Voter being bribed after voting on her way back home from a primary election in Bungoma County on April 13, 2017.

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Before the December 2012 Kenyan election I was flabbergasted to read in the paper that the then President of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, said that voters should accept bribes from the various candidates, but then vote for the best person. Legally he was correct. The law in Kenya states that, while it is illegal for a candidate to give a bribe, it is not illegal for the voter to receive the bribe as long as it does not influence his/her vote!

Bribing of voters is rampant as I will show below. Kenyans and foreign election experts discount this bribing because “everyone does it and so it cancels itself out.” I disagree.

In a close election, the winner might be just that person who bribed a little more than his/her opponent. Another concern is the inverse: Voters will not vote for a person who has not given them a bribe. Therefore it is impossible for a “clean” reform candidate to win. Psychologically when candidates have given voters bribes, they feel that they no longer “owe” the voters anything because they have already paid them. This then leads to corruption as the candidates feels that he has to reimburse himself of the expenses he/she put into the campaign. After the 2002 election, one of the ministers involved inadvertently commented that the mammoth Anglo-Leasing scams before the election were necessary for the government to raise funds for the election campaign including, of course, the immense amounts needed for bribing.

Youth waiting for “a little something” from a candidate before they vote.

Bribing is everywhere. Before the 2007 election Gladys and I were walking in Lumakanda and saw about 30 to 40 women converging on a particular shop. We were told that one of the candidates was giving women a free kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar. At one polling station during the 2012 election the agent for one of the candidates was telling voters to go to a particular shop and receive their half kilogram (1.1 pounds) of sugar.

Since the smallest note is 50 shillings (50 US cents) and one cannot bribe with coins, this is the smallest possible bribe. One candidate for Kakamega governor during the 2012 election gave the teacher union officials sufficient money to give each teacher in Lugari District over 1000/- (then about US$12) as a bribe. The teachers went to the local Spring Park motel for lunch and to receive their bribe, but the union officials refused to give the bribes to the assembled teachers. The teachers complained and rioted and broke some of the windows in the motel. Since I knew the owner, I went to verify the damage and the owner commented that the candidate had reimbursed her for the repairs. The candidate claimed that he was going to go to court to accuse those union officials of embezzling the funds. But how can people be taken to court for claims of stealing illegal funds? This candidate lost. One woman from Lumakanda Friends Church was given funds by one of the candidates to bribe the women by giving the 50/- to each woman. Yet it seemed that she received a much larger sum than she gave out. How much of bribe funds she “ate” herself (as they call this in Kenya) is unclear, illustrating that there is no method of accountability for the briber who may keep whatever he/she likes.

During the day of the 2012 primary election one of our citizen reporters commented that there was no cultivation that day because everyone was lined up on the road to receive bribes from the various candidates. Polling stations have large numbers of people standing around outside waiting for their payoff. In that last election Getry noticed someone handing out bribes to people waiting in line to vote; she notified the authorities of this transgression and the police stopped the person from giving out the bribes, but even though this was illegal and obvious no arrests were made. Since bribing of voters is considered a normal activity, no one is ever charged with this offense. Clearly it is to the benefit of those who have received the bribe to not acknowledge that they have received it and certainly they would never claim that it influenced their vote.

Youth receiving their share from a candidate.

Nonetheless the practice has negative consequences. The high turnout for both the primary and general elections could be due to the fact that the voters are expecting to receive a consider number of bribes so that election day is a “profitable day’s work.”  Every losing candidate claims, quite correctly, that he/she lost because the winner bribed the voters.

In the recently completed primary for this election, a losing candidate who had spent a considerable amount of money on bribes in a community that ended up not voting for him hired some thugs to burn down two houses in the community. More serious was the case in Bungoma County in the 2012 election where a losing candidate hired thugs who killed eleven people and wounded over 100 more in three villages where he had spent considerable sums on bribes but did not receive many votes. The villagers were irate, cornered and tortured one young man who they believed (probably incorrectly since outsiders are usually the ones brought in to create violence since they don’t know the victims) was one of the thugs. Under torture he gave the names of nine other youth and the community lynched all ten people. One of the mothers of the lynched youth made the classic anti-lynching comment: “My son may have been a thief, but that so no reason to kill him like a wild animal.” Immediately after the attacks and lynchings Transforming Communities for Social Change/Friends Church Peace Teams conducted a number of extremely difficult listening sessions and Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities workshops in these villages. One facilitator, Eunice Okwemba, commented to me that these were some of the most emotionally difficult HROC workshops she had ever led and that afterwards she needed to recover from secondary trauma.

One of the youth running for his share of the bribe.

An essayist is supposed to give solutions to a problem. At this point I see none as long as bribing of voters is considered normal and acceptable. The real “crime” though is that the system means that the elected officials do not feel that they have any obligations to the voters, but only to enrich themselves, both legally and illegally, in order to recoup their “investment” in running for office and enriching themselves. It is not at all surprising that for this present election there are an average of 8.5 candidates for every position. Many candidates will win with 20% to 25% of the vote.


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.


David Zarembka

Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)

P.O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
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