MWANGI: Time to guard against rigging polls is now, not 2017

MWANGI: Time to guard against rigging polls is now, not 2017

About a year remains to Kenya’s General Election in August next year, and no doubt the heat is slowly rising: Political alliances are being redefined; ethnic-based calculations are quietly being factored in, like pieces in a game of chess; and winning strategies by the various party think-tanks are being formulated and reformulated.

Unfortunately, the muscle-flexing and games of wit by the two major coalitions are merely focused on capturing power. A better narrative is called for – one that goes beyond political-party machinations and addresses the political culture and institutions.

This is because democracy isn’t just about winning elections, even though this is the ultimate aim of political players, individually and as political parties. Democracy being a continuous process, every step needs to be as all-inclusive of the views of the whole citizenry as possible.

This is why the monitoring of elections needs to be redefined. A couple of weeks before any major election in the region, the usual regiments of election observers are sure to troop in – from the European Union, the United States, the African Union, the East African Community, the Commonwealth, and other local and international players.

These election observer missions will usually visit the polling and tallying centres, witnessing the conduct of elections. While this is important, it is generally insufficient in ascertaining the credibility of an election. The post-election chaos that resulted from Kenya’s disputed presidential poll in December 2007, despite being given a clean bill of health by many election observers, should cause us to take the reports of election observer missions with a pinch of salt.

In fact, EAC monitoring teams probably draw a lot less credibility than other teams from afar. This is because of the relations between partner states, whereby they don’t want to be seen to interfere in the internal affairs of their neighbours. This has often meant that regional engagement comes in late in the day when a chaotic situation has already erupted. This is the story of South Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda in 1994.

In February, Uganda’s flawed electoral process was given a clean bill of health. So was Tanzania’s last year, despite concerns in Zanzibar that there had been foul play. Thankfully, these misgivings did not lead to violence, though that is no reason to stifle democratic processes.

In Kenya, however, peaceful acceptance of injustice – especially at elections – is proving problematic. It took a series of demonstrations, in which a number of protesters died, for the ruling Jubilee coalition to accept negotiations with the opposition on the revamping of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). From the look of things, it will take a lot more to ensure that the polls are carried out successfully and reflect the will of the people.

A fully year may seem like a long time, but it isn’t much when it comes to preparing for a major event such as a general election. This is the right time for external players with some leverage on Kenya’s politics to begin getting involved. The selection process for the next IEBC team is certainly a priority. And even though Jubilee and the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) are the major stakeholders, they are by no means the only ones. Selecting a negotiation team from these two players, important as they are, to the exclusion of all other voices was in itself a false start.

One of the major problems arising from the March 2013 general election in Kenya was the failure of biometric voter registration kits, leading to accusations of vote rigging. There is nothing to suggest that the weaknesses observed in that election have been sufficiently addressed.

There is also the crucial issue of voter registration. As it is, millions of people are routinely and effectively disenfranchised at every election for lack of a national identity card, without which one cannot register as a voter. This is an issue that deserves to be addressed urgently.

As matters stand, it may not be business as usual for electoral observation missions to arrive in Nairobi in late July 2017, observe a few polling stations and then write reports saying that the election “generally reflected the will of the people.” Kenyans have seen enough of these meaningless statements.

Beginning with Kenya but also other countries in the region, a continuous process of engagement should be set up.  The continent’s wise men must not be just used in firefighting when trouble erupts, but in foreseeing and stopping the trouble from afar.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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