A fortnight ago, service at my church was interrupted for a few minutes as an official of IEBC, Kenya’s polls body, took to the pulpit to make an impassioned pitch for voter registration.
The plea by the elections official stood out conspicuously, amongst upcoming events and other ‘ministry announcements’, for its secularity.
For a place of worship that has a deliberate policy of zero-tolerance to the staple politicians’ ‘greetings’ from the pulpit, this was quite unusual. Its peculiarity however serves to illustrate the palpable crisis of voter apathy that the country is staring at.
Little wonder that the Head of State, his Deputy, and opposition chiefs have accumulated significant local miles since the beginning of the year, as they crisscrossed the Republic to encourage as many people as possible to register to vote. In what has often degenerated into a name-calling spectacle, show of political might and defection soirees, no effort was spared in spreading this gospel to the all the ends of the Kenyan earth. There were threats of denial of conjugal rights and service at public offices; as well as reports of youth barricading roads and only letting through registered voters to the chagrin of IEBC.
However, the big question is whether the tours, rallies and insults ultimately made a difference in the drive to mobilize eligible voters to register. Statistics from IEBC indicate that in the final evaluation, the numbers fell 37% shy of the target.
Not to begrudge the ladies and gentlemen of credit for their efforts in whipping up public support. Of course, they have had an impact. They have drawn the nation’s attention to the registration of voters, and that it would be the final one before the next elections. It is safe to say that this is common knowledge, and there were even been jokes circulating on WhatsApp groups linking it to Valentines (the initial deadline was February 14th before it was extended by the courts).
Nonetheless, such efforts by politicians are not enough. A lot more needs to be done to increase awareness amongst the public of their sacrosanct duty and right to participate in the electoral process by voting and to incentivise them to take the initiative to register and vote.
As my lecturer puts it, there is a huge difference between creating awareness and effecting behavior change. Communications research has demonstrated that there has to be motivation for behavior change to occur in any given society. In this case, going round the country asking people to register to vote is not enough – unless all we want to achieve is just awareness.
In fact, even if Kenyans had come out in droves to register, and even surpassed targets, this would not be an end in itself. We would still need these registered voters to come out and vote on August 8, 2017. Would we then go on a mobilization blitz again prior to voting day?
A sure way that we can turn voter apathy into sustained interest is through issue driven communications. If we adequately motivated Kenyans to be genuinely interested in this agenda, we would not have to follow them up to register and vote. We could leverage strategic communication to deliver a compelling narrative that can effectively rally Kenyans to register, and then vote. Depending on what part of the divide that one is, it is either by inspiring the voters to reward the current regime another term in office by compellingly demonstrating the great work done so far; or making them sufficiently angry as to kick out the sitting government by exposing the rot and ills perpetrated under its watch.
Nation Media Group has gallantly led the way down this road through a series of prominently placed thought-provoking pieces of public service journalism dubbed ‘The Nation Agenda’. They have sought to focus the upcoming poll on an agenda for the country in the run-up to the elections — issues that matter to the so-called ordinary Kenyan.
The media has an important role to play in building and sustaining Kenyans’ interest in the electioneering process. As a watchdog, media needs to recast issues for the public because as a respected institution it carries more believability and can guide the conversation towards the real issues.
So far, the politicians’ message has been, “Register so that you can vote for me”. The ‘so-what’ and ‘then-what’ has been glaringly missing from this discourse; and this could be a possible explanation for the underwhelming response to the politicians-led campaigns. An open conversation on the issues we will be taking a stand on as we vote is critical.
Often times, the refrain has been the profound words of George Jean Nathan, who famously said that ‘Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote’. Let us make it more compelling this time. Let us put up the issues for the voter to judge.