“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing. Sees nothing. Takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans of flour, of rent, of medicine, all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and say he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political non-participation is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of exploitative national and multinational companies.”
Thus said Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, a German philosopher who lived in the 19th century. But two decades later and several countries apart, his words can be used to describe the political situation in Kenya today.
Even though many Kenyans have listed up as voters and are excited to take part in the forthcoming elections, a spot-check on the streets by the Star returned a disgraceful verdict on the level of voter and political literacy.
Less than 25 days to the August 8 general election, most of those who signed up to take part in the election as voters had no idea of those vying for specific elective posts and processes on election day. Surprisingly, some candidates, too, could not give a clear explanation on the role of the posts they were seeking.
Tom Mogire, 34, a matatu driver plying the Kikuyu-Nairobi route, keeps quiet, reflects a bit, and scratches his head in an attempt to search for answers on who he will be voting for as his MCA, MP, woman representative and governor.
“Hapo umenipata. By the way, I don’t know. All I know is I will be voting for NASA candidates under Raila Odinga,” he responds, explaining that he isn’t bothered about what will happen on election day.
“We will have IEBC officials who will guide us. Why should I bother so much about ballot papers that I will be given and shown how to mark?” he adds, engaging a passenger on the front seat to help in seeking the answers, too.
“I am for Jubilee. I will cast my vote for Uhuru Kenyatta as the President and anyone riding on a similar ticket,” Abel Tarus, 27, who resides in Westlands, said as he disembarked at Delta House stage.
Before the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, voters on election date used to cast their vote only for the President, MP and councillor. Unlike then, where they used to get only three ballot papers, now under the devolved system, they receive six ballot papers for President, governor, senator, MP, woman representative and MCA.
At Kencom bus station, the situation is almost similar, with most of those we spoke to only mentioning Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta and a couple of some few governor candidates, but could barely list the other candidates for parliamentary and county assemblies in their respective constituencies.
They also remained clueless on how many electoral positions they will be casting votes in.
Despite knowing the frontrunners in the presidential race, all the respondents we spoke to had not interacted or even seen their manifestos and could not even mention what the candidates and their parties represents. They also had no clear information on what is expected of them as voters now and on election day.
NO CIVIC EDUCATION
Public ignorance on electoral processes, candidates and their roles a few days to the election is worrisome, electoral experts said. They blamed it on state institutions’ failure to conduct civic and voter education.
Lack of knowledge hinders voters’ ability to gauge the candidates, evaluate political viewpoints, understand how the government works and the processes in an electoral cycle, compromising their overall participation.
“An uninformed voter is dangerous for our democracy and for the general good of our country. It is important for the population to internalise that we do elections to choose leaders to be in charge of resource production and distribution,” Elections Observation Group coordinator Mule Musau said.
Willis Otieno, an advocate of the High Court and an election expert, said Kenya is where it is because civic and voter education have been abandoned.
“Compared to previous elections, this is the worst, with a significant voter who is not educated on the entire election process. This cuts across those who have gone to school and hold degrees and those who haven’t, because all are politically illiterate,” he said.
Brian Weke, an electoral expert, blames the low level of awareness on political and electoral processes on lack of prioritisation and belittling of the need for civic education.
“You remember the President late last year himself dismissing the need for civic education, arguing that Kenyans know how to vote. What followed was a spirited attack on agencies that conducted civic education, and since then, there has been minimum civic education,” Weke said.
He said the Malindi and other recent by-elections showed voter illiteracy is on an alarming increase.
“With days to the election, most voters don’t know that NASA won’t be on ballot but it will be ODM [and other affiliate parties]. Others don’t know whether they will use IDs or just biometrics, how many ballots papers they need and even how to mark them,” Weke said.
VOTERS’ LATENT POWER
He reiterated that the illiteracy isn’t confined to voters only. Candidates as well don’t really comprehend the roles and powers in their areas of contention, saying this explains why many senators have refused to defend their seats in the Senate and opted for governor and MP seats.
For instance, the public still holds that MCAs are glorified councillors of the defunct municipal councils, he said.
“An uninformed populace jeopardises the tenets of democracy,” he said.
Otieno said the situation will compromise accountability at local and national levels, as the public doesn’t know what to expect from its leaders.
“What happened in 2013 is that the election came on the heels of the new constitution, which had been highly marketed through intense civic engagement, creating a sense of enlightenment in voters. But now we are experiencing a total lapse,” Otieno said.
He said the IEBC and the government should play their part in voter education and civic education.
Otieno said the commission should take advantage of the voters’ mood to go flat out and carry out massive voter education to salvage the situation. “Otherwise, we might see a low voter turnout, and those who will line up on election date will cast their votes wrongly, thus leading to many spoilt votes.”
Mule said vigorous voter education by the IEBC is necessary and urgent, but the long-term solution is national political education.
“Beyond voter education that is desperately needed for the elections to come, Kenyans need a deep understanding of the power they have and the responsibility or civic duties of the politicians,” he said.
“The media is doing well in profiling some of the candidates to help them make choices, but that is not enough, as we have over half of the voters with no knowledge on electoral process. Most Kenyans think it is okay to receive bribes from the politicians because they don’t understand that receiving the bribes is illegal.”
Weke urged the IEBC to fund and work with non-state actors with grassroots reach to help raise awareness. He said even though the commission has accredited some voter educators, it has not funded them to carry out real education.