Debate on the diaspora’s historic vote next year has largely focused on the contentious issue of turning Kenyan embassies into polling stations.
But there is an equally important issue that has somehow escaped attention — the need for a civic education programme targeting the diaspora.
It is hard to think of the diaspora and civic education in the same sentence. There seems to be a mistaken assumption that the diaspora is well-informed and ready for the polls. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While some Kenyans in the diaspora understand their new rights and responsibilities, there are others who are divorced from events in Kenya. This ugly truth was vividly captured recently when a delegation from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission visited the USA.
A member of the IEBC delegation was quoted as expressing frustrations over the kind of questions he faced from some Kenyans. He advised them to read the Constitution to understand their rights. This, obviously, goes without saying.
The experience of the IEBC delegation is repeated often in Kenyan gatherings where one encounters misinformation, confusion, and an information deficit that might hamper the civic engagement of diaspora voters.
There is an urgent need for a civic education programme built around four key objectives — information, education, mobilisation and advocacy to ensure the diaspora community understands their new rights and obligations and the enormous opportunity they now have to participate in shaping Kenya’s destiny.
Information is power. Lack of proper information can undermine a voter’s ability to make informed decisions.
A good civic education campaign must start by providing critical information like how to register as a voter, where to register, what is required, when and where to vote, and other key issues related to the electoral process.
A successful civic education campaign must also include an educational component. While the diaspora is made up of some of the most well-informed Kenyans, they tend to be divided along ethnic and tribal fault lines.
It is important for the civic education initiative to go beyond providing information and include an educational component focused on the critical issues facing the country and equip the diaspora voter with the knowledge to interrogate the visions of the various candidates and how well they align with Kenyan needs.
While the IEBC is working on the logistics and modalities of enabling the diaspora to vote for the first time, there are many contentious issues that are likely to arise and which will need to be addressed in a timely manner or risk disenfranchising a huge constituency.
Given that there is no organised framework or institutional infrastructure for engaging the Kenyan diaspora, there is a need to consider using information technology to carry out an effective and widespread civic education campaign.
Done correctly, such a civic education programme targeting three million voters has the potential to deliver enough swing votes to determine the outcome of the election and the future direction of Kenya.
Prof Chege teaches at Kansas State University, USA. He specialises in political communication and civic engagement research. (firstname.lastname@example.org)