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Kenya’s first paperless census will shift political boundaries

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Friday, 12 July 2019 17:17

Many labour markets in Africa remain dominated by poorly paid informal employment. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Kenya's eighth population census, happening in just over a month, will significantly alter electoral boundaries, inform the referendum question and shape the next elections.

The exercise, which begins on the night of 24 August, will incorporate a temporary staff of 170,000 enumerators, recruited in a process that ended on 12 July. The entire census process will cost KSh18.5bn ($180m), up from KSh8.4bn for the 2009 census.

  • The census will also, for the first time, be paperless, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). Using technology will reduce the time needed to process the data from six to three months. The 164,700 data-capture devices are being assembled at two local universities at a cost of KSh15,000 each.
  • KNBS director-general Zachary Mwangi says the bureau “is working round the clock to ensure preparations for the census are completed within the agreed timelines and meet the internationally recognised thresholds.”
  • Among the sectors the statistics body wants to capture more information on is agriculture. While agriculture contributes a quarter of Kenya’s GDP, previous censuses have only captured livestock data. This time, though, Mwangi says the census will have a whole module on agriculture.

While the cost – at about KSh400 for every one of nearly 50 million Kenyans – has been an issue, other major concerns include just how radically it will shift Kenya’s political boundaries.

Dispute over Kenyan Somalis

During the last census, in 2009, the most controversial issue was the total population of Kenyan Somalis. While it had been growing exponentially since independence, and more so after the collapse of Somalia, the initial reports that there were 2.4 million Kenyan Somalis in 2009 were disputed.

  • The government initially nullified the results, which had placed the community among Kenya’s biggest ethnic groups. The main issue for statisticians was that the population growth, from a high of 962,142 in 1999 to more than 2 million a decade later, did not correspond to birth and death rates.
  • The issue was eventually settled in court, where the initial results were upheld. The last Household Budget Survey, in 2015, also found that Wajir, Garissa and Mandera – three counties that are primarily home to Kenyan Somalis – had significantly higher household sizes than the national average, as well as low school attendance of under 50%.

Such statistics still matter in Kenyan politics, where voting patterns are broadly predictable along ethnic lines. Beyond the politics of identity, though, the population aspect is critical for legislative boundaries, which makes it an existential issue for politicians. What follows the census is a new boundary review by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which will be heavily influenced by the population figures.

  • The 2010 constitution states that there will be 290 constituencies, but the electoral body can review the names and boundaries of constituencies every 8 to 12 years, as long as the review happens at least 12 months before the next elections. It also gives the body the power to change the names, number and boundaries of wards, whose representatives make up the county assemblies.
  • The central determinant for the review is the population quota, which is obtained by dividing the total population of the country by the number of legislative units. In the last boundary review, in 2010, the population quota was 133,000 people. Even by that figure, at least 27 constituencies were at risk of being scrapped, but survived due to a safeguard incorporated in a transitional clause.

Resistance to boundary changes

In March, a broad grouping of political leaders, mainly from northern Kenya and pastoralist regions, said it would not allow any alterations to the current boundaries. In the senate, a bill sponsored by Jubilee senator Kipchumba Murkomen seeks to amend the law so that the electoral body has to submit its boundary review report to parliament for approval.

Within the boundaries question is also the question of resource allocation. While allocations to the devolved units were initially pegged on population and poverty levels, they are now shared on the basis of economic strength. Fourteen counties in disadvantaged areas benefit from the Equalisation Fund, which has been an issue as other counties seek extra funding as well.

  • In May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta and other leaders threw their support behind an amendment to include the urban poor in the Fund, a move that was opposed by legislators mainly from arid and semi-arid areas.

Heading for a referendum?

Another issue that the census report will shape is the referendum question. Although most political leaders seem to agree that a referendum is necessary, they differ on what exactly it should be about. One effort, led by former presidential candidate Ekuru Aukot’s Thirdway Alliance, is focused on reducing the number of representatives by reducing the number of constituencies, and getting rid of the woman representative and deputy governor positions.

Bottom line: For most of Kenya’s 50 million people, the census is one of those rare government exercises that do not immediately amount to much beyond the discomfort of answering a barrage of slightly invasive questions. For Kenya’s political class and economic mandarins, though, the eighth census will provide a basis for decision-making for the next decade.


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