Days when Africans were not allowed to vote

The concept of universal suffrage gives the right to vote to all adult citizens, regardless of wealth, income, gender, social status, ethnicity, political stance, or any other restriction, subject to only relatively minor exceptions.

The attainment of universal suffrage over various forms of voting restrictions has been one of the major accomplishments in the development of modern democratic institutions. Struggles for the vote have had to overcome restrictions based on factors such as sex, race, and tenure of property.

In the first modern democracies, governments restricted the vote to those with property and wealth, which almost meant a minority of the male population. In some jurisdictions, other restrictions existed, such as requiring voters to practice a certain religion.

The 19th century saw many movements advocating “universal (male) suffrage,” most notably in Europe, Great Britain, and North America.

Female suffrage was largely ignored until the latter half of the century, when movements began to thrive, the first of these being in New Zealand where adult women of all ethnicities gained the right to vote in 1893.

From there the movement spread amongst British colonies and beyond but voting rights were often restricted to those of the dominant race (read white people). The Legislative Council of Kenya (LegCo) was the legislature of Kenya between 1907 to 1963.

It was modelled on the Westminster system. It began as a unicameral nominated, exclusively European institution, evolving into an electable legislature with universal suffrage.

From 1924 Indian and Arab communities were allowed to have one of their own representatives but African interests were represented by a nominated European member. Reverend J.W. Arthur held this latter position until the first African Eliud was appointed to represent African interests in 1944.

It was not until 1957, when the Mau Mau threat was contained, that Africans were allowed to vote. However, even then there were severe restrictions which meant that only a minority of male Africans could participate.

Those Africans who were allowed to vote were required to be over 40 years old and have substantial assets or be educated and over 21 years old. In addition, voters had to obtain a certificate of good conduct to show that they were not sympathetic to the Mau Mau or had a criminal record.

These measures left Europeans with more representation than the majority Africans in LegCo. Africans were not pleased by these measures neither were the minority settlers who did not believe that Africans should be granted any voting rights at all notwithstanding that they had all along being paying punitive taxes to the government.

As “the wind of change” began to blow over Africa in the late 1950s, and it became clear that independence for Kenya was inevitable, a new narrative was fashioned, mostly by a group of settlers, that the majority tribes were going to disenfranchise the smaller ones when they got into power.

This had the effect of creating fear in the smaller tribes who would eventually split from the majority party KANU to form KADU, thus dividing voters along tribal lines.

This was the beginning of tension and violence which has been a feature of the election cycle every five years which culminated in the post-election violence of 2007 in which more than 1,100 Kenyans lost their lives and 650,000 people were displaced.

It would be easy to blame our colonial legacy for the perennial cycle of violence, but our politicians saw that these differences served their interests perfectly and went ahead to perfect and institutionalise them.

Listening to a sermon recently, I heard the pastor say that in Kenya the thief chooses whom to steal from but, the voter chooses which thief is going to steal from him. We deserve the leaders we vote for.

Let us use our vote wisely. It is not about “our man or woman” or who gives the largest handout, it is about who can deliver the kind of leadership that can transform our lives positively.

Let us remember that there was a time we were not allowed to vote and now that we have that right enshrined in our Constitution, we must not permit it to be a poisoned chalice where every five years we repeat the cycle of violence and fear.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.