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Kenya's voters shun registration for 2022 election

November 1, 2021

Kenya's electoral commission aims to enroll six million new voters in a mass registration drive. But it's failing dismally to meet this target.

A school boy walks past a banner advert showing a voter registration center in Kenya.
Observers fear the low voter registration could translate to low turn-out in the 2022 pollsImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

When Kenya's electoral commission launched its mass voter registration exercise on October 4, it always expected that reaching its target of registering six million new voters in a month would be challenging.

But on the eve of its November 2 deadline, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) seems shocked by the dismally low number of new registrations. 

Last week, the IEBC appealed to all Kenyans eligible to "take advantage of the remaining one week and register," emphasizing that staff were ready to enroll people in every ward. 

But it seems not many are heeding the call. 

Low turnout 

Take Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa, for example. Out of 190,237 potential new voters, a paltry 4,486 enrolled during the first two weeks of the drive — that's less than 2%. 

The rest of the country, including the capital Nairobi, has had similarly meager registration rates.

DW reached out to the IEBC for comment on the low voter registration but it has yet to receive a response.

"I haven't registered as a voter because the elections were rigged in the past," 26-year-old student Damaclyn Marieri told DW in Nairobi. "Secondly, after being voted in, some leaders disappear and don't perform the role they promised," she said. 

An electoral commission officials tips a ballot box onto a table watched by election monitors
Some see the low voter registration as a sign young people have lost faith in the electoral systemImage: Getty Images/AFP/L. Tato

During a recent Nairobi debate hosted by DW's online magazine "The 77 Percent," several young people said the current state of politics had turned them off registering.  

"I need my voice to be represented. There is no need for me to go stand in line and register myself as a voter then vote for a person who won't be elected because the leader has already been predetermined," said Wesley Mokoa during the 77 Percent street debate. 

The 27-year-old digital media student added that he saw no point in voting for a leader who will disappear for five years and come back at election time and tell him: "You know what, I am back again."

Kenyan voters line up to cast their ballot.
Kenya's youth make up 70% of the population — a huge portion of the electorateImage: DW/J.Shimanyula

Fed-up youth 

Kenya's electoral commission initially set a target of recruiting some six-to-seven million new voters before lowering its goal to 4.5 million. 

But even that figure won't be met because "young people don't see the motivation," said Nairobi-based political analyst Martin Oloo. 

"They don't identify with anybody who is campaigning, who seems to have their issues in mind. For that reason, they [the youth] aren't very enthusiastic. Most of them have no jobs and no hopes, so they're not swayed by the political players," Oloo told DW.

One of Kenya's leading newspapers, The Standard, reported last week that some young people were even demanding cash handouts before registering as new voters. 

Student Wesley Mokoa said he had seen some leaders trying to use bribes to woo young voters on social media. 

"As a young person, I feel like I don't need to be coerced by these leaders to go and vote because I have seen their evils," Mokoa told DW, adding that politicians' behavior was a major reason why so many of his peers were reluctant to vote.

"We are tired of leaders lying to us. We are tired of the [electoral] commission, we are tired of everything," a frustrated Mokoa said, pointing to the failure of his country's political class to solve the problem of youth employment.

Around 75% of Kenya's 48 million people are below the age of 35, according to the county's 2019 census. 

And finding employment for young people of working age remains a significant problem.

Kenyans protesting at huge salaries of members of parliament.
Many Kenyans blame lawmakers of selfishness and greed while ignoring those who voted for themImage: Reuters

Highly paid politicians

But not registering to vote is like shooting yourself in the foot, says Paul Matheka, a civil society activist. 

"Take your voter's card and go use your right," Matheka said, urging the young voters to pick leaders who will give back to the society. 

"That is why we employ them," Matheka told DW.

Other big frustration among Kenyans, however, is that they see their lawmakers as doing little for their pay, which is among the highest in the world for politicians. 

Kenyan politicians earned an annual salary of $78,500 (€67,822) in 2020, according to PesaCheck, a Kenyan fact-checking initiative. When allowances and other perks are added, that amount almost doubles. 

That means Kenya's lawmakers earn 97 times more than Kenya's per capita GDP of $1,710, PesaCheck finds. (Gross Domestic Product per capita is the total value of a nation's output divided by its citizenry and is seen as a reasonably accurate measure of a country's standard of living.)

"Huge dent in democracy'

Despite experiencing turbulence in its democratic journey — such as the 2007-08 post-election violence — the East African nation has remained relatively stable politically.

Since the introduction of multi-party democracy in December 1991, Kenya has had peaceful power transfers, albeit not without controversy. 

But the low turn-out for voter registration should be a wake-up call, warns political analyst Martin Oloo. 

"Low voter registration might as well lead to low voter turn-out, which will combine to make the [2022] election less credible," Oloo said, adding that it sends a clear signal that the electorate doesn't believe in its leaders. 

"It's a huge dent in democracy if the trend is going to show in the voter turn-out."

He doesn't believe there's much more that the IEBC or politicians could do to persuade larger number of young people in Kenya to register as voters.

The IEBC is now hoping that it will have better success with its voter registration drive for the Kenyan diaspora scheduled for December. 

IBEC chairman Wafula Chebukati said it would include six more countries in its diaspora voters roll, adding South Sudan, the US, the UK, Canada, Qatar and the UAE.

During the 2017 general election, Kenyans living in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa were allowed to cast their ballots.

Andrew Wasike in Nairobi contributed to this report.