Kenya’s upcoming election has been billed as a “hustlers versus dynasties” vote. It will see two of Kenya’s most formidable political families pitted against the incumbent president’s current deputy, who comes from a modest background. Yet, even in what some analysts say is a notable shift to voting along class lines, rather than by ethnic grouping, a key constituency is being left out: Kenya’s booming youth population.
The east African country goes to the ballot boxes on Tuesday. Current president, 60-year-old Uhuru Kenyatta, has come to the end of his two allowed terms. In a move that shocked many followers, he has now backed his long-time rival, former prime minister Raila Odinga (77), to succeed him.
Kenyatta and Odinga are the sons of Kenya’s first president and vice-president. Odinga’s main challenger is sitting deputy president William Ruto (55). Unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, Ruto grew up poor, working as a chicken seller and wheelbarrow pusher; later coining the term “hustler nation” to encourage others to follow in his path. Despite now being one of the country’s wealthiest men, he has presented himself as a champion of the poor.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of multiparty democracy in Kenya, though the intervening decades have not been smooth sailing. The last Kenyan election took place in 2017, but the initial result was nullified by Kenya’s supreme court. A follow up vote brought a repeat outcome, with Odinga losing to Kenyatta.
The 2007 vote, which saw Mwai Kibaki defeat Odinga, was followed by a period of ethnic violence during which more than 1,000 people were killed and 350,000 displaced. Both the current president and vice-president were among those later charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, though the charges were eventually dropped or dismissed.
Calls for peace this time around have been echoed by celebrities, religious leaders and other influential figures.
While their country is praised internationally as a stable democracy, Kenyan youth are increasingly fed up with a political system they see as marred by endemic corruption, where politicians — who often have little connection to their constituency — make promises but then fail to deliver.
On Friday afternoon, young people gathered at the Mukuru Youth Initiative hub, a two-story building in Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements. They planned to have a bonfire and watch local musicians perform, while reminding each other of the importance of a peaceful election.
Nelson Munyiri (32), who is better known as Nelmo Newsong, is the executive director and founder of the Mukuru Youth Initiative, which organised the event. As well as holding board games days, documentary screenings and supporting local artists, the initiative runs a weekly “coffee bar”, where young people can come and discuss issues that matter to them, he said. For the last two months, the only topic has been the elections.
Though young Kenyans feel free to voice their opinions openly, they are also unlikely to vote, he explained.
“Seventy-five per cent of Kenyans are below age 35. [Yet] so many young people did not even go out to register as voters… Young people have lost hope in the political system.”
Only 40 per cent of the 22 million people registered to vote on Tuesday are under 35.
Munyiri said he understands this despondency. Elected politicians carry out projects they feel will give them “political mileage” or allow them to embezzle money, he said, but “not give the people what they need”. Still, he has been encouraging everyone he meets to turn up at the ballot boxes, even if they spoil their votes, as unused votes may be misappropriated, raising the risk of vote rigging.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in Mukuru. On Friday, campaigning efforts were ongoing. One hundred-strong group of campaigners wearing blue T-shirts walked the streets brandishing posters of a local MP candidate — while another vehicle emblazoned with photographs of a local aspirant could be seen parked in the distance. In Kenya, candidates are often expected to hand out cash and other gifts in exchange for votes. On Friday morning, one was in the area “dishing out money” in return for support, Munyiri said. Saturday will mark the last day of campaigning.
Sitting outside the youth centre testing a microphone was Hopeson Juma. The 20-year-old is registered but will not vote — despite this being the first year he is eligible. “I didn’t find the right candidate. What they’re proposing doesn’t make sense,” he said. Politicians were failing to focus on young people, he continued. “They focus on the economy. They use that money to pay debts to the IMF and others. The youths have not been given space to grow our talents.”
Juma is a dancer, but he’s lucky to get a few gigs a month. He graduated secondary school a year ago and is searching for a full-time job, but it is hard. His dancing is a “hustle”, he said — evoking Ruto’s claim of Kenya being a “hustler nation”. But Juma says Ruto’s use of the word is completely removed from his: “He doesn’t look at the ghetto.” He says Ruto does not engage with young people or ask them for their ideas. “You cannot impose on someone something he or she does not want.”
Young Kenyans are not angry, they’re just “tired”, he added.
“Every day [politicians] tell you tomorrow will be great but you lose patience… Politics is gambling, it’s like playing with cards, someone can talk good in his or her manifesto but when they go to power it doesn’t change… You should build a country where everyone is satisfied with their basic needs.”
Another attendee, Eunice Cheptoo (20), did not bother registering. “If there was a youth vying for the presidency I would have voted for them. But the people vying have already made it in life, they don’t know the real issues affecting the youth. Poverty, lack of education. Crime, drugs, [a lack of] water and hunger: food prices going up,” she said.
She again mentioned the IMF and the debts she pictures hanging over their heads. “This country is so indebted.”
Instead, she imagines future change in Kenya coming from the bottom, with young people organising themselves to solve problems in their own communities.
Cheptoo is making her own effort, by starting a club in her school where attendees will discuss welfare-related issues and mental health. “Whenever [politicians] get to power they care for themselves. Africans always look at the political leaders but we can end crimes ourselves,” she said.