Comment & analysis
Political participation, politicians and the youth in Kenya
Paul Mwangi Maina
2010-01-21, Issue 466
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Though it has not been ratified in the African Youth Charter, Kenya is a member of the African Union and a democratic society that has made a commitment to all its citizens, including the youth, to ensure that they are fully involved in all spheres of society.
It is, therefore, regrettable for the youth of Kenya that their government has made no visible effort to push their agenda in terms of political participation in any of the government’s organs. For example, though not constitutionally bound, the government has made no attempt to reserve seats for youth in Parliament, the public sector or any government-run institution where youth presence is almost non-existent. Despite the fact that the government recognises that youth in Kenya are marginalised, especially in terms of political participation, the lack of government effort is clearly evident in the examples used in this paper.
In the first and second items of its manifesto of 2007, the Party of National Unity (PNU) made a pledge to ‘ensure that all Kenyans, including women, youth and people living with disabilities are fully involved in the management of party affairs’. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), on the other hand, pledged in its manifesto to ‘promote greater youth participation in Kenyan political and cultural activities, entrench the rights of young people in decision-making and introduce a new national youth leadership programme to integrate the youth in leadership today not tomorrow’. The two parties are now in power and no effort has been made to promote youth participation in politics by either of them. In fact, both parties have shown reluctance to enact the new constitution that guarantees some rights to the youth. In addition, all the parties have failed to nominate even a single youth (15–35 years according to the African Union definition) to Parliament. Token appointments of ‘young’ (40+ years) individuals to assistant minister positions is what the Kenyan government views as youth political participation. These ‘youth’ who make it to parliament (mostly sons of former powerful leaders) are usually appointed to these leadership positions with little or no power to effect any change
Political parties are the gateway for political leadership in democracies and nowhere, I believe, is this more pronounced than on the Kenyan political scene. A former member of parliament and powerful minister in Kenya, Joseph Kamotho, was famously quoted as saying after the 1992 election that even if a dog stood for that election on a Ford-Asili ticket in central Kenya, it would have won by a landslide. This was in reaction to his defeat in the parliamentary election that year. This example illustrates just how important party politics is in Kenya. Before the 2007 election, parties across the board pledged to streamline all their affairs, especially the nomination process, so as to ensure fairness, transparency and full participation. Any casual observer can deduce that this is not the case now and, from my own observation, I have not found any party that has adhered to this pledge. In addition, despite their pre-election promises, no party has ever sponsored any pro-youth bills in Parliament around political participation. Some youthful politicians were actually rigged out of the 2007 general election nomination process through violence, intimidation, bribery and interference by party bosses. For example in the Ugenya constituency, a popular candidate was clearly rigged out in favour of an old foe-come-friend of the party’s ‘big man’.
A casual glance at the secretariat of the main political parties will reveal an almost total exclusion of youth, especially at the top. The trend with political parties has been to form youth wings that are parallel to, but not integrated into, the mainstream party. According to Godwin Murunga and Shadrak Wasong'o (2007), this trend was inherited by the post-colonial government from the colonial administration: ‘youth wings existed in both sides of the divide and were basically charged with carrying out instructions from above’. These youth wings are usually led by well-connected, mostly former university student leaders who use them as vehicles to launch their political careers. The youth wings are most visible during the general elections and are mainly used by politicians for intimidating rivals, but also serve as votes for purchase. Youths during this time, unfortunately, are reduced to pawns, with most of them blindly engaging in politically instigated violence in support of ‘mtu wetu’ ('our man') after a small bribe and incitement into tribal bigotry.
Political careers for a number of today's prominent leaders in Kenya began when they were student leaders in the country’s public universities. At least six members of the current cabinet were at one time student leaders, and mostly in public universities. It is, therefore, a fair assessment to say that student leadership provides a good platform for a political career for the youth in Kenya. Throughout Kenya’s recent history, however, established politicians have always infiltrated university elections. On 26 May 2009, for example, the University of Nairobi held elections that saw ethnically charged violence and mayhem, largely attributed to interference from political forces outside. Politicians introduced tribalism into the elections by sponsoring candidates from their ethnic communities in exchange for the candidates’ and their followers’ support on the national scene. Huge amounts of money also come in to play and, in the process, avenues for corruption are opened up. Consequently the young minds of our future leaders are corrupted way before they enter onto the national scene. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a majority of youths in Kenya see politics as a vehicle for financial gain and not as an opportunity to serve. In addition, due to this conditioning, the few ‘youth’ who eventually end up on the Kenyan political scene display tribal and sycophantic characteristics that rival those of the pre- colonial political relics that they learn from.
The enactment of the Political Parties Bill is a positive development and a move in the right direction for the youth in Kenya. The bill provides for, among other things, government funding for political parties. As was the case previously, parties received some funding from membership contributions, with most funding coming from the party’s bosses. This was a big problem. Since the majority of young people are not rich, it was easy for individuals with money to 'buy' party positions and nominations and lock the youth out. The bill has made it possible for small, independent parties to thrive, creating more room for democracy and a larger space for the youth to participate. According to Njeri Kabeberi, executive director of Kenya’s Center for Multiparty Democracy, the passage of the bill is important as it provides space for the growth of political parties as public institutions with broad-based ownership. She further adds that the development is essential in ensuring transparency and accountability in the registration, management and funding of political parties. To add to this, the bill will streamline the running of the already existing larger parties, thus providing a more level playing field for the marginalised.
A lot has been said and done for the Kenyan youth in terms of economic empowerment. To its credit, the government introduced the Youth Enterprise Development Fund (YEDF), which has provided cheap loans for enterprising youth to start income-generating projects. Though I don’t have the figures, the positive impact of this initiative is being felt on the ground. There is also the ‘Kazi kwa Vijana’ ('Work for the Youth') initiative, a project that provides temporary menial jobs for thousands of youth. As good as these new projects are, without the youth being involved in formulating, planning and running them, they cannot go far. Indeed only fairly recently on 22 May 2009, the chief executive officer of the (YEDF), Umuro Wario, was sacked because of graft allegations. To quote the immediate former president Daniel arap Moi, ‘Siasa mbaya maisha mbaya’ ('Bad politics will always lead to suffering no matter how great the ideas are').
That the political scenario in Kenya favours the wealthy, well-connected, sycophantic, immorally unprincipled, unethical and corrupt individuals is a fact. That young people can have these attributes is also true. Most of the youthful politicians who have made it to positions of power are relatives or sons of former politicians. They owe their posts to either their wealth, powerful connections left by their kin or sympathy votes after the sudden demise of their kin. These people do not represent the young people of Kenya accurately. What we needed firstly is a total overhaul of the status quo and the entrenchment of policies and guidelines in the constitution that will guarantee youth participation in forming the agenda of the nation. Secondly, we also need progressive leaders – especially in the private sector where young people have progressed tremendously – religious leaders and civil society to actively engage the youth in education and leadership forums. This will help in forming a new and positive culture among Kenya’s youth towards leadership.
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* Paul Mwangi Maina is an intern with the Fahamu Kenya office.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Asili. The popular opposition party in Kenya in the 1990s.
 A constituency in Nyanza province of Western Kenya.
Godwin R. Murunga and Shadrack W. Wasong’o (2007) ‘Kenya The Struggle for Democracy’, London, Zed Books
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