Voter registration – dignity is paramount minus threats

Last week, I witnessed an elderly man being accosted and beaten up by people young enough to be his children. His crime, you ask? Not possessing the voter ID card.

The zeal around voter registration is a good thing. Like a journalist’s pen, a voter ID card is a powerful tool for the citizens to decide how they are governed. I may not agree with the motive for the surge of the enthusiasm, for it seems driven by a desire to lock out some, and bring in others based purely on superficial factors such as tribe, clan and region rather than issues, merit and personal integrity. Whatever the case, I have utmost respect for people’s right to vote whichever way they want.

It is, however, regrettable that certain individuals and groups are now taking advantage of the ongoing voter registration campaign to abuse the rights of others by demanding to know their voter registration status and inflicting punishment or denying service to individuals who cannot prove that they have registered as voters.

Vihiga County Governor was reported as saying the county government won’t give services to residents without a voter’s card. Public transport operators in some of the parts of the country have allegedly refused to carry passengers who don’t possess ID cards while others have gone to the extreme of beating up and forcing people to register. A priest in Embu even announced he will deny his congregants holy communion unless they proved they had registered as voters.

Voting is a right but it is not compulsory. No part of Kenya’s laws requires that a citizen who has reached the age of maturity must register to vote. Secondly, an individual can possess a voter’s card but still fail to turn out for the vote. Threatening, harassing, humiliating or beating up people can actually achieve the opposite effect, creating serious voter apathy.

Contrary to common belief, individuals who don’t participate in the election of political leaders do not lose the right to demand services and to hold leaders accountable. One needs only to be a citizen to demand better governance from the elected leadership. We must learn to respect the rights of others to not exercise their rights.

Rather than allowing unconstitutional methods to nudge people to register as voters, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), political parties and other relevant government agencies should establish why people shy away from the voting process. Some people may be so disillusioned with the integrity of the electoral process that they cease to believe their votes will make a difference. Others may be disappointed with the integrity and performance of the political class they chose to keep off altogether while others may be worried about the outbreak of violence during electioneering period. Yet others may have no specific reason for keeping off and they shouldn’t be victimized for that.

The nation seems to be crying for selfless, ethical and value based leadership, a credible electoral process, decisive action on corruption and bad governance and service delivery instead of political campaigns throughout the electoral cycle. We are currently faced with severe drought, acute water stress, death of livestock and famine in many parts of the country, especially in the arid and semiarid regions. At the same time, medical doctors serving in public health facilities have been on strike for over two months now, as are public university lecturers. Yet the politicians seem preoccupied with getting long suffering people to register as voters at the expense of these serious issues. Who will speak for the ordinary mwananchi? Why are they being used to help waheshimiwas achieve their dreams while no one cares for their interests?

For long, we have voted along tribal lines. We have privileged ethnicity over merit. Yet, in return, all we have received is theft of public resources, sloppy services and contempt for our efforts. It is time to change tact. We certainly cannot keep doing the same thing every five years and still expect different results.

Let us take responsibility for our country and for posterity. Let us vote out leaders who have not performed irrespective of their ethnic background. Let us reject politicians’ money and decide for ourselves who deserves our vote whether they are moneyed or not, but most of all, allow people to exercise their democratic rights freely without resorting to coercion and methods that takes away their rights to make decisions freely. Let us surprise ourselves for once.

Mr. Justus Nyang’aya is the Country Director of Amnesty International Kenya. You can reach him on justus.nyangaya@amnesty.or.ke

This op-ed was first published on The Standard on Wednesday, 8th February 2017.

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