We have to give young people hope that clean politics is possible

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: The youth-driven wave in Africa
Boniface Mwangi
By Boniface Mwangi
Journalist, politician and activist

Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan photojournalist, activist, politician and founder of the Nairobi-based PAWA254 creative hub and the Team Courage initiative for social change.

Posted on Tuesday, 30 April 2019 13:10

Kenyan activists and civil society groups protest in solidarity with Ugandan pop star-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine in August, 2018. Khalil Senosi/AP/SIPA

Since independence, Kenyan elections have been characterised by irregularities, violence and accusations of vote tampering.

We make world headlines because of electoral disputes and post-election violence. In the past 30 years, we have had six elections and only the 2002 one did not end with a court case and widespread violence.

In 2017, I ran for the parliamentary seat representing Starehe. I ran because I was tired of taking part in street protests and getting our petitions ignored by parliamentarians. The streets had produced a number of successes, and I believed getting an elective post would enable us to continue with our fight. I hoped to be the voice of the people from the inside. I lost, and the experience left me with many reflections.

The electorate loves their tribal kingpins and their parties that are formed a few months before the elections. They are the same characters – or their biological and political sons – who have dominated our politics since independence; and defying them is like scoring an own goal.

Your manifesto, passion and great ideas don’t matter; your tribe, how deep your pockets are and the tribal king-party you affiliate with is all that matters. But we defied them.We formed the Ukweli Party (meaning truth party, in Kiswahili). As a small new party, we had a choice to align with big tribal kingpins and get some of their voters to vote for us. We refused many offers.

I ran against rivals who didn’t bother to have a manifesto because they were in the two big political parties and they had lots of money. Their sources of wealth were questionable, but to the voters their money and flashy cars were the main attraction. Working with other revolutionaries proved such a joy. Just knowing you are not walking alone really kept me going.

This is despite the fact that we were a bunch of broke candidates. As a new party, we had to do something normally done in mature democracies but never in Africa: asking strangers to financially support our candidacy. We crowdfunded our campaign and the most amazing thing is that people gave money, time and vehicles.

Kenyans owned me as their candidate, and through small contributions we raised over $150,000. People volunteered to come knock doors with me. It proved that not all hope was lost and that there are those who still care to make a difference. This, though, came with a key lesson. We have a Kiswahili saying, ‘Mkono mtupu haulambwi’ (an empty hand is not licked).

The most amazing thing is that people gave money, time and vehicles

The voters would tell me to hurry up with my speeches, saying “we have heard that before”, and demand I come to the conclusion so that I can dish out the goodies like flour, sugar, cooking oil. It was purely extortion politics, and that’s why Kenya politics attracts thugs and those with ill-gotten wealth.

In the beginning, I would flatly refuse and at points I was annoyed, but then I realised this was an opportunity to engage in voter education. My campaign changed from expressing why I was a better candidate to explaining what one should consider in selecting their preferred candidate.

I focused more on teaching why voting for party, tribe, or because they were given handouts, was the reason Kenya politicians are highly paid and government is still one of the most corrupt institutions. We have to lobby for changes in campaign financing to try and equalise the playing field. It would be great to have an electoral system that invests in ideological politics rather than personalities.

I went into politics with my integrity intact and came out unscathed. In the end I didn’t lose; I learnt lessons and will continue to use my platform as my megaphone to get young people inspired into politics.

As a young Kenyan, I have to do a lot of work to stop the voter apathy because people born after 2000 have only experienced “stolen elections”. I have to carry them the gospel of Kwame Nkrumah, who said: “Seek ye the political kingdom first”, because the jobs and the opportunities they seek will be delivered by good leaders occupying the political kingdom.

It will take my generation’s strategy, skilful political organising and confrontation, hope and a courageous mentality that we can change the corrupt system. We have to give young people hope that clean politics is possible.

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