Kenya 2022 elections: Let the game of numbers begin

By Son Gatitu

Posted on Thursday, 14 October 2021 17:56
An official from the IEBC inspects ballot boxes at Kasarani gymnasium in Kenya's capital Nairobi March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has begun a nationwide voter registration 10 months ahead of the general election. The commission is looking to enlist at least 7.2 million new voters, and for the political class, this is both an opportunity and a threat. The seven million potential voters, mostly young people, could easily tilt the election. It is now a game of numbers in what has historically been a tribe-based electoral contest.

In Kenya, for one to participate in an election, they must be over 18 years of age and have an identity card, the primary identification document for an adult. Kenyan law requires the IEBC to conduct continuous voter registration for Kenyans who reach the age of majority. This is however not the case as the commission perennially complains of limited resources and a lack of motivation for potential voters to enlist.

According to the country’s 2019 census report, there are over 27 million Kenyans above the age of majority. In 2017, there were 19.6 million voters in the electoral register, but with population growth and changing age structure, Kenya now has at least 14.7 million youth aged between 18-35. This accounts for 52% of the adult population, all of whom ought to be enlisted.

A conversation has emerged in Kenya over the potential of young voters, especially first-timers, to tilt the election. Beatrice Elachi, the chief administrative secretary at the ministry of public service and gender affairs says: “If we get eight million new voters, they [can] tilt the election.”

If we can get the youth to register to vote, it [can be] a very big plus for democracy.”

However, “politicians also fear numbers, those that have been there for more than 10 [to] 15 years; they would not want to see new voters because they know these are the ones who will remove them from leadership”, Elachi said in a television interview.

Boni Khalwale, a former senator of Kakamega in Western Kenya, is optimistic that the new youthful vote could raise his chances of being elected governor in his county. “The voters I appeal most to are the youth followed by women. If we can get the youth to register to vote, it [can be] a very big plus for democracy.”

But where are the numbers?

Just like in the run-up to the 2013 and 2017 general elections, the bulk of new voters are in the expansive Central Kenya and Rift Valley regions, strongholds of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, which propelled them to victory.

The Rift Valley region, with 14 counties, is targeting to enlist over 1.7 million new voters out of a national total of 7.2 million. This would push its total number of registered voters to 6.4 million.

On the other hand, Central Kenya seeks to capture over 1 million new voters in its five counties (Murang’a, Kiambu, Nyeri, Kirinyaga and Nyandarua). This would push its voter population to 4 million.

In comparison however, Central Kenya’s five counties have predominantly voted as a bloc, unlike the Rift Valley whose well-dispersed and multi-ethnic 14 counties have attracted different political persuasions.

Battle for the Mountain

Leaders from the larger Mount Kenya region (that comprises Meru, Embu, Tharaka Nithi, Nakuru, Laikipia and the five central Kenya counties) have been packaging the entire bloc as the ‘political bride of 2022’. Combined, they had 5.3 million voters in 2017 and this number could rise to 7.3 million voters, making it the single most influential region in the 2022 election.

The two top presidential hopefuls are aware of the significance of the Mount Kenya vote. In recent weeks, Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga have crisscrossed the region several times, sometimes returning to a county that the other visited the previous day or weekend, ultimately engaging in political checkmating.

On Sunday 10 October, Odinga visited Nakuru and Laikipia counties in one afternoon, addressing several stopover meetings in local towns.

Where was he, the one who was ‘barking’ here? Raila is a friend of the mountain.

A day before Raila’s visit, Ruto had spent an afternoon in Laikipia demolishing his rival’s narrative. “There are people who have just discovered there’s a mountain,” Ruto said. “I welcome those looking for ‘network coverage’ in the mountain. This is our base.”

In his response, Raila said: “Where was he, the one who was ‘barking’ here? Raila is a friend of the mountain.” He also reminded Kenyans about the 2002 elections saying: “I said Kibaki Tosha (Kibaki is fit)…when I said Kibaki Tosha, didn’t I know he was Kikuyu? I knew [that the] Kikuyu are Kenyans.”

In 2002, Raila had backed Mwai Kibaki’s candidature catapulting him to a record win of 62% of the vote. “That time everyone said Raila is a brave leader,” said Raila.

Business interests on the ballot

On 28 September, a group of wealthy and influential businessmen from Mount Kenya hosted a luncheon for Raila to discuss their interests in the 2022 general election. On 7 October, a similar meeting was held in honour of One Kenya Alliance (OKA) leaders – Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi, Gideon Moi and Moses Wetangula.

Raila and OKA leaders are keen on the support of the Mount Kenya business community. Since 2007, this community has always backed a presidential candidate from the region and this has always propelled the individual to win the election. Kibaki was a beneficiary of the business community’s support in 2007, while Kenyatta gained from this backing in 2013 and 2017.

Ruto is however taking a different approach. “I can’t go for an interview in a hotel, I will come to the people for an interview by the voter,” Ruto told a gathering in Laikipia on 9 October.

Voting blocs

Aside from the mountain and the Rift valley regions, other blocs are positioning to register as many voters for what will be political negotiations.

  • Nyanza region for instance, which has six counties (Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Migori, Kisii and Nyamira) could register 3.7 million voters if an estimated one million new voters enlist. Nyanza has predominantly backed Raila since the 2007 general election.
  • Western Kenya’s four counties (Vihiga, Bungoma, Kakamega and Busia) could raise its stakes to 2.6 million registered voters should more than 700,000 new voters sign up. Vihiga County is home to Mudavadi, leader of the Amani National Congress (ANC) and a presidential hopeful.

For presidential contenders to be assured of a formidable run in Kenya, they require a convincing backing from their home region. Western Kenya, however, is a battlefield where Raila has wielded significant influence in previous elections (2007, 2013 and 2017).

Surviving the game of numbers

The Coast region is hoping to enlist over 600,000 new voters to raise its stakes to 2.3 million. It has some of the poorest and least educated populations – in Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, Tana River, Lamu and Taita Taveta counties – despite its recognition as a top tourism destination and gateway to the Kenyan economy through the Mombasa port.

Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho has been urging residents to raise their political bargaining chip. The second time governor, who will be completing his tenure in 2022, is billing for national politics under Raila’s ODM party.

On the other hand, the Ukambani region (comprising Machakos, Makueni and Kitui counties) has consistently voted with Musyoka, a former vice president and leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement. It could raise its voting numbers to over two million should more than 560,000 new voters enlist.

[…] the votes are still significant for a presidential election that can be decided by just one vote above the 50% mark, as per the constitutional threshold.

For the North Eastern region (that encompasses Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties) 185,000 new voters would raise its voting population to 687,000. Though not as high a number as other regions, the votes are still significant for a presidential election that can be decided by just one vote above the 50% mark, as per the constitutional threshold.

A winning candidate must also secure at least 25% of the valid votes in at least 24 counties across the country.

In the 2017 presidential election, Kenyatta garnered 8.2 million votes against Raila’s 6.7 million. Kenyatta had secured 35 counties with more than quarter of their vote, while Raila secured 29. However, the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified that election forcing a repeat poll in October that year.

A starved commission

For the IEBC though, theirs is a statutory assignment: to ensure every eligible Kenyan is given an opportunity to decide at the ballot. Wafula Chebukati, the commission’s chairperson, has decried lack of adequate resources to finance the voter listing exercise.

“The commission’s budget is Ksh40.9bn ($369m), the allocation we have by the National Treasury is Ksh26.5bn,” Chebukati says. “…we have a deficit of Ksh14.5bn which must be bridged by the relevant authority.”

The impact of the deficit is already being felt in the commission’s deployment of voter registration kits, which have been cut down by half. “We have allocated three kits per ward, which will be going round,” Chebukati says. “We hope to hit our target. If we don’t then we shall be doing mass voter registration next year in January.”

Thomas Letangule, a former commissioner of the IEBC, defends the commission’s budget. “[As] much as we have constraints of funds to do other things for the country, we should concentrate on ensuring IEBC is well funded for them to run their programmes as per the law.”

Mahiri Zaja, who served as the commission’s vice chairperson between November 2011 and October 2016, agrees.  “When you put pressure on [the] IEBC and they are unable to deliver [for lack of resources] and still you want to throw stones at them, we are not being fair as Kenyans.”

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