Voter Apathy – the unused voices of democracy
Voter Apathy – the unused voices of democracy: Voting in Eldoret during the 2013 elections. Picture Courtesy of Juliana Rotich

Voter Apathy – the unused voices of democracy

Who is to blame when a bad leader is elected? The people who didn’t vote or the people who did vote or the democratic system itself?

Kenya will hold general elections which include voting for numerous leaders such as members of parliament, senators and most important the president. These general elections are held every 5 years and this year specifically on August 8, 2017. If the 2013 presidential elections are anything to go by, I will be expecting at least 9 candidates to run for our top seat, each promising an impressive array of development initiatives. So far, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the organization responsible for carrying out the electoral process, there are 25,095,292 million Kenyans who are eligible to vote. As of December 2016, though, only 15,961,627 Kenyans have registered, leaving a gap of 9,130,269 Kenyans.

Why have so many eligible citizens not registered to vote? I can’t speak for all the 9,000,000 plus Kenyans who haven’t registered to vote, but I can speak for one whom I know quite well. She’s my sister.

She was not eligible to vote in the last election because she was still under 18, and now that she is eligible, she sees no point in voting. When I think about what the leadership of our country has been up to over the last five years, I can begin to sympathize. Here’s a selection of what has been happening  over the last half decade.

  1. 2013 – The salary of Members of Parliament and other elected government leaders was hiked within months after being  elected to approximately USD 9,000 monthly, despite them already being one of the highest paid politicians in the world. To add to the charming picture, over 40% of Kenyans live below the poverty line or rather earn approximately USD 2,000 annually!
  2. 2014 – A KSH 24.6 billion (USD 233,000,000) tender to provide laptops for standard one pupils (average age: 6 – 7) was cancelled after questions were raised about the firm who was awarded the contract: it transpired that some of the schools for which the laptops were going to be procured did not even have classrooms.
  3. 2015 – Some of the Independent Elections and Boundary Commission (IEBC) officials pocketed approximately KSH 50 million (USD 486,000) as bribes according to investigations conducted by UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO). IEBC is the organization that conducts the general elections. 2016 – Kenya’s Auditor General estimates that the National Youth Service is missing KSH 1.67 billion (USD 9,000,000).
  4. 2016 –KSH 5.3 billion (USD 48,000,000) go missing from the Health Ministry, despite a concurrent doctors’ strike for lack of remuneration.
  5. 2016 – Doctors go on strike over lack of pay and poor working conditions within state health facilities.
  6. 2017 – Doctors are jailed following a failure to reach consensus with the government over the strike.  

You would think this might fire up young individuals like my sister to register to vote, to elect better leaders. But it had the opposite effect. The result? Voter apathy. “I feel like my vote won’t make a difference,” she told me, saying that “the masses will always elect bad leaders.”  Democracy for me, is a government run by citizens for citizens, and it is therefore my responsibility to help put the right leaders in place who work for and not against me. A leader must have a number of positive traits, but the four most important to me are:

  1. Integrity – doing the right thing, especially when no one is watching
  2. Visionary– making the lives of the voters better, for example improving infrastructure or health facilities
  3. Insightful – understanding that their actions or lack of them have real consequences
  4. Accountability – taking responsibility for their own actions

It often seems to me that most of these traits are missing from many elected representatives in Kenya, but that does not mean that there are not leaders out there with these characteristics. However, voter apathy is common in my sister’s age bracket (18-24 years of age). The young people feel their views are simply not represented. So how can I convince my sister to vote when I myself do not have full confidence in the Kenyan voting system? Voting patterns in Kenya have traditionally been along tribal lines, whatever the quality of the leader, and so ethnic populations with the highest numbers carry the election. This is, however, slowly changing, with millennials such as myself who do not look for their own tribe but rather good leadership.

I believe that my sister and her peers cannot afford to be apathetic. Even if the baby boomers vote along ethnic lines, the next generation will eventually take over, and she has to understand that her generation will soon have the power to vote for the leaders it wants. In order to bring about change, my sister and her generation first need to find out who their representative in local government is, and second get acquainted with the budget and what is being spent on all those services they make use of every day. Third, they need to see civic education as an obligation, where they teach the people around them about the information they have learnt. A fourth step could be organizing a debate for local leaders, which is seldom done in Kenya. For me, until all options are exhausted, I cannot say, “my vote won’t make a difference.”

It honestly hurts me to hear this phrase from the mounts of the future generation. I think of all the people who lost their lives in the name of the Republic of Kenya, people who died to ensure that we have a vote today. Voting for me will always be mandatory even if I don’t get the outcome I wanted or expected. I am not giving up on my country, and I am not giving up on its leadership.

Voting is a privilege and a duty for every citizen. It is the difference between living in a democracy and in a dictatorship. That’s why I am determined to make my sister understand that if she doesn’t vote, she has no voice. If none of her friends or her friends’ friends vote, democracy is slowly being silenced!

This post was submitted in response to Freedom of Voice.

9Encouragement

Hi Morode. I agree that everyone who has the right to vote, should, but free will comes in to play. A lot of people shared this view in the recent U.S. election, too. I think it is worth trying to persuade people on the importance of voting, though, because of the reasons you stated. Good luck:-)

Hi Morode,

The corruption you've highlighted in Kenya is appalling. I can see why one would be discouraged.  It seems to me that you, or people like you, are the ones who should be running for office in Kenya!  Your heart and head are in the right place.  In the meantime, keep on encouraging everyone you meet to vote.  

We learned in the US the hard way, when in November many people didn't vote and we got stuck with a very dangerous individual for our President.  Voting and keeping a voice out in public are the only ways to protect the people!

Thanks for your work,

Barbara

Hello BarbaraP,

So voter apathy is a worldwide problem... We should exchange ideas on how to motivate the youth to be more involved with the leadership of our countries.

As for running for office, I would love to, however later in life. I would like to instill that elective leadership positions should be about service to the people, rather than monetary enrichment, For now, I will stick to making an impact with volunteering. 

Thank you for sharing your experience.

- Memory O.

I learned that voting patterns in Kenya have traditionally been along tribal lines, whatever the quality of the leader, when I worked with a colleague from Kenya in Afghanistan - she did not like then candidate Obama, running for President, because of the tribal affiliation of his father. But she did come around after reading a  lot about him and the other candidates. Here in the USA, voting apathy is at all times highs, and many say it's why we have the leader we have currently. I've been trying to talk to people about cases where the person elected nationally or locally has a direct effect on a person's life - or that of their neighbor. I've also been inviting people to all the various opportunities to meet elected officials face-to-face - many here in the USA have no idea just how easy it is to meet with local officials just by showing up to something. I hope I'm making a difference, but it's tough, when there are so many, many other voices telling them they are powerless and their votes don't matter. Thanks for sharing your story. Seems to be a global problem! 

Jayne Cravens, Portland, Oregon, USA, http://www.coyotecommunications.com

Hello Jcravens,

I really like the idea of bringing people to meet the elected officials... Thanks for sharing that...

Yes, unfortunately people have perceived prejudices about other tribes here in Kenya, but if we get conversations going, we find out that we are all in the same boat, wanting better infrastructure, better education, access to clean water and many other services that will benefit communities in Kenya. It is sad that people choose their ethnicity over nationalism. The tribes in Kenya are diverse and bring different strengths to the table, but we have to remember that we are Kenyans first!

Thanks for reading and sharing your idea as well.

- Memory O.

Dear Memory,

I read through your story, I see our as reality as Kenyans. I personally am not loosing hope, I registered as a voter, and come August I will  vote more women into leadership positions probably what Kenya needs is the 2/3 gender rule to be implemented so more women can sit at the table and participate in the decision making  process. We also need servant leaders who can drive change in parliament and communities most of our leaders care about themselves and sometimes not even their needy relatives.We actually need a new MauMau revolution for millenials keep encouraging your sister, I perfectly understand her resignation towards the fate of our country it has been plundered by selfish corrupt leaders, But change begins with you, me and her, not voting will give us the bad leaders we are avoiding. Pamoja Tutaikomboa Kenya

Much love

Immah