Not Your Cheerleader

The 2022 general elections in Kenya are just months away, and there’s increasing talk of voter “apathy”, “, especially among the youth”. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the body which oversees the elections, last year set a target of registering six million new voters who have become eligible since 2017. They have only managed to register a third of that target, writes Halima Gikandi in a report for The World Radio. Rasi Masudi, director of voter registration and electoral operations at the IEBC is quoted in the story as saying, “We have never seen a situation like this before.”

I don’t know why folks would be surprised at this turn of events. We’ve been a country of political musical chairs and boardroom deals for decades now. The contest is between the same old characters. It’s abundantly clear that the outcome of a presidential election, in particular, isn’t dependent on the number of votes each candidate receives. It is through “extra-legal” means, as Kanyi Wyban writing for De.bunk Media puts it, making voting “an exercise in futility”.

But I wouldn’t be so quick to describe this as straightforward futility. I see the seeming apathy as a valid protest in and of itself, as I’ve argued before, and as so eloquently explained by the formidable Yvonne Okwara in Yvonne’s Take last Thursday (watch it!). Data from Freedom House shows that voter turnout is high in countries that it describes as free, and those that are not free. The former is straightforward – in politically free countries, voting is a genuine demonstration of choice, so people come out and make their voice heard because their voices count.

In electoral autocracies (i.e. not free countries), elections are actually not designed to enable citizen voice or really measure popular preferences; instead, authoritarian regimes compel participation “as a demonstration of allegiance”, and serve to legitimize incumbents, and so voter turnout is compelled to be high.

But in this strange middle ground of what Freedom House calls partly free countries, of quasi-democratic political dysfunction, where your vote is likely to be futile (but you will be counted as part of the voter turnout), voters consistently choose to disengage from voting and even seemingly from “politics”, as participating will give the whole exercise a veneer of legitimacy. This is not just in Kenya but is an African and global phenomenon – of much lower voter turnouts in countries that are neither full democracies nor complete autocracies, the kind that holds regular elections but without a chance of any real impact on entrenched interests.

In other words, in an arena where our choices are limited and the whole thing seems like this bizarre cross between sport and tasteless comedy, what “apathetic” voters are saying is ‘you can put on your performance, but I’m not going to be one of your little cheerleaders, or even be part of the audience’. That’s a valid protest, and should really be seen as such. 

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe. Tired of migrants arriving from Africa, the E.U. has created a shadow immigration system that captures them before they reach its shores, and sends them to brutal Libyan detention centers run by militias. Read this in the context of what’s happening in Ukraine.

 What We’re Watching: The YouTube series THAO by Africa Uncensored, which on the surface is ‘the story of money in Kenya’, but is really an incredibly rich dive into Kenyan economic and political history, narrated in Sheng. Economic histories can be really dry and boring, this is the furthest thing from that – believe me.

 What We’re Listening To:  The Messy Inbetween, a podcast about life, messy as it is – talking about love, money, relationships, friendships, and everything in between. The podcast is hosted by Murugi Munyi and Lydia K. M. (and recorded here at Baraza by Semabox! 😎)

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

Leave a Reply

Contact information

Talk to us, we’d love to hear from you!


Copyright: © 2024 Baraza Media Lab. All Rights Reserved.


We currently have no openings but kindly check out and subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter Barua Ya Baraza for vacancies and opportunities within the broader ecosystem