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.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
Agents of change: Reaching across ethnic and religious lines, youth activists have wrested influence from Kenya’s political elite. From left: Caroline Ruto, Joshua Nyamori, Hassan Ole Naado, Benson Maisori, and Kariuki Susan.

In Kenya's last national election, the country's youths were out on the street, campaigning for candidates who promised to improve their lives. Some young Kenyans even carried out horrific acts of ethnic violence at the urging of their political leaders.

But now, disgruntled Kenyan young adults say, they won't be fooled again.

"Young people have served the role of being the gear levers used by politicians to reach power, and at the end of the day, youth feel excluded from political power," says Joshua Nyamori, leader of the Nyanza Youth Coalition in Kisumu. "So we've started a dialogue among ourselves. We decided to organize ourselves around issues, instead of around politicians."

He chuckles. "The public officials are fearful. They do not know how to handle us."

This week, as a corruption scandal threatens to tear apart the fragile coalition government and allies of Prime Minister Raila Odinga say they will boycott cabinet meetings, Kenyans are worried that the political crisis could once again devolve into ethnic violence.

The convergence of so many youth groups – dozens around the country with tens of thousands of members – from different ethnic and religious groups, is one of the most hopeful signs on Kenya's torrid political landscape.

Once the tool of ambitious or cynical politicians – used as speechmakers and organizers, or as thugs, killing more than 1,000 civilians after the last national elections in December 2007 – Kenya's youngest voters are now reaching across ethnic lines, talking about unemployment, education, and health, and organizing for positive, lasting solutions.

"In past elections, the violence was done by the state … it was the government agents who paid for it and managed it," says John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner and head of the Zindinko Trust, which funds some of the larger citizen groups in Kenya.

Kenya's political class is good at defending its interests, Mr. Githongo admits, but there is reason to believe that Kenya's youth can outwit them. For one thing, young leaders are traveling around the country to rural areas to speak with youth about their rights and responsibilities as voters, leaving behind the snobbish intellectual circles of Nairobi. Secondly, youth are much more in touch with the disgruntled sentiments of the Kenyan population.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) funds a number of these forums under its goal of democracy building and citizenship awareness. Over the past year, the forums have been occurring nearly every other week, in big cities and small towns, at schools and churches and public halls.

"The challenge for them is to do this within enough time to have some sort of impact on the next election," Githongo says.

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.

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.

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