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Allow cross-border voting, it makes a lot of sense
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 12 months 2 days

Kenyan elections are like American ones – perhaps even more extreme.

The day after an election ends, the campaigns for the next one five years away begin. So, naturally, though the vote is still eight months away in August (if it happens on schedule), things are quite thick and hectic.

Rwanda too goes to the polls later in the year, but you wouldn’t know it. Things are much calmer there.

However, the east and west side of the Uganda border have one thing in common at election time. In Uganda, there is always a lot of noise about Rwandans crossing to vote illegally in our elections – usually, according to the opposition, for President Yoweri Museveni.

On the eastern side, it is more evenly split. There are usually charges of Kenyans crossing to vote for both opposition and ruling National Resistance Movement candidates. And in Kenya, there are also regular claims of Ugandans sneaking across the border to vote illegally in the country’s often-charged elections.

There is also some noise about cross-border voting at the Uganda-Tanzania border, but it is not considered to be a problem.

In keeping with vote-your-neighbourhood, in late January there was some excited reporting that Kenya’s Teso South MP Mary Emaase “escaped arrest” after she was reportedly found campaigning and recruiting voters in Uganda’s Buteba sub-county, in Busia district.

A Ugandan police spokesman, confirming the incident, said, “You can’t cross from Kenya to Uganda purposely to campaign and recruit voters in a foreign country, which is illegal.

“Police got information that she was campaigning in that area but as soon as she sighted them, she managed to escape back to Kenya. Still, police arrested her bodyguard,” he said.

I was not impressed. I am not a fan of Africa’s borders, but even without that, I have sympathy for MP Emaase.

Border people in Africa usually have a dual identity. Half of their children, some of their wives, gardens, businesses, are “just across the border.” We are talking 20 metres away.

But also, a crisis in Kenya, as with the post-election violence of early 2008, will be felt at Uganda’s eastern border first and foremost. The flood of Ugandan refugees of past years, usually made first call in western Kenya.

The violence and refugee crisis in Rwanda of the late 1950s, and the war and subsequent genocide of 1994, had a dramatic and long-lasting impact on western Uganda.

The logical thing would be to be to formally allow border peoples to vote in each other’s elections through a “limited diaspora voters” policy, because they are the most directly affected. But since that is politically problematic for some nationalist purists, the next best thing would be a “don’t see, don’t tell” policy.

Certainly, that Ugandan border polygamist who has two of wives living in Kenya, should be allowed to vote there.

For the ordinary folks at Uganda’s eastern border, what will happen in the August Kenya election, is as important, if not more so, than the outcome of the last year’s February vote in Uganda.

If you were a teacher at a border school, or ever attended a funeral – or wedding – in these areas, you would understand why this is so.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3