I swung by my polling station, my village primary school in Sinaga, in Siaya County to ensure that I was on the National Voters Register. I chose the mid-morning because I assumed that the early morning would be buzzing with excited first time voters and political party mobilisers. When I arrived, I thought it was the wrong venue until I noticed the IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) officials seated behind a desk under a lone tree in the school compound. A young man and woman in bright green branded reflective jackets, were glued to their phones, like they were surfing Facebook. After confirming my details, I asked them where everyone was and they shot back a blank look. Traffic had been near absent. We made a joke about Kenyans and our last-minute culture.
The next day, I passed by the same venue to collect some details from the primary school and found the same IEBC duo having chapatti and dengu. They looked relieved to see a familiar face and even invited me for lunch. The numbers were not even trickling in at all.
A day later, I caught the news broadcast, examining the new voter registration over the first week and throughout the country, save for Kiambu, the registration of new voters was far below the projected targets.
Was this what apathy looked like?
The local village political pundit had a different view. He attributed it to the ‘early days’. The politicians had not ‘started walking’ which is the euphemism for handing out motivational cash. It was NJaa-nuary and any little extra cash would be welcome especially with leverage as a potential voter.
There has not been as much buzz around this General Election other than the politicians blowing the standard hot air. When I asked a couple of friends, they said as much. There is a sense of deep political stagnation and retrogression following the Jubilee’s government first term scorecard. The opposition has not been exactly inspiring either.
Through an afternoon of political chit-chat, I did not hear one manifesto mentioned or even an election promise. The selection criteria of possible candidates was reduced to a basic check list. Candidates are chosen for their familiarity, strength of personality and generosity. Usually someone who could speak well in public, had been seen at, a funeral or church fundraiser in the area and was aligned to the mother party. It helped a great deal if they had a lot of unexplained funds to share to motivate reluctant voters towards exercising their democratic right. Character is not half as important as liquidity.
Voting is all about an expression of power and participation in a process that you hope to influence. However, when it comes to choosing political representatives, it is a bit like going to a local restaurant and working with the limited choices on the menu. We may complain but we keep going back to the same restaurant out of habit. Basically, we have learnt to exercise the illusion of choice.
The General Elections are a masquerade and a game show, at least from the voters’ point of view. A cast of such undesirables, professional turn coats and opportunists without a shred of principle, present themselves as servant leaders hawking the promise of change. Common sense informs anyone with half a brain that when the political class starts hyper ventilating over voting, it is all about putting their interests first. In most cases, it boils down to the choice between, choosing the devil you know versus the devil you have not tried.
It is easy to see why a young person who just attained voting age, would not be interested in being part of the political charades of the day. Some citizens see registration of voters as a waste of time. Nothing changes, they complain. Better not get involved because it means that if you do not vote, you won’t have to wrestle with the sinking feeling of betrayal, abandonment or failure of your preferred political candidate after the result.
In the Kenyan national psyche, there is a belief that when problems are ignored long enough, they somehow move along as well. As some have hoped of the protracted nationwide Doctor’s strike, or the water shortage, the looming famine and drought.
Apathy has become a way of being. The lack of enthusiasm I witnessed in my village is a coping mechanism. When you have been disappointed time and again by political leadership, it is sensible to insulate oneself from future trauma using the principle of ‘I don’t care’.
Some young people I talked to seem to believe that politics won’t be changed by their single vote. Which is true. That they are too little to make a difference and the political class is too dominant. It is hard to dispute the evidence of this reality.
But it is also important to realize that you are not insignificant or politicians would not be interested in winning your trust every five years. So I reach for the story of the little ant to illustrate why one should never think they were too little to make a difference.
There is a classic scene from the animated Disney series, “A Bug’s life” that perfectly illustrates the power of the small guy. A king grasshopper was addressing an army of grasshoppers facing a fomenting ant rebellion. The king declared, “There was that one ant that stood up to me?” and the other hoppers dismissed his concerns, “Yah boss, it was just one ant and it was puny”. The king hopper reacted in shock and anger, “Those puny ants outnumber us a hundred to one. And if ever figure that out, there goes our way of life. It is not about food, it is about keeping those ants in line”.
One way to get around the political apathy is to think like the mighty small ant. Change is a slow process. In the end, if you don’t do politics, politics will do you a number. The indifferent citizen is a politicians’ wet dream.