Dadaab — In a refugee complex the size of a small city, the largest election of its kind is nearing completion.
More than a third of the 400,000 refugees living in the Dadaab site in Kenya have registered to vote for the 1,002 candidates running for leadership positions. These include camp leaders, section leaders and block leaders with each position being filled by one male and one female. Voting, which began on Monday, is being staggered across the five camps that make up Dadaab and will conclude on Thursday.
Large crowds have been assembling outside of polling stations every day and voting hours have had to be extended in some places to give everyone the chance to cast their ballot. Some 60% of those registered to vote have already done so, a marked improvement over the 25% voter turnout that occurred during the previous elections held in 2006.
Sheikh, 53, has been living in Dadaab since 1991 and like most of the refugees here fled conflict in neighbouring Somalia. He says he is happy with the way the elections have been conducted, adding that the orderly process reminds him of his former life, before Somalia was thrown into anarchy. "Even if my candidate doesn't win, I'll accept the verdict of the people," he says. "In every election there will always be a winner and a loser."
The organization of this monumental exercise in democracy has been led by Kenya's Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) with the support of the UN refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations. "For us to be able to access the refugee communities and resolve their problems, it's very important that we have the leadership structured in a legitimate manner," says Patrick Musango, head of the DRA in Dadaab. "We expect these leaders to assist us in delivering humanitarian assistance, maintaining security, and generally implementing the rule of law."
Thirty two year-old Nasteho says she expects the winning candidates to champion refugees' rights, including better education, health care and livelihoods as well as improved security in the camps. She did not vote in the last elections because she had no faith in the process, but this time she says she feels differently. Her desire is that her son is able to grow up having experienced two important things: education and democracy.
Hussein took part in the polling in the hope that that the new leaders will push for scholarships and employment opportunities for young refugees. The twenty four year-old was a toddler when his family fled Somalia, and like many young refugees in Dadaab, he considers Kenya his home country.
Empowering those living in the world's largest refugee site to manage their own affairs to the greatest extent possible is crucial for the dignity of the community and for ensuring smooth service delivery. The elected leaders will be involved in decision making on community issues while facilitating and supporting the work of humanitarian agencies operating in Dadaab. Their work is completely voluntary and they are not paid a salary.
"We are hopeful these elections will result in legitimacy and community ownership in refugee management, including camp security," says Ahmed Warsame, UNHCR's head of operations in Dadaab. "It is particularly encouraging to see a new generation of leaders who are younger and better educated than their predecessors engaged in the process."