Kenya: Politicians pulling out all the stops in scramble for the youth vote

By Jeff Otieno

Posted on Thursday, 28 October 2021 17:22
Young Kenyans walk past an informational mural in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

With another general election around the corner, leading presidential contenders are pulling all the stops to win the support of the youth, who are already disillusioned with the empty promises that characterise Kenya’s politics. The big question is: who will win over this key voting bloc?

30-year-old, John Waweru is disappointed with the state of affairs in Kenya and has vowed not to vote in next year’s general election.

In 2017, Waweru, who hails from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s backyard of Kiambu, woke up before sunrise to cast his ballot for the ruling Jubilee party, whose manifesto resonated with millions of youth across the country.

Two major promises [that the] Jubilee party made to the youth [were creation of] 1.5 million jobs every year and […] double-digit economic growth. Since 2017, the two have remained a pipe dream.

“I was on the queue [from] as early as 6am. However, looking back, I regret [wasting] my […] time,”  says the father of two children, who lost his job as a waiter in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, early last year.

According to Waweru, politicians make numerous promises to the youth every election year, but forget about them once elected, only to come back for another round of votes after five years.

“Two major promises [that the] Jubilee party made to the youth [were creation of] 1.5 million jobs every year and […] double-digit economic growth. Since 2017, the two have remained a pipe dream,” he says.

Ambitious promises

With another election on the horizon, presidential candidates are once again focusing on the youth, making promises and using all manner of techniques to win over their hearts and minds.

Already, top candidates – namely, William Ruto, the deputy president, and Raila Odinga, party leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) – are making ambitious promises to the youth.

Ruto, for example, has promised to set aside KSh100m ($899,685) for each of the 290 constituencies, to support small and medium-sized businesses that are managed by youth and women, to spur growth and create jobs.

Raila, on the other hand, has vowed to implement a social protection program for poor youths by donating KSh6000 ($53.98) every month to 2 million households that are considered most vulnerable.

“My economic team has guaranteed […] that it is possible and that is where ODM wants to take the country,” says Raila.

The ODM leader argues that Kenya does not need the archaic ‘wheelbarrow economics’ championed by the deputy president, at a time when the world is moving to the ICT era.

However, the deputy president has hit back, dismissing Raila’s social protection program as tokenism.

“The problem with him is he thinks hustlers are poor and need handouts. Young people do not need handouts, they need jobs, they need an empowerment financial program that will put money in their hands,” says Ruto.

The two presidential candidates are not only using grandiose promises to catch the attention of the youth, but their mode of dressing and communication has also changed.

Social media and mode of dressing

Apart from dying his hair, Raila has also abandoned his suits and ties and instead opted for jeans, polo t-shirts, sleeveless jackets and designer sneakers to cut a youthful image. His political nemesis, the deputy president, has gone for a smart casual look, preferring to don fitting khaki trousers, custom-made blazers and bright-coloured African shirts tailored by young Kenyan designers.

They have also enlisted the services of young tech-savvy Kenyans to manage their Twitter and Facebook accounts, occasionally using slang when communicating on social media, a move viewed as an attempt to  endear themselves to the youth.

The two have also held countless meetings with youth groups in various constituencies to explain their manifestos.

So why is the youth population so important that presidential hopefuls are pulling all the stops to win their support ahead of the next general election?

According to Kenya’s 2019 population census, young people (persons below 35 years) comprised 75% of the country’s total population of 47 million. In the 2017 general election, youths accounted for 51% of the 19 million registered voters. Next year, the percentage is expected to rise with the new voter registration exercise targeting six million youth who reached the voting age within the past five years.

Voter numbers aside, it is young people who religiously attend political rallies and are involved in mobilising potential voters.

Workhorses of politicians

However, despite being the workhorses of politicians, the youth are also the ones hardest hit by economic woes, namely unemployment and high cost of living. The 2019 census data, for example, states that more than a third (38.9%) of Kenya’s youth, who are eligible to work, have no jobs. The statistic backs World Bank figures, which had indicated that Kenya had the highest rate of youth unemployment in East Africa in 2015, with 17% of all young people lacking jobs even though they are qualified to work.

Unfortunately, despite their power in numbers, only 3000 youth ran for elective posts in 2017 –  6% being women. To make matters worse, only 9% of the total 3000 were elected.

When a young man shows up and has zero resources for logistics, which is normally the bare minimum, potential voters will immediately view him or her as somebody incapable of putting up a proper campaign to run for office.

“There is some sense of apathy and some sense of fatigue, and some of the youth want to remove themselves from the whole process,” says Nerima Wako, executive director of Siasa Place, an NGO that engages young people.

In fact, one of the major challenges that prevents young people from seeking elective positions is lack of resources required to mount a serious campaign. Money needed – to print posters, hire vehicles as well as agents, and buy quality sound systems – can run into thousands of shillings, which is beyond the reach of many youths.

“When a young man shows up and has zero resources for logistics, which is normally the bare minimum, potential voters will immediately view him or her as somebody incapable of putting up a proper campaign to run for office,” says Joshua Kiptoo, the youthful Nandi County Assembly speaker.

To overcome the challenge, Kiptoo urges youths to think outside the box and come up with ingenious ways to win the trust of voters. “One of the ways you can know you are electable is your ability to fundraise, because a good idea attracts money.”

Unfair party nominations

However, lack of resources is not the only challenge that youths face. Party nomination exercises are rarely free and fair, and in most cases, they favor individuals with deep pockets or those who enjoy close links with party leaders. Worse still, the nominations are usually marred by violence, which makes it difficult for young women to fully participate in the process.

One of the things that worries me is the violence that happens in our politics and the violence that occurs within our political parties. The violence against women is even worse,” says Nerima.

Despite the challenges, Wako urges youth not to give up hope and continue to actively participate in elections, saying destiny is in their hands.

“They have to be involved and actively participate in elections. The youth have to prioritise things that they care about and choose leaders who have their interests at heart,” she says.

However, it is easier said than done, since in some instances, the youth are their own enemies.

The few elected to county assemblies and parliament have generally performed poorly. For example, youth belonging to different political parties continue to treat each other with disdain, and in some cases, arguments have degenerated into fistfights. Some have even been charged in court for various offenses.

Practicing tribal politics

In addition, the majority of youth – like their parents and grandparents – are yet to embrace issue-based politics and continue to vote along ethnic lines, especially in presidential elections.

Lawyer Ambrose Weda fears that history will repeat itself, yet again, next year. “We still have a long way to go. It is good to entice the youth, but at the end of the day, Kenyan youth are still tribal and will go where their ethnic leaders tell them to go,” says Weda.

Gabriel Muthuma, a political analyst, disagrees, saying the situation will be different this time round.

“Every election year, certain challenges arise, and if [the] majority of the youth are going to vote, they will vote for the candidate who is most convincing on economic issues because when things go bad, it is the youth who are most affected.”

Kiptoo concurs and urges the youth to wake up and smell the coffee. “I would rather we go in, however dirty it is, because the end justifies the means. Opportunities will not wait for us,  we should not only clamor for them but rather go in and take them.”

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