Recently, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced that Kenyan citizens living abroad across 11 countries will be eligible to vote from overseas in the upcoming 2022 General Election. The list of countries has recently been expanded to include the United States (US), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Qatar, and South Sudan. For long, the Kenyan diaspora in the US have lobbied for the right to vote so this news should have been a moment of jubilation. Yet, it seems the news has barely registered among the diaspora. Checking around, most diasporans in the US seem unaware or unexcited about the newly opened window. Maybe this will change as the election date nears but there is also good reason to believe the levels of enthusiasm among Kenyan diasporans in the US about voting in the 2022 Elections will remain low. The question thus arises, will the diaspora vote count?
African diaspora in Western countries play a pivotal role in shoring up the economies of their origin countries mainly through remittances but also through skills transfer and trade. According to the World Bank, remittance flows to sub-Saharan Africa were estimated at around $42 billion in 2020. In the case of Kenya, remittance inflows amounted to a little over $3 billion in 2020, accounting for about 3% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A vast majority of remittance inflows to Africa come from North America and Europe.
In recognition of the important role remittances play, African governments have been elevating their diaspora engagement efforts. Many countries on the continent, Kenya included, allow dual citizenship and a growing number of countries have put in place legislation to allow diaspora to vote in elections. Besides Kenya, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, South Africa, and Nigeria also allow citizens living abroad to vote. But having laws allowing diaspora citizens to vote and enabling them to cast their vote are two different issues. Transnational immigrants should not be taken for granted. For the diaspora vote to count, we must understand the dynamics at play.
In many cases, the participation of the African diaspora in voting remains stymied due to a number of obstacles. To start with, most African countries have extremely limited consular outreach. The Kenyan Embassy in the US is located in Washington DC and Kenyans living in other parts of the US often have to travel to DC for consular services. This creates a logistical barrier that should not be overly complicated to overcome in 2021. To engage with the diaspora effectively, the Kenyan Embassy would need to establish satellite offices in major population centers for Kenya diaspora in the US. While the embassy is an extension of the Kenyan government, it cannot and should not be, solely responsible for diaspora engagement. When it comes to elections, the IEBC should seek to engage directly with the diaspora.
A visit to IEBC’s website provides little to no information on the process for the diaspora to register and vote in the 2022 election. With over half a million Kenyans living in North America, it is likely that the number of voters in the US and Canada will be significant enough to shift the outcome of the election. However, reliable demographics on diaspora are hard to come across and without this, it is impossible for the IEBC to prepare adequately to accommodate diaspora voting.
The IEBC needs to do a better job in reaching out to diaspora across the 11 countries where voting is targeted. This includes providing better information on the registration process and requirements on the website as well as drumming up interest in diaspora voting through social media. Technology provides avenues to ensure efficiency in voter engagement. The IEBC should also seek to learn how other countries with large diaspora populations in the West have done it. The 2022 election will most likely be a pilot, it will important to ensure intentional learning and identify steps to enhance the process in coming years so the diaspora vote counts.
Along with the IEBC, the diaspora electorate will also be on a learning curve as we approach the 2022 election. A good portion of the diaspora have been away from home for a long time and may not be as familiar with the issues and choice of candidates. It will take a great deal of civic education and targeted campaigning to motivate Kenyans in the US to participate effectively. While they love their homeland, the diaspora may shun engaging in Kenyan politics which they see as driven purely by tribalism, greed, and corruption. The lack of a diaspora-specific agenda on the ballot will undoubtedly fuel disinterest in voting. Candidates in the election will need to identify specific issues that concern the diaspora. Candidates who have established inroads with the diaspora, including those who were previously diasporans, stand well-positioned to leverage the diaspora vote.
Diasporans are not a monolith, they have disparate priorities. One area Kenyan diaspora can come together around is to ensure the next government improves diaspora engagement, starting with adding satellite consular offices in diaspora population hubs. Tackling corruption and growing inequality will likely be priorities not just for Kenyans but also for the diaspora. The election also provides a unique opportunity to review progress and opportunities in advancing the Kenya Diaspora Policy. We must ensure the diaspora vote counts.
The case of Kenya will be an interesting space to watch. As the continent’s most populous nation, a lot is at stake for Nigeria as it moves towards enabling diaspora voting. South Africa and Namibia could offer insightful lessons. More countries in Africa should not only allow but also enable diaspora to vote. Diasporans send a lot of money home to help their families and to invest, it behooves us to pay greater attention and seize the opportunities emerging to elect the kind of leaders the young continent needs.
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