By Prof Levi Obonyo
Why should voting be a matter of life and death in Kenya? It is not mandatory by law. During last week’s repeat presidential election the media displayed images of old and sick people, some carried on the backs of their caregivers while patients walked out of hospitals in their hospital clothes, all going out to vote. Why so? Voting is certainly every citizen’s right and needs to be exercised. But citizens have other rights as well, particularly the right to personal dignity.
The image of an old grey haired man, strapped on the back of possibly his grandchild seemed to offer little dignity to the man. Elsewhere, the image of old people in wheelbarrows, some of them stuck in mud in an attempt to reach the polling stations is simply disconcerting. But it does not stop there. The old and sick, once at the polling stations still had, in some cases, to queue to vote. It speaks not so much about the people and their commitment to democracy but more so about us as a society.
Why do we have to put such people through the pain, discomfort and agony to vote? Voting, however, presupposes a certain level of consciousness that enables individuals to freely make decisions. It assumes the individuals who show up to be part of the decision-making in selecting governors have the intellectual wherewithal to freely weigh the options before them and on the basis of the decisions they make be sufficiently guided. Could it be that some of the people wheeled to the polling stations probably do not have the capacity to decide on their own whether to vote or not, or even go to the stations? Is it possible that ferrying them to the stations is in fact an injustice, to them?
Democracy is a serious engagement that requires only the very best in society to be part of. That is why in ancient Greece, slaves, women and any other members of society that were considered to lack in sufficient wisdom were not allowed to vote. Of course, they should have thought better! Socrates and his students limited this task to only “the wise”. Many of us in Africa and elsewhere often think universal suffrage has always been the norm. It is not lost on many that men of lowly social positioning, women and people of colour had to fight for their space in voting booth.
The argument that we are advancing is not to block old, infirm and sick people from voting. Rather it is to consider that only those who have the presence of their faculties with the ability to freely and independently make decisions should take the chance to do so. As a society we need to respect and dignify such people.
Dignity is not tied to age or health but is due every person. Liberia concluded the first round of their elections a fortnight ago. Foreign reporters expecting Africans to start lining up early checked out the polling stations only to find people showing up in the morning. Theirs was a historic election. Outgoing President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, has served her two terms and Monrovia was getting ready to witness a peaceful transition of power.
There were about 20 candidates on the ballot, including the famed footballer George Weah whose running mate is the wife of the jailed former President Charles Taylor. Yet, in Liberia, voters started streaming to the stations with the light of day.
In Kenya, men and women would be making their way to the stations in the dead of the night, the risk of doing so notwithstanding. The nation must strive to debunk the notion that voting for a preferred candidate is a matter of life and death that the sick and infirm would be proudly paraded on their way to the booth. True, every vote counts, but the quality of the vote is important and just as important is the dignity of the voter. Part of this craze, however, is driven by the media.
The focus on the ‘githeri man’ in the August election, the focus on the unusual pictures of old men and women wheel barrowed to polling stations is in fact a focus on the indignity of the voter. Journalists have a responsibility to give an opinion, to point out right from wrong and on the whole to point society to a better community. The pictures just don’t do. The writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language & Performing Arts at Daystar University.