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December 14, 2018

A road still under construction

As an American Kenya is getting ready for another close presidential election, while also electing a new National Assembly, a Senate for the first time and governors and county representatives. This is a big, hugely complicated undertaking. 

I am back in as a visitor from the United States for the first time since living in Nairobi in 2007-08, so it is interesting to see and sense what is new and different, and what is similar.

JKIA seems quite the same, considering the passage of five years, but the drive into town from the airport was strangely smooth, with no potholes swallowing the taxi.

Around town, there are new roads as well as quite a lot of new construction. The new roads, though, seem overwhelmed by a more striking number of new cars—so many different models now of more shapes and sizes.

At least in some parts of town there are many more people driving, and many less people walking, but walking must surely be faster than driving at rush hour.

I have a sense that maybe this could be a metaphor for the election process. Big, new, shiny and improved—but somewhat overwhelmed at first by the sheer volume.

Less dust from shuffling feet and fewer careening matatus, but wholly unpredictable as to how long it might take to actually go from the point of departure to one’s destination. 

I first heard a presentation by IEBC Chairman Hassan and people working with him on the new election process in Washington, almost a year ago. I was impressed by the magnitude of the task, and by the candor I heard from the helpers about the challenges.

Now that we are almost there I get the sense that most Kenyans are quite ready to get through with voting and get on with the rest of the business of life.

Because of what happened in the post-election last time, there is a certain loss of innocence which does make me a little sad. Even though the country seems better off in some important respects than it was five years ago, there is a wariness and weariness that was not there before the vote last time.

Visiting from afar this time I have no claim to any special sense of what is really going on beneath the surface, but I can generally accept at face value what I keep hearing--that the great majority of people, having seen “the dark side” of 2008, are determined not to have any part in any type of generalized violence for the sake of politics and that the worst of any violent impulses have been purged by the shock of what happened then.

At the same time, I really cannot buy into some of the public pronouncements of great confidence that things will actually go so smoothly at the polls themselves.

In 2007, the voting did go smoothly, then everything came apart after. This time, I do have optimism that the country will hold together, but I think people should be prepared for “traffic jams” at the polling stations. And why not be so prepared?  If one is stuck in traffic, attitude is everything.

No one gets where they want to go quicker by getting shocked and angry. And if you arrive earlier than you counted on, all the better. The road to better elections and new devolved government under the new constitution is still under construction.

Even the basic legal framework to implement the new constitution is still a work in progress. Being mentally prepared for a few delays and detours makes all good sense. We saw this with the Biometric Voter Registration kit procurement—as well as with the party primaries of course.

There is so much that is new, on such a large scale, that there will surely be some hiccups on election day. Most of these can probably be worked through as long as there is some reservoir of patience. 

The key thing needed is transparency to preserve trust. No false assurances this time. And there are key things that the IEBC can do right now just before the vote to make things safer.

In particular, because we know that voting will take extra time because of all the new offices and the new procedures, tell us what you have decided to do in case voting cannot be completed within a normal daylight closing hour.

Will you keep voters in line and voting late into the night, followed by tallying, or will you continue voting on a second day? Are there shortages of poll books?

If so, how will you allocate the ones you have? What are the other challenges you will need voters to be patient with and what are the contingency plans?

Being open about these things will keep trust and avoid disappointment and surprise. The IEBC is new and fresh from the failures of the past—I think the voters will give the IEBC every chance if there is transparency so that trust is maintained.


Ken Flottman is an American lawyer who is assisting civil society members in troubleshooting for election preparedness.  He lived in Kenya and helped manage an observation effort during the 2007 election.

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