By Dennis Mbae Photos: Africa Uncensored
“If Kenyan politicians were to serve the citizenry as they are when vote-hunting, many Kenyans would not be going hungry or living from hand to mouth.”
Kennedy Ouko, a newspaper vendor, lays this on me with a matter-of-fact tone, so well placed in this very Kenyan of afternoons; it’s hot, matatu touts are yelling, and irritated drivers are pulverizing their horns. We are seated at his newspaper stall along Tom Mboya Street. Once in a while, our conversation is interrupted as Ouko rises from his seat to attend to a customer. They come by in irregular drips, so he has time to lay out what the world looks like from his stoop.
For over five years, Ouko has been selling and distributing newspapers from this spot. I ask him about his views on what’s in the news, and his slight frame shudders with embarrassed laughter. “To be honest, I only skim the headlines. I don’t have time for in-depth reading,” he says.
I ask some more.
He initially thought I was looking for “expert” opinions, so he had shelved his own experience. I discover that he does make the time to read about issues that directly affect him. Most recently, his daily routine was badly affected by the regular demonstrations organized by the opposition in its clamor for the disbandment of the electoral body. The poll body’s commissioners have since agreed to vacate office on condition that they are paid salaries and allowances for the remainder of their term which expires in November 2017.
“I almost got injured on the first day of demonstrations as I ran away with my entire stock. The next day, hundreds of newspapers from the previous day lay in my house. No one wants stale news,” Ouko remarks. He adjusts his half-coat and picks up a flywhisk to dust off the various newspapers and magazines on display. Just then, a customer arrives at the stall, picks up one of the dailies and is about to pay when he realizes it is from the previous day. He puts it back as Ouko quickly hands him the right one. Later, Ouko explains to me that he does not get to sell all the newspapers at the end of the day.
A survey by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and Trends and Insight For Africa Research Ltd (TIFA) estimates that newspaper vendors lost revenue of up to Ksh 10,000 every day that demonstrations against the electoral body took place.
Ouko, a Mathare resident, confirms the figure and even sets it at Ksh 12,000. “I long for better days but I doubt anything will improve after the General Election,” he says, again with a bland acceptance of the status quo. Ouko says he has his voters card, ready to go through the motions in an election that he is resigned will not have any effect on his life.
“Voting is a habit,” he says. His countenance says that good leadership after the vote isn’t the result of his habit.
Less than two kilometers away from Ouko’s spot is Muthurwa market. The pathways are teeming with people. There is noise everywhere. Samuel Mutugi, 45, is engrossed in a chit-chat with his colleagues, a few meters from his stall stocked with shoes and denim jeans. I interrupt to talk to him. Diamond PLatinumz, Tanzania’s Bongo Flava blasts from the loudspeakers in a nearby music shop – it creates a dissonance that almost drowns my conversation with Mutugi. He tells me he is used to the racket. “There is nothing I can do about it. Everyone has come here to make money.”
It does not take long for me to learn of his decision not to take part in the upcoming General Election. According to him, casting the ballot is a routine exercise, which never yields tangible results for the common citizen.
“Take my business for instance. I still have to pay daily taxes to the County government even on days when I don’t make any sales,” Mutugi laments. He goes on to rebuke elected leaders for their apparent inaccessibility and unresponsiveness when voters need them most. If he remains adamant in his resolve not to vote, it will be the first time in 20 years that he is willingly forfeiting his voting right.
“But don’t you think your vote can make a change?” I ask.
Unfortunately, he does not want to take part in bringing about the change he desires to see. Like Ouko, Samuel’s problems are more practical than the idealism represented by their voters cards. So Samuel will be staying at home on Election day.
In a phone interview, former Vice Chair of the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), Gabriel Mukele attributes Mutugi’s decision to ignorance arising from poor voter education. “There is a need now more than ever to demonstrate to the electorate why their votes matter. They must understand that bad leaders are elected by good citizens who do not vote.”
Mukele’s remarks mirror a statement by Jessica Musila, the Executive Director of Mzalendo Trust, a Parliamentary Monitoring organization, on what Kenyans can do to ensure good governance.
“The power to change Kenya is in the vote, we don’t need a bloody revolution. If Kenyans vote in leaders on the basis of integrity and not tribal lines or bribery, we have a chance in 2017 to have the Kenya we want,” she says.
If Ouko and Samuel are yardsticks for voter cynicism then there must be people who think, and vote differently. I come across Peninah Wanjiku, a 60-year-old fruit vendor at the Westlands market. She is serving fruit salad onto several plates when I arrive at her outlet. We strike up a conversation as I tame my hunger pangs with some of her fruit. A single serving comprising a mixture of sliced ripe bananas, pineapple, pawpaw, and avocado goes for Ksh 50. That’s the sale price. But the hidden discount in her fruit salad is peace. Wanjiku ventured into this business a few months before the disputed General Election in 2007. The bloody aftermath of that vote which claimed over 1,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands still infuriates her, as it did when she saw her clientele dry up.
During every past election cycle, Wanjiku has left Nairobi for her home area in Kabete, Central Kenya, to cast her vote. She has never thought of changing her voting station and scoffs at the thought of not casting her vote. Many positive changes, she tells me, have taken place in her Constituency since the last General Election. Most notable is the crackdown on illicit brews and rehabilitation of chronic alcoholics.
“At one time, alcoholism threatened to ruin young men in my home area. We would bury at least three young men every week. Rehabilitation has transformed them into productive members of society,” Wanjiku asserts.
She castigates political aspirants who give out money during campaigns in an effort to influence voters. At the same time, she disapproves receipt of money from politicians saying that only serves to impoverish Kenyans even further. “It is impossible to take money from the political class and yet remain objective when voting,”
She adds: “Before I understood the impact of my vote, I would skip elections, but then realized I was forfeiting both my right to vote and to question the wrong choice of leaders.” In retrospect, she says, it is irresponsible for an eligible voter not to exercise their democratic right.Former ECK commissioner Ambassador Jack Tumwa concurs with Wanjiku. He accuses political leaders of taking advantage of a gullible electorate and holding the country at ransom.
Ambassador Jack Tumwa
Tumwa underscores the importance of educating voters and recalls a time when the defunct ECK had to work closely with civil society groups due to lack of funds to promote voter education. Tumwa claims
those in authority at the time were not keen on funding voter education citing the fact that Kenyans had been voting since independence and therefore had nothing new to learn about electoral matters.
“It is in the selfish interest of politicians that voters remain ignorant so they can manipulate and exploit them. But even with the voter education, Kenyans must stop looking up to politicians for direction in life.”
Jessica Musila agrees. She, however, believes there are exemplary leaders among the political class who are dedicated to service delivery and have done exceptionally well in representing the people. “Unfortunately, that group is the minority. The larger majority in the national and county governments are guided by their personal interests,” she tells me. She cites occasions when important Parliamentary business have had to be postponed for lack of quorum.
Interestingly, there are some even among the informed electorate who would vote selectively if that were possible. One such is Winnie Omondi, a taxi operator in Nairobi. During my interaction with her, she says she will participate in the General Election only so she can vote for her current MP who she lauds as a performer.
Like many of those I have spoken to, Ms. Omondi is not optimistic that elected leaders will ever have a direct impact on the lives of Kenyans because nothing ever gets done according to her. Her only concern, even as she prepares to vote, is continued freedom and security in running her taxi business. During the 5-day protests against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission which took place between May and June 2016, she lost revenue of over Ksh 20,000 and had to make adjustments in her monthly budget.
“Besides losing lives and revenue, a lot of property got destroyed. It is noteworthy that all this happened due to anxiety caused by disagreeing leaders and not because IEBC commissioners were fit or unfit to hold office,” Kwame Owino, the CEO of Institute of Economic Affairs explains to me.
A World Bank analysis of the annual GDP growth rates for Kenya indicates a correlation between low economic growth and electioneering periods.
Each of the General Elections since independent Kenya has been characterized by events which would in turn have an impact on Kenya’s political economy. In 1969 when the first General Election was held, Kenya Africa National Union (Kanu) was the only political party that contested after President Jomo Kenyatta banned the Kenya People’s Union.
During the 1974 General Election, the economic growth slowed yet again following a global oil crisis triggered in October 1973 when Arab oil producers imposed an embargo. In 1979, the rate of GDP growth increased when the then acting President Daniel Arap Moi was elected unopposed following the death of Jomo Kenyatta.
The General Election in 1983 was held in the wake of a coup attempt the previous year. In 1988, the last general election was held under a single-party state during which the “mlolongo” queue system was used. Kenya’s economy nearly collapsed in 1992 mainly because of dramatic political reforms driven by the west, and tribal clashes that displaced thousands. The General Election in 1997 also witnessed tribal clashes and destruction from El-Nino rains. President Moi’s closest challenger Mwai Kibaki contested the results but lost. During that period, tourism earnings dropped by almost 12 per cent. When Kibaki came to power in 2002, economic growth slowed down but accelerated the following year with the end of Kanu ruling.
The economy grew by a rate of seven per cent in 2007 only to spiral down the following year due to the post poll chaos. In 2013 during which the first election was held under a new Constitution, Kenya’s economy grew at 5.7 per cent but dropped by 0.4 per cent in 2014.
“We are keenly following the trend to see at what rate the economy will grow in 2017,” says Owino.
The units of measure of any hope that Kenya’s economy can grow during an election are Kenyans like Ouko, Mutugi, Wanjiku and Winnie. They each in the dark are holding different parts of the same elephant, unable to name why they can’t clearly see the connection between their votes and their daily struggles.
“To vote properly, we need a national stream of consciousness that puts Kenya first and not tribe. Kenyans must acknowledge they face similar challenges regardless of the tribe; the difference is only in the severity,” Ms. Musila states.