Kenyans Need to Start Voting for Policies, Not Personalities

By Selline Korir

Nairobi's slums are still anxious about the outcome of Monday's elections. Here's what's wrong with Kenya's elections and how we can fix them.

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A plain-clothed policeman stands in front of ballot boxes in a tallying center at Mathare slum in Nairobi, on March 6, 2013. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

As my fellow Kenyans and I anxiously await election results amid hopes that the current calm prevails, the world is watching and waiting to see what emerges, and how that will shape the direction of our country for years to come.

Like many others, I woke up at 4 a.m. on Monday and made my way through the darkness to cast my ballot. The queues were shockingly long, even at that hour. Some people waited up to 10 hours to vote - but this election is so important that it is worth the wait. Even later in the day when businesses would usually be opened and the streets bustling with traffic, pedestrians and street-vendors, there was silence. Many businesses were shut down to allow people to focus on voting, but others closed because of the fear of the violence of five years ago. In terms of the gravity of its outcome, and the potential opportunity that lies ahead, this election is the most critical in my lifetime.

As the Director of the Kenya Tuna Uwezo program ("We have the power" in Kiswahili), a program of the non-profit Global Communities, which is supported by USAID, I work in the densely populated and poverty-impacted informal settlements of Nairobi. Since 2012, we have worked to reduce conflict and build peace among warring factions with long, bitter histories inflamed by ethnic divisions. These communities were further torn apart in the 2007-08 post-election violence and are vulnerable to the political manipulation that could lead to violence today. On Monday, after I voted, I went to check on these Nairobi slums to see how they were faring. They offered starkly different portraits that demonstrate the current tone throughout the country.

Kenyans must have incentives to vote based on policy, not ethnicity.

As I approached the polling station in Kiambiu, businesses remained open and street vendors were selling to largely peaceful voters. At one point, the long queues of frustrated voters began pushing and shoving. The polling station was prepared for the number of voters it received in 2007 - about 3,000 - but this time received about 10,000. However, no major violence broke out and the crowd calmed. The sheer number who turned out to cast their ballots is a true sign of progress in Kiambiu, the site of years of violent conflict. What's more, the people of Kiambiu had the distinct privilege of voting for one of their own at the county level, a moment of hope and promise for an area long plagued by gang activity.

By contrast, the tone in Korogocho was tenser, reflected in part by shut-down businesses and empty streets. Still haunted by the election of 2007, many shopkeepers did not open and had not restocked inventory for fear of looting, vendors had stayed home and even the public transport was not running. This area felt and looked so different from its usual hustle and bustle that at one point I forgot where I was and had to backtrack to get to my destination.

But regardless of differences on election day in these informal settlements, what remains similar across Kenya is the cautious optimism that we also experienced at this point in the 2007 election - a sense of calm tempered by our anxiety about what the reaction will be once the winner is announced. In the last election, people were calm up until the results were announced, and the fear today is that the scenario could play out similarly. We may have an even longer wait to find out what this will look like since we may be in for a runoff, which would delay the final outcome until April.

It is vital, however, to remember that the outcome of this election goes far beyond today or tomorrow and has serious, long-term ramifications for our country. The violence on Monday that led to the deaths of 13 people in Mombasa, the result of disenfranchised secessionists intent on avenging years of political exclusion, is alarming to all Kenyans. These people want to be heard and want change, and will seek to achieve it through any means. And they are not alone.

If we are going to address the root causes of violence in Kenya, the next government must address the grievances of such groups, and has a responsibility to instill policies that bring them in line with areas that are developing peacefully. The violence in the informal settlements is often a microcosm of the violence in the rural areas of Kenya. For the ethnic groups whose representatives are not in government, for the communities who have no control over the land in which they live, and for those who are voting not by personality nor by their ethnic group but for those whom they believe will address their plight - the new government must take their needs seriously. The violence in Mombasa may have happened on election day, but it was a long time in coming - the grievances that preceded it are long-simmering and will continue until these issues are properly addressed.

We also must remember the unfulfilled promises of previous governments. Previous governments have promised heaven, but we have not yet seen heaven come down. Youth unemployment remains rampant and wages are stagnant for those who can find work. To remedy these ills, the people and their elected representatives need to initiate dialogue with their citizens and put in place adequate programs, to see how they can best meet their responsibilities to the people. There needs to be a cohesive structure in place to ensure that development continues and violence is minimized.

Another priority moving forward is that people must have incentives to vote based on policy, not ethnicity. Too often people vote against their interests because they feel loyalty to a party based on ethnicity, not performance or policy. The constitution, promulgated in 2010, provides a viable platform for this, as does the devolution of powers that my fellow Kenyans just voted for, which will provide county-level government and representation. But the new government must seriously invest in this process, so that whichever candidate becomes the president, we ensure that Kenya is the winner.

There is a reason all eyes are on Kenya. We need to press the president we ultimately elect to keep pace with the needs of our poorest communities and our most vulnerable people.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/03/kenyans-need-to-start-voting-for-policies-not-personalities/273778/