For Kenyans Living Abroad, Election Season Brings Frustrations

Kenya’s first-ever presidential debate reached a worldwide audience on Monday night, nearly eclipsing the Pope’s resignation as top Twitter trend as eight candidates for the country’s highest office addressed key issues at stake in the March 4 election. Among the most active participants in the online discussion were members of the 3.5 million-strong Kenyan diaspora. For Kenyans living abroad, the success of the debate is a point of great pride.  Yet as election season progresses, many diasporans remain frustrated at not having a voice in the political process – even as their activism benefits Kenyans at home.

Diasporans are lynchpins of the Kenyan economy, sending millions of dollars in annual support to their families. But only a small percentage of the 1.5 million registered Kenyan voters living abroad will be allowed to cast their ballots on Election Day. The country’s revised 2010 constitution allows Kenyans who are naturalized citizens of other countries to maintain dual nationality, but a November 2012 court ruling limits voting rights to those residing in the East Africa region. The ruling cites the logistical challenges of counting ballots from Kenyans living in more distant locations.

According to Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, that’s only 1,500 voters – about a tenth of a percent of the worldwide Kenyan diaspora. Hall is the Project Director of Kenya Debates, a group that formed out of the diaspora organization Kenyan Community Abroad. “I have to say for a diaspora that contributes that largest amount of money into economy, surpassing the largest industries, tourism, agriculture, it’s unconscionable to not be part of the voting party,” she told techPresident. “It is the diaspora that started the presidential debate. We started clamoring [for it] way back in 2002.”

During the past few election cycles, the public voice of the diaspora was often limited to a small number of blogs – “loud noisemakers,” who did not always represent the interests of everyday Kenyans supporting their families from abroad.  Yet social media has mobilized a united front of politically minded diasporans, intent on bringing real change to the electoral process.

In advance of this election, Kenya Debates held a secretariat in Washington, DC, where US advisors like Janet Brown, executive director of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, helped them  craft a vision for a large-scale, televised event.  This “blueprint” was then passed on to election officials and state media in Kenya, over several months of negotiation and persuasion. According to Hall, “hardly anyone believed it could be done.”

Ultimately, the diasporans’ influence ended up forming the backbone of Monday’s debate in Nairobi, as well as a second event to be held February 22.

“It’s not just a first for Kenya – it’s a first for Africa,” Hall says. “Other countries have held debates, but not on this scale.” The worldwide conversation sparked by the three-hour program certainly speaks to that scale. Yet the irony remains that some of the most avid participants in this conversation lack true representation.  For diasporans, this is the downside of virtual advocacy.

It’s a problem faced by many Africans living abroad: even as more channels open up to connect diasporans to their home countries, the institutional structure is simply not in place to allow them to fully participate in political life.  T.M.S. Ruge is a diaspora advocate from Uganda and co-founder ofProject Diaspora, a group that funds and launches social entrepreneurship projects in African communities. In an article for the Guardian that was published last week, Ruge examines how Africans abroad have used social media to redirect the conversation on humanitarian aid. He suggests that monetary remittances sent by diasporans to their home countries may eventually give them greater leverage over political processes.

But Ruge told techPresident that the challenges faced by Kenyan diasporans in this year’s election have analogues in many other countries.

“With various members of different nationalities that I’ve talked to, it is very common that we get everything but the right to vote,” Ruge says of recent legislation on diaspora status.  This is the case in Uganda, where new laws granted diasporans dual citizenship but “stopped short of [allowing] any participation in politics.”  Ruge notes that South Sudan – a state with far fewer resources than either Uganda or Kenya – was able to count diaspora votes during its independence referendum in 2011.

In the fight to gain these rights, the diasporan community is its own best advocate.  But the challenge is pushing the discussion into the real world.  “It’s one thing to carry on this conversation in a social media landscape,” Ruge says. “Slacktivism is easy, click on something and like it, comment anonymously. But making noise in social media doesn’t implement anything tangible.”

While the Kenyan debates are a prime example of diasporans doing real work for their country, gaining recognition is still an uphill battle. As the second debate approaches, Mkawasi Mcharo Hall says that transitioning all their work over to the state media is, “almost like planting a seed, growing it, and then another harvester comes along and takes it.” She admits that diasporans have not been given due credit for their work, but says that, “much as we were involved in [the planning process], it’s something we’ve decided not to take a negative attitude towards.”  Audiences around the world are now connected to Kenya’s political process, raising the stakes and standards for future elections.  This greater connectivity, borne out of the diaspora’s online activity and now perpetuating it for future generations, remains both a blessing and a curse.

“The most important thing that online engagement does is shape opinions between the diaspora and Kenya,” Hall says.  “But there are limits. Without physical representation in the governing bodies, we cannot do much beyond shaping opinions.”


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