By Jerry Okungu
December 13, 2011
Retired Major James Oswago, Kenya’s interim Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission was last weekend in America’s Midwest selling Kenya’s elections to the Diaspora in America on Jamhuri Day.
According to a brief posted on the Kenya Embassy website by our Ambassador in the USA, attendance was quite impressive-over 600 delegates representing virtually every state in the United States were present.
The Kenyan Constitution is very clear on the relationship between our relatives in America. It will empower them to vote just like the Americans and South Sudanese have done in the past. The Americans are allowed to vote electronically wherever they may be all over the globe. Sudanese had their votes cast during the referendum in booths erected by the Sudan Embassy officials and in the case of Kenya, with support from the Kenya government.
The constitution also provides that once the necessary laws are enacted, any Kenyan who might have opted for American or any other citizenship will be allowed to reclaim the motherland’s citizenship without renouncing the citizenship of the adopted country.
As the Retired Major was battling with his fellow Kenyans abroad on the basics of the constitution, he had an opportunity to meet face to face with the Diaspora mindset about Kenyans. According to credible Daily Nation news sources that reported the proceedings almost immediately, Oswago was reported to have been frustrated by some questions asked about the Election Law during the forum where he was supposed to collect their views on the 202 elections.
According to the newspaper reports, he is reported to have lamented that Kenyans in the US had either not read the Constitution or just did not understand what is contained in it. The IEBC Chief Executive was further frustrated by the level of questions asked at the forum in Dallas, Texas during his team’s tour. A participant, for example, sought to know the impact on Kenyans in the Diaspora a requirement in the Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Act of 2011 which provides for a fine of up to Ksh 500,000 and a prison term not exceeding three years for a dual citizen who fails to disclose his newly acquired status within six months. Baffled by the question, Oswago asked the questioner where in the constitution he had read that because clearly the CEO had never seen that kind of clause in the Constitution.
Another area of contention was the suggestion by Mr. Oswago that ambassadors can be used as Diaspora Returning Officers. The forum rejected this offer outright. Two things could have necessitated this rejection. One, it would be costly to the voters. Two, just like in Kenya, the Diasporians are partisan and equally biased. I do not see a G7 supporter trusting that an ODM appointed ambassador would be a credible Returning Officer! The same would apply where a PNU appointed ambassador would preside over the election. ODM faithful would take that with a pinch of salt.
As Oswago was in Midwest fielding questions from Kenyans in the Diaspora, four IEBC Commissioners were with me in South Africa attending the East and Southern Africa Electoral Bodies Forum. In our forum, the issue of how to manage the Diaspora vote for all African countries came up several times. Uppermost in our mind was the daunting task of managing the process of getting the Diaspora to vote.
If you talk to any Kenyans at home, all they know about the Diaspora are Kenyans who live in the USA. You cannot get them to conceptualize that Kenyans living and working in Somalia, the DRC, Uganda, and South Sudan and even in Timbuktu are also Diasporians.
Another mountain to climb is to actually know the population of our brothers and sisters living abroad. Outrageous figures like 3,000,000 have been bandied around from time to time such as the latest Dallas forum. The reality is different. No one, no organization not even the Embassy in DC has any idea how many Kenyans live in the USA. And the reason we cannot get this accurate figure regularly is understandable. Yes, there are many professional and distinguished Kenyans working and doing honest jobs in America and elsewhere on planet earth. Yes, many Kenyans in America and the rest of the world are again rumored to be dispensing millions of dollars every year back home to invest and support their families back home. This figure ranges from Ks 100 million to 600 million a year depending on who makes a speech where and when.
However, there are many, even a bigger number in America that are not accounted for, for one reason or another, doing odd jobs here and there to survive and are therefore reluctant to register with their embassy in Washington DC. As an illegal immigrant in the US, you constantly live with the trauma of a knock at your door when Homeland Security agents come calling. This state of uncertainty makes it impossible for many Kenyans without papers to volunteer information about themselves because you never know when American Security intelligence will scrutinize or even hack the Embassy’s information data base.
Where the IEBC has no accurate figures of Kenyans eligible to vote, how will they prepare voting materials enough for the exercise? Assuming that the Diasporians will not accept the IEBC suggestion that all eligible Kenyans would travel to DC from Alaska, Washington State, North West and Midwest to vote; does the IEBC have the resources to mount polling stations in every state in the USA? And seeing the level of misinformation displayed at the Dallas forum last weekend, is the IEBC in a position and capable of mounting voter education across the 50 states in the USA? And as the IEBC preoccupies itself with the American vote, what will happen to Kenyans in Bellarus, South Africa, the Middle East, Darfur, DRC, Rumbek, Ireland, China and Malaysia?
Knowing that the 2012 is replete with multiple problems even here at home and that even the IEBC does not know when it will conduct elections, can we defer this Diaspora vote to 2017 when the IEBC will have sorted its logistics and resources out? Can we give election problems facing Kenyans at home more attention and deal with the Diaspora issue at a later date?