l send em over and we’r f…… done!”

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Story By Jeeh Wanjura
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