Let me begin by congratulating the Interim Independent Electoral Commission, and by extension Kenyans, for hitting the minimum target of registering 10 million voters.
This was by no means a mean feat given the apathetic sentiment displayed over the last couple of months by a section of Kenyans. In fact, given the long queues on the final day of manual voter listing I have no doubt that the figure will rise substantially.
Now that the IIEC has surpassed our initial expectations, all eyes are now trained expectantly on the Committee of Experts – who are supposed to conduct civic education.
I want to say to the CoE, that you have a monumental task ahead of you for which we hope you are adequately prepared. You are coming into a playing field where the opponents and proponents of the draft Constitution are comparatively powerful if not equal in might.
To top that challenge, the majority of Kenyans will not have read the draft; neither do they have the capacity to comprehend its contents. They will be relying heavily on a reference person, who just like them, may have been influenced by the beliefs of their opinion leaders (read vested interests). This reference person may be a village elder, spokesperson, local church leader or quite simply an impressionable loud mouth… how dangerous!
With this background in mind, I want to state categorically that you cannot be seen to be supporting either side even if you were substantially involved in drafting the document. In my view, the purpose of civic education is to educate and inform Kenyans with a view to enabling them to effectively participate in the referendum.
This is all we expect of you; that you will endeavour to inform Kenyans reliably and with neutrality. Thereafter, that you will leave them to process the information and make informed choices.
I want to put forth, on behalf of my listeners and readers, a few suggestions that may improve the likelihood of success of the civic education process.
First, you must ensure that your educators across the country share a uniform message especially where it involves contentious matters. Their responses must be as factually conclusive as possible, so as to put at ease peoples’ concerns. To this end, you may consider printing a standard facilitator’s manual that envisages all sorts of questions, and gives standard responses.
Secondly, you need to be wary of persons who may attempt to hijack your community sessions to communicate and legitimise their own messages. We have seen it before, where the mighty and powerful will attend such forums with a view to swaying the crowd their way.
Your facilitators will be exposed to such sharks in the coming months and we hope they have at their disposal security mechanisms that empower them to eject such people.
Thirdly, you may want to publish a list of personnel authorised to conduct civic education in the local newspapers and websites (Capital News is more than willing to do this), so that Kenyans are not taken for a ride by opportunistic and unqualified people.
I would also strongly propose that you make time to meet various interest groups and associations representative of every sector of the economy at the national level. This will enable you not only to educate them, but also to set expectations of how they ought to deal with their members on contentious issues.
By this, I am referring to associations such as media owners, manufacturers, resident alliances etc. This is an effective way of tasking them as responsible ambassadors, in an effort to avoid the polarity experienced in 2007.
We are grateful that you have embraced media shows to conduct initial education, but I would also propose that you embrace structured public debates which make it even more difficult to perpetuate untruths.
Ultimately, these are just but simple suggestions.
We are looking forward to the next step of the Constitution review process, and want to hear from you – CoE – about how you intend to conduct civic education. Make no mistake, the success of the referendum process largely hinges on how effective the education is.
On a final note, I would like to state that this referendum should have nothing to do with the elections in 2012. It is very dangerous when those in leadership flip flop between Yes and No, refusing to take a stand.
Leadership is not a popularity contest and we should be wary of those who are unwilling to take a stand because it is the same way they would lead this country if given an opportunity.