If you think winning a seat in Parliament is difficult for your average Kenyan, ask those with disabilities about their experiences. The recent elections failed to send any disabled people to the Parliamentary benches, leaving a community of three million disabled Kenyans unrepresented.
The consequence of this for the lives of disabled people in Kenya is catastrophic. Who will stand up in Parliament and argue for the rights of disabled people? Who will demonstrate that disabled people are not pariahs, but are strong individuals who make a valuable contribution to Kenyan society? For the next five years, at least, it seems nobody will.
The real shame is that it didn’t have to be this way. Disabled people were involved at all levels within all political parties in the pre-election campaigns. I myself stood in Mumias, but unfortunately like my colleagues Ms Salome Kimatta in Gatundu South, Sammy Leshore in Samburu East and Dag Kimani in Lari was unsuccessful. Others stood for councillorship in constituencies across Kenya, spending time and money to convince Kenyans to elect somebody who would really represent the person on the street, but achieved similar results.
Why, if there were so many disabled people involved at all levels of the campaigns, were none successfully elected/nominated to become Members of Parliament? This is an important question, because if we are to change things for the future we must understand the failures of our campaigns during the past election. We can not afford to let three million people go totally unrepresented in Kenyan politics.
From my personal campaign experiences and discussing the issue with my politically-active, disabled friends I have recognized various factors that hinder disabled people partaking in politics. Many of these stem, I believe, from Kenya’s current level of democratic and development maturity.
The principal problem, to be frank, is that the political landscape is hostile to those with disabilities. It does little to encourage disabled people to partake in politics. There are no systems in place for example, such as affirmative action in the current constitution, which would actively increase the representation of minority groups, including the disabled, in politics.
This isn’t an international or even a regional position though. Uganda, for example, has special constitutional mechanisms for ensuring minority groups are represented in local and national politics. As a result there are five MPs and over 40,000 councilors with disabilities in Uganda. This begs to the question why can’t Kenya take a similar approach towards its own disabled community?
The resource factor is another thorny issue! The financial costs, for example, to stand as a candidate are exuberant and are beyond the capacity of many disabled people who traditionally earn proportionally less than their non-disabled counterparts.
Candidates need millions of Kenyan Shillings at their disposal to finance the campaigns. Money that must be automatically available as soon as a person declares their intention to be the constituency’s next Mheshimiwa/honourable.
Parliamentary campaigns consume money at a vast rate. Mobilisation and logistical costs add up, whilst money must be directed towards local development projects. Travel costs, including the cost of renting or buying a car that can handle the inaccessible terrain in many rural parts of the country, add up fast.
Security is another high cost. For disabled candidates, especially, safety and security is a key priority, particularly in areas unknown to the campaign team or in opposition strongholds. Candidates must move around carefully, which may even mean hiring a team of security agents and an extra car, just in case. These requirements can lead to the rocketing of campaign costs. For many disabled people on low incomes and limited resources the financial demands put lay to their plans to stand for Parliament or ward level.
Yet, money is just one in a long list of problems for disabled candidates. The stigma of disability that affects disabled people during their everyday lives again comes into play during the political campaigns. A lack of understanding and negative attitudes towards disabled people means that candidates must battle with the presumption by voters that they are not up to the job.
This attitude is not helped by non-disabled candidates encouraging the idea of disabled people as lesser-class citizens. This crude and primitive behaviour does nothing to flatter the candidates in my opinion, but unfortunately it does often have an adverse affect on the campaigns of disabled people.
Many constituents buy the idea that disabled people cannot make effective and successful politicians as the low level of education and general disregard of disabled people throughout Kenya means they often know no better. Disabled candidates face an uphill battle to change these viewpoints and to gain the trust and confidence of their voters. Something their opponents do not.
The 2007 elections also saw candidates struggle to physically present their nominations to the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK). The ECK Chair, Samuel Kivuitu’s announcement that the “ECK [would] receive nomination papers on first-come-first-served basis” meant that there were often physical battles for candidates to present their papers. In the ensuing chaos and violence how many disabled candidates were actually able to get to the Commission?
The media, NGOs and development partners also have a role to play in encouraging the presence of disabled people in politics, something which they all failed to do during the elections just passed. There has been widespread coverage of female candidates and the dispute over the Presidential election, but reports on disabled people in the political system have been non-existent. These groups need to pick up the disability flag and start campaigning for the inclusion of disabled people in politics, as they have an important role to play in changing people’s attitudes.
Another major blow for Kenya’s disabled people has been the failure of all the political parties to nominate disabled person to Parliament under the twelve slots constitutionally reserved for special interest groups. The failure must be attributed to Kenya’s political parties first of all, yet the ECK also played an important part by not clearly explaining what is meant by the term ‘special interest groups.’
Past legal decisions have confirmed that disabled people should be represented in Parliament as a minority group, and that the ECK has a responsibility to ensure this happens. According to a judgment delivered in 2006 in a case filed by the Ilchamus,a minority group from the Rift Valley, the judges, ruled that:
“No doubt each age will have its fair share of minorities and special interest groups but in our time they include the blind, the deaf, the physically disabled and the youth… We hold that the ECK has a responsibility of identifying all categories and to ensure that the lists reach the political parties and other organs with the power to appoint under section 33 of the constitution of Kenya.”
The same judges said that, “for a political system to be truly democratic, it has to allow minorities a voice of their own, to articulate their distinct concerns and seek redress and thereby lay a sure base for deliberative democracy. Only then would a state or nation such as ours, truly claim to have passed the democratic audit test.” The failure to secure representation of disabled people as Parliament demonstrates is yet another example of Kenya’s immaturity with regard to democracy.
Disabled people are not sitting back though. The disability community has launched various advocacy and media campaigns to get the ECK and political parties to hear and respond to our case.
The fight has also been taken to the courts. Unfortunately the conservative and non-reformist judges who occupy the benches of the Kenyan legal power may fail to rule that disabled people should be awarded a seat in Parliament as a special interest group. A decision, which as far as I can see, will wholly contradict the Ichamus decision.
Our campaign, therefore, continues. The disability community is currently working on a constitutional reference case aimed at rendering the nominations of the twelve MPs under the special interest group places null and void. We will not stop until we have achieved representation for disabled people as is their right under the constitution and the new UN treaty on disability rights. We cannot afford to.
The recent elections have been eye-opening in many respects. Yet one of the least recognized results has been the plight of disabled people. The failures of the political system, political parties and the ECK have left over three million people unrepresented. Disabled people will continue to fight for our basic rights; we ask you to join our campaign. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose, not only for the sake of disabled people but for the sake of Kenya’s democracy and development.
The writer, a sociologist has a physical disability. He is a senior Resource Development Advocacy and Campaigns Manager with Leonard Cheshire Disability LCD, East & North Africa Regional Office based in Nairobi. He has worked and lived in Afghanistan and Sudan. He was a parliamentary candidate for Mumias in the 2007 general elections. He can be reached on Phitalis@lci-enar.org or firstname.lastname@example.org