Ideas & Debate

Institutions have to win public trust

Kenyans queue to vote on August 8, 2017. Legitimacy lends credibility to such entities as the IEBC. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Kenyans queue to vote on August 8, 2017. Legitimacy lends credibility to such entities as the IEBC. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Election Day came and went. Vote tallying and results announcements for the different electoral posts are ongoing or done. At the time of writing, tallying of the presidential votes was in progress.

As was the case in 2007 and 2013, controversy surrounds this latter vote count. Fears around a rigged result and a violent post-election response abound. This isn’t just bad for business, it’s bad for the people of Kenya.

As I have argued before, if Kenya is to ever truly progress and prosper, we simply cannot afford the extended periods of “business unusual” that are the result of our electoral cycle.

This week alone a single election day has effectively become, for most, a week’s paid holiday.  Businesses — big and small — are shut, supermarkets aren’t fully stocked and a heavy security presence stalks neighbourhoods. 

Recall that this is our most expensive election ever, as data from the National Treasury’s 2017 Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal report confirms.

From a total budget request of almost Sh60 billion, Sh50 billion was actually funded. Expectedly, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) received at least Sh43 billion, the largest share. 

That’s a 50 per cent increase on their actual spending for the 2013 election. In addition, almost Sh6 billion was allocated to security, defence and intelligence, while Sh500 million went towards registration (national IDs).

The rest was shared roughly equally between the Judiciary, Registrar of Political Parties and National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC).

Even for an event that happens once every five years, it is important to put that Sh50 billion number in perspective. This amount could have built two Thika superhighways.

It is almost four times the national government’s annual irrigation budget, or roughly equal to our combined annual budgets for social protection, public service, gender and youth affairs. 

It is almost twice the national government’s annual agriculture budget; that is across crops, livestock and fisheries. It is almost 90 per cent of our annual basic education, or health, budgets. Put simply, our election is really expensive, directly and indirectly.

Given this sort of investment, and respecting constitutional timelines, what should we reasonably have expected this time around, but also as a basis for the future?  Seven points come to mind. 

Beginning with the end (inauguration/swearing in) a celebration first, of our positive virtues — endless optimism and patience, hard work, sense of inclusivity and sharp awareness of opportunity; and second, global praise and acclamation in a sense in which the reported 5,000-odd international election observers are our newest ambassadors to the world.

In between, three things: A peaceful post-election phase, a smooth “backto work” transition, and an acceptance – regardless of election victor - that a more inclusive national dialogue is necessary to address our long-term issues even as we face the future.

Which brings us back to today’s beginning and our last two expectations, or first two preconditions. First, a just election – justice as fairness – and second, a mature post-election response.

All of these “steps” rely on public goodwill and confidence. But they are also reliant on an IEBC that understands that often subjective perceptions around electoral justice are just as important as the people, processes and technology that underpin smooth electoral management.

So where are we now?  Forget Forms 34A, B or C, and think about the four involvements of the voter - identification, registration, voting and results.

We did reasonably well on identification (IDs) and (biometric) registration – though it is clear that we badly need an integrated national identity infrastructure.

Voting (and the high number of spoilt votes) and those long queues were likely a function of inadequate voter education and the lack of a proper dry run by the IEBC.

As with many public services in Kenya today, we have an unusual mix of tediously long queues but excellent, efficient service at the end.

But it is still the results part that continues to bother us. We may moralise that elections are not “do or die”, despite a corruption-ridden political economy that suggests otherwise.

The lesson is that it doesn’t matter how much we invest in modern systems and fancy technology, if our public institutions – like the IEBC in the present case – fail to properly address any legitimacy deficit they might have with the public.

Simply, it all begins with public trust.