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Waiting for an election-proof Kenya

Another general election looms. Because this is Kenya, that could mean some or all of the following:

Heightened tension. Hate speech. Fake news. Reversion to tribal identity. Insults and counter-insults. Voter suppression. Gerrymandering. Rigging and counter-rigging. Anxiety and nervousness. Economic standstill. Ethnic displacement. And, if the worst happens, botched results followed by mayhem.

Why are we like this? We take it for granted that our elections have most of these features, but why should they?

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that they are: not making any major investments until the dust has cleared on this election; relocating over the election period (to tribal cocoons for the average family or overseas for the well-heeled); or just wishing election week would be over and done with.

An election is just this: a periodic opportunity for the populace to choose its leaders. That is it. It absolutely does not need to be a time for drama, crisis, institutional failure, economic distress or worse.

After half a century of holding elections, we should be more than capable for rocking up to polling stations nonchalantly, marking our preferred boxes while whistling softly, and going home for a snooze safe in the knowledge that correct tabulation of the results will be done and true winners declared, after which things will continue pretty much as before.

Not in these parts, though. Here, elections are a time for popping eyeballs, bulging veins, sleepless nights, hysterical rhetoric, insane promises and massive vote-buying. The stakes are huge for those who participate. It’s make or break for them. Win, and you seem to get the keys to the kingdom as though we are still a monarchy. Lose, and you rot on the failure pile nursing debts and ignominy.

No wonder some seem ready to go to extreme lengths to win.

Are we cursed to go to the polls in this dangerously primitive way? Not at all. We bring it on ourselves.

We bring it on ourselves because we refuse to stop thinking like 19th century tribesfolk who need to protect their territories from usurpers and aliens. We bring it on ourselves because we refuse to grow up and stop worshipping demigods. We bring it on ourselves because we sell our votes rather than honour them. We bring it on ourselves because we accept mediocrity and failed development. We bring it on ourselves because we don’t think we can and should be better than this.

I still hope to see an election in my lifetime that passes without incident; where all people vote without fear and accept the results without suspicion; where vote counts are quick, transparent and credible; where rightful winners get their due; where victors celebrate without gloating and losers concede without whining; where not one drop of blood is spilt.

You can do something about this. You can step up to the line on Tuesday and vote with your conscience and with your brain. You can vote for those who stand for nationhood, not chauvinism. You can vote for those who will lead you in the 21st century, not drag you back into the 19th. You can vote for character, integrity and sincerity wherever you see it. You can vote out anyone who has failed to uplift the greater mass of people. If enough people vote like that, we will be sorted out in just two or three electoral cycles.

For whom should you vote? I have no idea, and nor should I. It’s your call, entirely. You need to have the discernment and wisdom to vote for the greater good and for the longer term. Vote for the lesser evil if you have to. And if you can’t find anyone worthy of your vote, leave those boxes blank. Don’t propagate failure. Vote from the biggest part of yourself, not the smallest.

If we can learn how to vote properly, we may someday have politician-proof institutions and an election-proof economy. That’s the prize to aim for: where no one person is bigger than the nation; where institutions outlast individuals; where leaders are managers who fulfil their prescribed duties and then go; where an election is momentarily interesting but has no real effect on our lives.

I still hope we get through the next week unscathed because whatever happens turns out to be fair, credible and dignified. Am I hoping for too much? Perhaps. But I do know that you have your role to play. You have your vote. If you cast it with wisdom, you will have done your part.

(Sunday Nation, 6 August 2017)

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