Young Kenyans avoid election hype



A familiar campaign tune lifts the Kenyan crowd to their feet as Hellen Atieno joins her compatriots in dancing to the groovy tune at a political rally in the lakeside town of Kisumu.

Just don’t expect a 23 year old to vote.

“I came to the rally just because I have money. I hope there will be something,” Athieno told AFP, referring to the widespread Kenyan practice of giving free gifts to potential voters.

Now out of a job, the former fishmonger says she’s so fed up with the country’s insular political class that she plans to stay home when Kenya votes on Aug. 9 in parliamentary and presidential elections.

She is not alone.

East Africa’s economic powerhouse is among the world’s youngest countries, with three-quarters of Kenyans under 34, according to government figures.

Many are not interested in participating in the electoral process, which they widely dismiss as corrupt and pointless.

The number of registered young voters has fallen by five percent since the 2017 survey, in contrast to voters over 35 who have increased, Kenya’s Electoral Commission said last month.

According to the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC), more than 22 million Kenyans are eligible to vote this year, with young people accounting for less than 40 percent of that number.

“Dirty Game”

Politicians have responded with generous rewards, offering money, umbrellas, shirts, caps, and even bags of cornmeal, a staple food, to anyone who attends their rallies.

Bribery, a selective offense that can carry a fine of up to two million Kenyan shillings ($17,000) and/or a six-year prison term, is not new to Kenyan politics.

But the runaway food inflation, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and the unemployment crisis have increased the appetite for such handouts.

About five million young Kenyans are out of work, according to census data released in 2020.

Brian Denzel has spent recent weeks attending rallies after rallies in an effort to pocket the money offered, though the 19-year-old butcher has no plans to vote and sees politics as nothing more than a “dirty game.”

“Who will turn down the free money they are given?” he said as he stood in line to receive 200 shillings ($1.70) from a local politician.

Kenyan Home Minister Fred Matiangi even told reporters on Wednesday that banks are short of 100 and 200 shilling notes “because politicians are bribing the villagers.”

In the months leading up to the election, observers suggested that the youth factor could help heal Kenya’s often toxic tribal politics, as a younger electorate is less likely to vote based on ethnicity.

Yet while younger Kenyans are less tribally inclined, they also lack “ideological fortitude,” Kisumu-based political scientist Francis Owuor told AFP.

“The conviction that usually comes with the political process is not here,” Ovuor said.

“Everyone is to blame for this, both the people and the leaders, but again, the leaders are the bearers of the debt, so they must take most of the blame.”

Disappointed

Thirty years after Kenya’s emergence as a multi-party democracy, many are frustrated by the constant debate over the validity of polls and disputed election results.

This year’s presidential election is largely a race between Vice President William Ruto, 55, and Raila Odinga, a 77-year-old veteran opposition leader now backed by the ruling party.

If both leaders accept the results, it will be the first for the country since 2002.

Amina Sood, manager of voter education at IEBC, told AFP that election observers are “concerned” by the growing indifference shown by young people to the political process.

“We did a lot of mobilization during registration using all of these tools, and yet voter apathy was too high,” Sud said, referring to IEBC’s social media drive to reach new voters.

But urging youth to vote through TikTok campaigns or sheng comics—local slang popular among urban youth—does little hope for a generation of Kenyans facing rampant inflation, corruption and unemployment.

“I don’t think I will vote,” salon owner Irene Avino Owino, 27, told AFP.

“I have no interest because the government puts itself first, not us.”