Kenya shocks at youth electioneering campaigns turnout
As a familiar campaign jingle brings the Kenyan crowd to their feet, Hellen Atieno joins her compatriots and sways to the catchy tune at a political rally in the lakeside city of Kisumu.
Just don’t expect the 23-year-old to vote. “I have only come to the rally because there is money. I hope there will be something,” Atieno told the media, referring to the widespread Kenyan practice of offering freebies to prospective voters.
Currently without a job, the former fishmonger says she is so fed up with the country’s insular political class that she plans to stay home when Kenya votes on August 9 in parliamentary and presidential polls.
She is not alone. The East African economic powerhouse ranks among the world’s youngest countries — three-quarters of Kenyans are aged under 34, according to government figures.
Many have no interest in participating in an electoral process they widely dismiss as corrupt and pointless.
The number of registered young voters has dropped five percent since the 2017 poll, in contrast to over-35s, whose tally has increased, Kenya’s election commission announced last month.
Over 22 million Kenyans are eligible to take part in this year’s polls, with young people accounting for less than 40 percent of that number, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) said.
‘A dirty game’
Politicians have responded with a freebie bonanza, offering cash, umbrellas, shirts, caps and even packets of maize flour — a dietary staple — to anyone who attends their rallies.
The bribes — an electoral offence that can attract a fine of up to two million Kenyan shillings ($17,000) and/or a six-year jail term — are not new to Kenyan politics. But galloping food inflation — made worse by the war in Ukraine — and an unemployment crisis have intensified the appetite for such handouts.
According to census figures published in 2020, about five million young Kenyans were out of work.
Brian Denzel has spent recent weeks hitting one rally after another, eager to pocket the cash on offer, even though the 19-year-old butcher has no plans to vote and sees politics as little more than “a dirty game”.
“Who will reject the free money that they are given?” he said, while waiting in line to collect 200 shillings ($1.70) from a local politician.
Kenya’s Interior Minister Fred Matiang’i even told reporters on Wednesday that the banks were running short of 100 and 200 shilling notes “because politicians are bribing villagers”.
In the months leading up to the polls, observers suggested that the youth factor could help heal Kenya’s often toxic tribal politics, with a younger electorate less likely to vote according to ethnic affiliations.
Yet, although young Kenyans are less tribally-minded, they also lack “ideological steadfastness”, Kisumu-based Political Analyst Francis Owuor told the media.
“That conviction that normally comes with the political process is not there,” Owuor said. “Everyone (is) to blame for this, both the people and the leaders, but again the leaders are the duty bearers, so they must take much of the blame.”
Thirty years after the emergence of multi-party democracy in Kenya, many are disillusioned by constant battles over the credibility of polls and disputed election results.
This year’s presidential vote is largely a two-horse race between Deputy President William Ruto, 55, and Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old veteran opposition leader who is now backed by the ruling party.
If both leaders accept the results, it will be a first for the country since 2002.
Amina Soud, Manager for voter education at the IEBC, told the media election watchdog was “worried” by the increasing indifference shown by young people towards the political process.
“We did a lot of mobilization during registration using all these tools and still voter apathy was too high,” Soud said, referring to the IEBC’s social media push to enlist new voters.
But exhorting youth to vote via campaigns on TikTok or comics in Sheng — a local slang popular with urban youth — does little to offer hope to a generation of Kenyans facing runaway inflation, corruption and unemployment.
“I don’t think I am going to vote,” 27-year-old salon owner Irene Awino Owino told the press. “I have no interest, because the government puts themselves first rather than us”.
Kenyan 2022 elections will struggle to meet the moment
Kenya’s pivotal role as a regional powerbroker could be compromised by domestic distractions related to this year’s presidential election.
Kenya’s Deputy President and Presidential Candidate William Ruto under United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, addressed a campaign rally ahead of the forthcoming elections in Kibera District of Nairobi, Kenya on January 18, 2022.
Kenya’s August elections will undoubtedly be among the most consequential political events in Africa in 2022. In a turbulent region, Kenya’s stability, economic muscle, and diplomatic leadership are more essential than ever before. But Kenyan leaders will be increasingly focused inward as election day grows nearer, and an electoral process that takes a wrong turn could threaten the country’s capacity to continue playing a pivotal regional role going forward. The country’s recent history features hotly contested, sometimes violent elections in which candidates and their allies have used identity politics to divide the electorate and turn Kenyans against one another.
Raila Odinga (L) Kenya’s Opposition Leader and William Ruto (R), Kenya’s Deputy President & Presidential Candidate of United Democratic Alliance (UDA) in 2022 elections
Already, the path to the election has been bumpy. First it featured a failed (for now) attempt to restructure the state and electoral spoils in the form of the Building Bridges Initiative. Then came a new election law that facilitates the knitting together of party coalitions, changing the political landscape months before polling. Already, the two main contenders for the presidency, Raila Odinga and William Ruto, have accused each other of foul play, such as attempts to disrupt campaign events or accepting dodgy campaign funding. The stage is set for a bruising political fight and the battleline has been drawn.
William Ruto (L), Raila Odinga (M) & President Uhuru Kenyatta (R), Kenya
Odinga is a known quantity engaged in his fifth campaign for the presidency. In the past five years he has gone from the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bitter rival to Kenyatta’s preferred successor.
Meanwhile, Ruto, who is technically Kenyatta’s Deputy and was once the incumbent’s close political ally, is now at odds with the president. He is running as an agent of change, an outsider in solidarity with Kenya’s working class despite his current role in government, his decades as a parliamentarian and cabinet minister, and his substantial fortune.
The fluidity of these political identities, combined with the familiarity of the personalities involved, looks to be breeding some cynicism among voters. A lackluster response to repeated voter registration efforts signals a distinct lack of enthusiasm among potential first-time voters—a massive cohort in youth-heavy Kenya.
Despite a positive growth outlook, many Kenyans are still reeling from the economic devastation of COVID-19 and frustrated by corruption in government. They need government that performs and is accountable to them, just as foes of authoritarian governance in the region need more democratic champions that can deliver results. Thus far, the upcoming Kenyan elections do not look like a strong match for the many hopes pinned upon them.