Kenya political crisis: Youths yearn for their own 'Obama'
As a corruption scandal threatens to derail Kenya's fragile coalition government, some young Kenyans are reaching across ethnic lines and saying they'll no longer be tools of cynical politicians.
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In some ways, the political mood for change in Kenya is similar to the disaffection of the United States in the 2008 campaign, analysts say. Just as Barack Obama swept aside more established candidates by reaching out to younger voters – securing 66 percent of the under-30 vote – an outsider candidate in Kenya could also reach out to the young here, promising a political process that benefits hard work above personal connections.Skip to next paragraph
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The power of numbers
As a group, Kenya's young voters are certainly in a position to throw their weight around. They make up 56 percent of the population, and 61 percent of the unemployed. But they have few opportunities to get ahead. According to the UN Development Program, only 50 percent of Kenya's youth are expected to find gainful employment in their lifetimes.
In the past, this poverty and hopelessness has been a tool of Kenyan political parties. But Kenyan youth leaders are working hard – through discussion groups about Kenya's current efforts to rewrite its Constitution, as well as through mobile-phone text messages, and even Facebook chat rooms – to get to disenfranchised young adults before the political parties do, and give them a more productive way to participate.
While it might sound unlikely for Kenyan youth to be chattering about a constitution rather than, say, Beyoncé, Kenyans see how important it is to create a system that is fair to all, not just for the elite. Young Kenyans follow the rewrite of the Constitution in the way some young Bostonians follow the Red Sox. Latest drafts of the Constitution are sold at newsstands alongside magazines about soccer, hip-hop, and fashion.
"A system that is not selfish, that is what we want," says Kariuki Susan, leader of Nairobi Youth Agenda. "It's not about how much land you can grab, it's about serving people, not just serving yourself."
Hassan Ole Naado, leader of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance, says that Kenyan youth have watched many of their former heroes – activists in civil society – go into government promising reforms and instead conform themselves to the system of bribes and living off the public purse. "The key is don't fall into that trap, and we discuss that in our forums," he says.
Poverty makes their job harder, says Benson Maisori, chairman of the Kuria Youth Forum for Democracy, because it creates what he calls "the culture of the handout.... Once you become leader, you must help people, you pay funeral fees, you pay for school fees, you provide blankets for the poor. People are so impoverished, this is what they expect."
The Obama effect?
Yet Mr. Maisori says that culture is dynamic. "There is hope. Who would have thought that America would have elected Obama, but you can see what happened. Culture changes over time."
Joshua Nyamori says Kenya needs charismatic leadership to change the political system. "If you look at the civil rights movement in the United States, they had to look outside the older established leaders for that 24-year-old young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., to speak for the movement," he says. "Who that is in Kenya has not emerged yet. But we are looking."
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The convergence of Kenyan youth groups – across ethnic and religious lines – is the most hopeful political development in a nation that's become disgruntled by the corruption of its democratic process.