Proposed Consulates: Good Idea for Wrong Reasons-Josef kariuki
The proposed opening of Kenyan consulates in Dallas Texas, Boston Massachusetts, Atlanta Georgia, Seattle Washington and Minneapolis Minnesota is a good idea but for the wrong reasons.
The purposes of consulates and their chief diplomat (the consul) is to handle minor diplomatic issues like issuing visas, providing ID documents to nationals, facilitating registrations and taking care of their nationals. One of the primary jobs of a consulate is helping protect their citizens abroad. If you lose your passport or break the law abroad you go to a consulate. If you are unlucky enough to be a victim of crime in a foreign country you find the nearest consulate. Need a lawyer or a doctor while overseas? Ask the consulate for a list. Have birth or death in the family while abroad? Go to a consulate for counseling and assistance. These services indicate just the kind of expertise that is required to staff and run these consulates. You need diplomatic salespeople to promote trade and tourism for the home country, genuine legal experts for those in legal limbos who need bailouts and advice, counselors for those in joy of new births or gloomed in grief of lost ones abroad. The Embassy represents our country abroad. The consulates represents us.
The resources required to run consulates are enormous. Besides presentable buildings worth the name of the home country, the human capital must be an experienced, empathetic, compassionate and tireless team. They must have clear job descriptions and must aspire to perform well with responsibility and accountability. These are not jobs for volunteers and allowance sitters. They must be well paid and decently housed. The distances between the proposed consulates and some of the people they are supposed to serve are so wide that in most cases the majority of Kenyans who need help will never get anywhere near a consulate. Therefore the consulates must possess modern communication systems and channels in which a live human being actually answers the phone and a staff that is willing to travel to the caller if necessary. A consulate is an emergency outpost and the caller is in distress. It is his or her only lifeline at the time of the call. So no call should never be taken lightly.
An organized program must be initiated by the diaspora community to educate their fellow members about these consulates and the new services they offer. In the past the structures of the embassy were so inept that no Kenyan bothered to report a birth or a death. Kenyans usually gathered their friends to celebrate a birth or to mourn a death. The Embassy was of no use. If you broke the law or were a victim of crime you dealt with it. Until recently we know how a simple process of renewing a passport would be lazily dragged on for 8 or more weeks because it had to be done in Nairobi and Nairobi requires blah blahs. Should you have had any college or immigration issues the embassy was not the place for you. In fact you should not even go there to be ostracized and then becoming the subject of that day’s gossip. I always wondered what the people we called education, press or legal attaches did all day. So the diaspora needs to be educated and transitioned into a new mind set. If this is not done well these consulates will just be peculiar buildings in which no Kenyan wants to set foot. Poor services, lack of information and indifference are the reasons why so many Kenyans are not fond of the embassy. With this in mind, we welcome our new Ambassador Mr. Robinson Githae hoping and praying that he will be an effective catalyst for change. He has already suggested that we refrain from referring to him as honorable and just respectfully call him Mr. Ambassador. That in itself is a big change for those of us who remember the bloated egos of some of our past ambassadors. I know that political appointments have their built in limitations but consuls in the consulates should not be burdened with such limitations. They must be apolitical and professional.
Generally Kenyans do not register with the embassy when they arrive as required. The common embassy excuse to deny service is that they are under no obligation to serve you if you did not register when you first arrived. In other words if you do not exist on their records you are out of luck. Some Kenyans are born here and some die. It would be a big lie for anyone including the embassy or even the government to claim that they know the exact number of Kenyan nationals residing in the USA. We do know however where significant clusters of Kenyans live and work. We also know their social makeup. Considering this demographic data it is clear that some geographic locations for the consulates were not well chosen. It is this point alone that interjects the voting element and tribal preferences in the equation of locations. If the proposed consulates are muddled and politicized by these issues (real or imagined) then we have to let this noble ideal die because under such circumstances these consulates will not be able to perform their rightful duties. Sadly, they are likely to end up as some sort of polling and campaign centers.
Nearly half of the Kenyans who arrive in the US settle in the Northeast, mainly in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and Washington DC area. A quarter goes South mainly to Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Texas. The rest reside in Midwest and West basically around Minnesota, Oklahoma, Illinois and Ohio but these are small populations with bigger numbers out west in California and Washington State. Of all the proposed locations, tribally speaking Kikuyus are majority in (Boston) Massachusetts, (Atlanta) Georgia and (Seattle) Washington. The populations in Dallas (Texas) and Los Angeles (California) are more or less even although Kikuyus hold a slight sway in Los Angeles area. We must also remember that there small numbers of Kenyans scattered throughout the fifty States. Kenya already has a consulate in New York City and an embassy in Washington so I question the wisdom of opening another consulate in the Northeast. However, if one was that necessary they should have considered New Jersey which has a mixed Kenyan population that is three times that of Massachusetts. A consulate also exists in Los Angeles. Given the distance between California and the Embassy in DC a consulate on the west coast is a necessity and actually it should be expanded to serve the Northwest as well so that a Washington State (Seattle) consulate would be unnecessary.
The fact still remains that these consulates are so spaced out to make them viable voting centers. For example if the Dallas consulate takes care of the Denver Colorado area, one would have to travel 800 miles one way to vote! That pattern would be repeated throughout the States between localities and polling consulates. What research has been done to ascertain that people will actually travel hundreds of miles to go to cast a ballot even if it is a holiday? The proximity of the consulates to clustered Kenyan populations centers guarantees that only those in clustered community will be able to physically vote. And not knowing the exact number of voters in a specific cluster is a known prerequisite to rigging. If the consulates were to be used this way they would have defeated their sole purpose even before they are launched.
The diaspora wants to vote not because of remittances and investments but because it is their rightful duty. They want to be able to elect those who will lead their country into the future especially at the presidential level. This is a delicate process that must be handled with care. All stakeholders must be deeply involved so that they can take ownership of the process. The respected diaspora religious and group leaders must mobilize and rally their membership to come up with workable solutions and formulas to participate effectively in this process. Those who masquerade as national diaspora leaders causing a lot of havoc and confusion must stay away from this. The bold truth is that there is no known national diaspora leadership. The IEBC should also stay alert of these schemers. Voting in consulate offices will not solve the diaspora voting issues and in fact may even exacerbate the problems to another level ushering the diaspora into a tailspin of cynicism, hate and suspicions that we thought we left behind in Kenya. We do not want that to pop up here.
Has anyone seriously thought about online or mail voting in which all ballots are tallied in one secure diaspora location and results transmitted to Kenya for totaling? This is not a new system. It is inexpensive and it has worked where it has been tried. It does not matter how far you live from the polling center as long as you are near a Post Office or have an access to a computer. This system could be duplicated with the diaspora in other countries as well. After all we are supposed to be digital. This is what the IEBC should be developing and perfecting. Government officials as possible contestant in the elections should stay away from this process and let a revamped IEBC do its job. That is why they get paid. It is right for government to create consulates and to locate them where they are most useful for a single reason only and that is to handle minor diplomatic and trade issues, promote home country and to serve all Kenyan nationals indiscriminately. Consulates are definitely not cut out for political and electoral mumbo jumbos.
Writer:Josef kariuki-Diaspora Messenger contributor
Proposed Consulates: Good Idea for Wrong Reasons-Josef kariuki