The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its missions, recently dispatched a circular requesting Kenyans to send suggestions to the Diaspora desk and simultaneously register online as voters.
The Diaspora formerly under the defunct Prime Minister’s office in the Grand Coalition remains a noble idea but whether it will achieve its objectives this time is another matter.
Mr Ahmed Issack Hassan, the chairman of the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission (IEBC) recently addressed Kenyans in the US and London where he urged his audience to register in large numbers for the 2017 general elections
Taking part in the national elections is a civic duty. It also gives Kenyans living abroad, a sense of belonging. In the 2013 general election however, the process took a political dimension when politicians became its proponents and not the IEBC charged with that mandate.
Those with indelible mind may recall how presidential candidates and their protégé, took their campaign to the Diaspora promoting universal suffrage with fanfare, reminding their audience constitutional rights is inalienable.
It was clear to those familiar with Kenya’s election process, that waheshimiwas’ initiative was indeed futile. The Bill tabled in Parliament on the election budget allocation of 2013/14 did not include the Diaspora voting budget and a framework, spelling out the voting procedures. Neither did the registration of voters exercise, take place ninety days before the polls as stipulated in the 2011 Election Act.
As the election date approached, two things happened – politicians receded from the scene, leaving the Diaspora latching on the polling date, and IEBC’s engagement with the Diaspora quietly dissipated. All the attention shifted to the acquisition of electronic election gadgets that later failed to function on the polling day.
The disenfranchisement of the Diaspora was then sealed after the National Treasury unilaterally slashed the election budget proposal from Ksh41b to Ksh17.5b – none of two figures would accommodate external voting.
What is not clear whether both the government and the IEBC were aware of the impending logistical nightmare and costs in conducting elections of that scale Kenyan style on foreign lands, simply to comply with the Article 38 Sub-article (2) of the Constitution thus “Every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections based on universal suffrage and the free expression of the will of the electors politicians began to review the pro and cons of the process.
Politicians aspiring for the high office in the land began to scrutinise the risk of supporting electorate in the diaspora, whose party allegiance is obscure and voting pattern is unknown. The Diaspora constituency thus became an ogre, a voting bloc capable of swinging election outcome one way or the other Kenyan politicians did not wish to gamble on.
While addressing Kenyans in the US and London recently, Mr Hassan expressed his disappointment, citing the registration of 200 in the US and 8,000 in United Kingdom as too low for countries known to be hosting more than 300,000 and 200,000 Kenyans, respectively.
Mr. Hassan made clear that polling centres shall only be set up in electoral constituencies where the number of registered voters is not below 5000, a threshold likely to necessitate conflation of countries/states for the purpose of election event.
It is not unusual for Kenya’s missions in one country to be accredited to two or more other countries. The German mission for instance, is responsible to both Bulgaria and Romania. In the event that the embassies become the polling centre, Kenyans in the those two states will have to cross three to four countries by road to cast their vote in Berlin, a distance of 1,400 to 1,638km.
The land journey is cheaper but not without a hitch for Kenyan passport holders travelling through or from Serbia which is not a member of the European. Kenyans in Serbia, it will be a 2090 journey and transit Visa for Hungary, Austria and Germany to vote in Paris serving that country.
The most unlucky are Kenyans in the Czech Republic who will have to travel across Germany next door to cast their votes 877km away. Or in The Netherlands, under which their host country falls under Berlin just 350km away.
Kenya has a total of eight missions covering 29 EU member states, while that in Moscow serves Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, leaving Kenyans in Central Asia, the Baltic and Southern Caucasus, with shattered hope of participating in their civic duty.
Travelling costs will be an additional prohibitive factor for students and people with low disposable income in most the countries in the West thus, essentially making the voting process expensive and not “simple” as stated in clause (2) (a) of Article 82 of the Constitution.
There is no doubt the IEBC is in a quandary. Financial constraints and logistical handicap have rendered it a lame duck beholden to the government. Seeking help from the ministry of Foreign Affairs will erode the doctrine of independence of the electoral body.
Turning embassies into polling centres will precipitate a protracted legal litigation on the legality of roping into the electoral process the envoys abroad serving at the courtesy and patronage of the president, an incumbent in the same contest.
This scenario will inadvertently absolve Mr Hassan and his team from blame and by extension, all the political parties since none of them has the financial muscle to dispatch agents to all the 48 Kenya’s missions.
It took decades of wading through electoral reforms for Germany, Austria and Switzerland to put in place the “Emigrant Voting Rights Law”. In Germany the process dates back to German Reich and was adopted into the Federal Election Act of 1949 and 1953.
It began by extending voter’s registration to the soldiers on war and became a catalyst for fundamental elections law reforms based on a refined Population Database on which the “Emigrant Voting Rights” is established – other countries are gradually adopting the concept using different criterion.
Coupled with other impediments already discussed, lack of population data from the Immigration department or National Bureau of Statistics the IEBC is in a quandary created by non-other than the drafters of the new Constitution.
It is common for experts in different fields to err and they often have justification for their decisions. The Committee of Experts (CoE) may have been inclined to accept a number of proposals out of external pressure. The provision of Universal Suffrage was one of them but it turned to be a mirage.
Nevertheless, it is necessary that the mistakes of the CoE are identified and isolated for scrutiny. In the case of the Diaspora voting, the men and women on that panel should be held accountable for their failure. As Kenyans, they ought to have known our proclivity to elections malpractices and dishonesty since independence, to insert the Universal Suffrage provision in the Constitution.
By Mickie Ojijo
Freelance journalis and secretary of Kenya Development Associates-Germany.