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Voter apathy: So many elections but very little gain for struggling Kenyans

By Christine Mungai | February 18th 2017
Mombasa residents queue to register as voters outside Huduma Center offices in Mombasa County on Thursday,016th February,2017. This follows extension of Mass Voter registration exercise. PHOTO BY MAARUFU MOHAMED/STANDARD.

This week, there was a predicable last-minute rush by Kenyans to register as the mass voter registration exercise entered its final stretch.

There have been stories of registration desks lying forlorn and deserted for the past three weeks, only for queues to stretch at the eleventh hour.

And that ultra-last-minute extension of the drive for five extra days until February 19 was a “Kenyan” move at its purest. There were sheepish looks on the faces of those caught out. “Nimejipata hapa tu,” (I have just found myself here), said one hapless voter when asked to account for her tardiness, television cameras and microphones thrust in her face.

It’s easy to dismiss such behaviour as one of those Kenyan, or African mysteries.

The more common approach is to chalk it up to “voter apathy”, or even worse, as one daily newspaper put it this week: “voter indiscipline.”

But there’s much more to the idea of so-called apathy, and to understand it we must begin with the coercive tone that the whole registration exercise has had. There have been reports of all kinds of administrative and social coercion in the past four weeks to get people to register.

Boda boda and matatu associations have refused to carry passengers who don’t have a voter’s card.

Witholding sex

At the Coast, Mombasa Women Rep Mishi Mboko urged women to withhold sex until their husbands or partners were registered.

In Muranga, bar owners signed a resolution not to serve any customer who does not have a voter’s card.

In Vihiga, instructions were issued that bursary beneficiaries (presumably tertiary-age students) had to prove they were registered voters before funds were disbursed.

Last week, Embu County Commissioner Esther Maina threatened to conduct random inspections in homes to hunt down anyone not registered to vote; to arrest the unregistered and deny them public services, including food aid for those facing drought.

And it even reached absurd levels — in Kirinyaga, Bishop Daniel Njagi of the Africa Revival Christian Church said he would not serve Holy Communion to anyone in his congregation who was not registered.

The legality, ethics and morality of such threats not withstanding, this is not normal behaviour in a democracy. But it has its roots on the widely accepted notion of the “tyranny of numbers”, that an election in Kenya is nothing more than an ethnic census, and whoever marshalls the largest number of ethnically-ascribable votes wins even before a single ballot is cast.

One of the basic human psychological needs we all have is autonomy. Rich or poor, young or old, we all crave to have the sense that there is some sense of power, however small, in one’s own life — that my choices, indeed, have consequences.

The “tyranny of numbers” erodes people’s sense of autonomy. It reduces them to pawns, children or sheep to be threatened with hunger, involuntary teetotalism, sexual drought or spiritual exclusion should they not comply, for whatever reason.


Whether they would, indeed, vote as an ethnic block is another discussion altogether. What matters is that its very persistence as a dominant political narrative is degrading to everyone.

It has left wounds on our collective psyche, and one of the ways people deal with the very real and menacing political bullying is by passive-aggressively dragging one’s feet in so-called “apathy”.

Here’s why. Data from Afrobarometer, a series of national public attitude surveys on democracy suggests that if a country is (practically speaking) a quasi-democracy or electoral autocracy, it will hold regular elections but without a chance of any real impact on entrenched interests. The problem with such a political set-up is that voting no longer becomes an expression of one’s favoured candidate, or even as an instrument to measure popular sentiment. It is now a demonstration of allegiance.

But in order to maintain the veneer of legitimacy, it is important that an authoritarian regime can demonstrate (or force) some level of public participation.

Under such conditions, where your vote is likely to be futile — but if you vote, you will be counted as part of the voter turnout — the Afrobarometer data showed that many citizens choose to “disengage” from politics in order to avoid legitimising the whole charade.

This is particularly evident among better educated citizens, the data shows, who may place a higher premium on values such as self-expression and individual voice than on social conformity, and so shun the “cheerleading” of incumbents that is associated with quasi-democracies.

So, far from being a product of ignorance or indiscipline, apathy is arguably a tactical move to deny quasi-democracies the legitimacy they so badly need, a passive-aggressive protest vote.

Resurgent streak

There is evidence of this all over Africa, especially in the wake of democratic reversals and as a resurgent streak of authoritarianism quietly creeps over the continent.

Most African countries have already had four or more elections in the multiparty era. For most, the first poll — nearly all held in the early 1990s when a wave of democratic change swept the continent — voter turnout was at a healthy 65 per cent and higher.

But it has been dropping ever since with a few exceptions, according to data from the Voter Turnout Database, a collation of election data from around the world compiled by the Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance (IDEA), as voters get the nagging sense that ultimately, elections have little real meaning.

In Uganda, voter turnout was at 72.6 per cent in 1996, but dropped to 70.3 per cent five years later. In 2006, when the country returned to multiparty politics (but removed presidential term limits), 69.2 per cent of voters turned up, and in 2011 it was even lower at 59.3 per cent.

It is only with opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s unexpectedly enthusiastic campaign last year that saw voter turnout surge again in 2016 to 67.6 per cent.

It is the same case in Tanzania, where the hotly contested 2000 election had a turnout of 84.4 per cent, but has dropped steadily over the next two cycles: it was 72 per cent in 2005, and just 42.8 per cent in 2010 when incumbent Jakaya Kikwete was up for re-election.

Again, the dramatic polarisation of the rich but corruption-tainted Edward Lowassa against the establishment candidate John Magufuli energised the electorate enough in 2015 to push voter turnout to 67.3 per cent in 2015.

Kenya’s trend has been slightly different, with turnout much more spiky than its East African neighbours.

It is a result of the country’s noisy, dissenting, freewheeling version of democratic politics, and the lack of the legacy of socialist conformity or military discipline in its politics that sets it apart from the rest of East Africa. In other words, there is a lot “up for grabs”, and anyone and anything is fair game. The political system is unstable enough to be tipped over either way — this shows up in the jerky voter turnout over the past two decades.

In the 1992 election that brought in multiparty politics, turnout was 58.8 per cent. It rose to 65.5 per cent in 1997, when the opposition was even more fragmented than it was in 1992.

The election that saw the defeat of Kanu in 2002, believe it or not, had the lowest turnout in Kenya’s multiparty history, at 57.2 per cent. It is as if Kenyans were so battered by the Kanu regime that they were even afraid to hope. But all that changed in 2007, where the highly polarised poll — which would later disintegrate into violence — had an even higher turnout than the one that dislodged Kanu, at 69.1 per cent.

And in 2013, the threat of the International Criminal Court over Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto whipped up the country’s political mood — both for and against — so much that voter turnout was a record 85.9 per cent.


In countries where there is no such polarisation, or where the political system is not unstable enough for your vote to be important, voter turnout is much lower.

In the Republic of Congo, for example, a constitutional referendum in 2015 in which Denis Sassou-Nguesso sought an extension of term limits had an estimated voter turnout of just 10 per cent.

Witnesses reportedly said that at locations in Brazzaville, police were the only people milling about at polling stations, idly guarding the empty ballot boxes. Still, Sassou-Nguesso got his way and won his re-election bid a few months later.

But there are a few exceptions in Africa, places where there little contestation or meaningful choice, yet voter turnout is sky high.

In Rwanda, which by all measures is an illiberal democracy, voter turnout was 96 per cent in 2003, and 97 per cent in 2010, even if Paul Kagame had no real opposition, and both times was virtually elected unopposed.

It’s the same case in Ethiopia, where voter turnout has been 90 per cent and higher for the past 15 years, even though opposition politics is stifled far underground.

It’s a stunning demonstration of compliance in both countries, and evidence of the state’s executive capacity in getting down to every little village and getting people to the ballot box. The majority of African countries do not have this kind of executive strength.

It is not enough that opposition parties are not allowed to operate freely; Rwandan and Ethiopian voters still get out and vote in what is obviously a foregone conclusion — and they are not even passive-aggressive in expressing any disapproval they might have, as in the rest of Africa.

The lesson here is that apathy is not always apathy, and conversely, those 90 per cent and higher turnouts could be more about the strength of the state than the attitude of the people. There are layers to these things.

— Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com

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