By Linda Ngari
“I am politically active. Just not voting.” The paradox in Karwitha Kirimi’s stance is as astounding as the voter registration tally that recorded only a quarter of the six million targeted new voters over IEBC’s initial voter registration process. Only 1.5 million new voters registered.
The commission has lowered its expectations for the second phase, targeting 4.5 million people. The process largely targets the youth, people who just received their Identity Documents (IDs).
Certainly a big deal at a Christian institution where ‘Calvary greetings’ was the only way known. Not the audacious boycotting march that she relentlessly pursued, and this came with its fair share of opposition from the powers that be.
I am forever proud to have witnessed this shift that happened when I was still a student at Daystar. So, if there’s any young person who is passionate about governance, it has to be Karwitha for me. But she is also not voting.
The same way a couple of tweeps are, some citing that voting is a right. Not a duty, alongside the resounding despair that election results are “already decided”, in addition to the aggravated non-voters hinting at the sinking economy coupled with recurring cases of thieving politicians – Ksh2 billion is stolen from public coffers every waking day according to President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Young people are known for their indifference, their wild ways with the world. Or as Karwitha puts it; “Young people are really good at calling bullshit.”
“I know there are a lot of older people who are like, oh you know we have to keep doing this [voting] cause this is the only way. But I think young people are way ahead of the curve and just saying, it’s not working!” Karwitha says.
“I think we all have to just start with that. It’s just not working, and that’s true and we should not pretend that people are being apathetic when people are just appropriately disillusioned”- Karwitha.
The youth are questioning democracy, not just in Kenya but globally. This is Nerima Wako’s take on voter apathy among the youth. Nerima has seven years of running her organization on governance -Siasa Place- up her sleeve.
“Youth are questioning democracy globally. And just wondering whether it works,” Nerima says, “We’re beginning to see that youth feel that there has to be another way for them to engage.”
32-year-old Nerima is however a staunch believer in the electoral process and convinces the youth around her to vote.
First, to be a part of the political ecosystem, so as to have a say on the leaders that represent her from the grassroots level and also because her husband is vying for a political seat- a testament that the youth can also get involved by running for office.
“I am excited to vote, and encouraging some of my siblings who have never voted before. I feel that I need to be part of the ecosystem. I think that especially young people have this belief that politics has nothing to do with them, but I understand that it has everything to do with them. For me I’m concerned about who my representative is, and I’m concerned about what they’re bringing to the table,” she says.
As a true politico, Karwitha initially believed in the electoral process to truly change the world. The upcoming 2022 elections would be the first time she has decided not to vote.
Her epiphany was in realizing that making long queues to tick people off on a ballot paper while hoping for a “messiah” who will bear the mantle and turn things around is not the only way to be politically active.
However, these different forms of exercising democratic rights are often ridiculed by the older generation according to Karwitha.
“What I would like to see is, can we highlight more of the ways that young people are actually participating, and without ridiculing it?” she sighs.
“I think people ridicule a lot of young people’s efforts at any form of organizing. Either you’re told you’re keyboard warriors or even when kids are striking you’re told you guys just don’t want to read, and yet strikes are such potent forms of political participation. So when people are attempting to have conversations, could we talk about that type of engagement as the political participation that is?” she says.
The youth are often chastised for their indifference, never minding their intentions. In a recent press statement for instance, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha would encourage the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools, posing that he would not have been a Cabinet Secretary had he not been caned at school.
But for Nerima, the disconnect is a little more complicated than the multiple political participation plans. For her, it boils down to the decree that when people lose trust in leadership, they disengage.
“I think a lot of youth are not voting because they have lost a sense of belonging,” Nerima says, “and it has come from people in my age group”.
“We go around telling first time voters that there’s no point. We voted before, we don’t see a difference, so don’t waste your time.”
As a 24-year-old, such are the sentiments I would hear during political discussions. That politicians are corrupt, and it’s just not worth it.
The media is awash with stories of billions stashed by the political elite to the detriment of the taxpayer, so much so that journalists are now looking for different ways to report on corruption, because the audience has become desensitized to the whopping figures.
Elections are regularly hostage for self-interest”-Karwitha notes, “even if you have candidates on the ballot, it’s just so much energy for very little reward”.
Far from mainstream media coverage, not much civic education has been brought to the youth. For a generation that spends most of their time online, the IEBC’s voter education and registration process is so 2002.
The commission is now in a position where it would have to scramble for the young generation’s attention online along with other brands, or better yet harness technology to ‘make voting cool’.
Nigeria’s electoral commission has for instance introduced an online registration process well ahead of their February 2023 elections. Similar efforts were made in 2006 through the ‘Vijana Tugutuke’ campaign. The campaign involved artists, the civil society and the then Electoral Commission of Kenya staging concerts and road shows in a bid to encourage youth participation in the electoral process.
This panned out to be “very successful and its effects were felt in 2007 and beyond as more youth voted and sought elective positions” according to Institute of Education in Democracy (IED) former Executive Director Koki Muli.
Had resources and ample time been dedicated towards voter education, more young people would show up. Nerima agrees.
“The only time we see them (IEBC), is in an election year, and that time they’re registering people, and they’re trying to educate,” she says, “So we’re stuck in that time period of an election year where there’s now this influx of resources, to do education, but limited time. It’s not intrinsic. It’s not something that youth can identify with because frankly, it came last minute.”
Further abetting voter apathy among the youth today is the difference in generational experience.
While Nerima’s generation lived through with historic events like the end of Daniel Moi’s 24-year dictatorial regime, 24-year-old Karwitha would only have heard of this in passing and even worse for the targeted new voters this year who were born in 2004.
This kind of information may only have been forced into them at a History class, and sadly smoldered along with the History notes at the academic fires held just after candidates complete their Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).
This ritual is often held at Kenyan high schools to symbolize the end of a long-suffering four years of cramming in preparation for the one exam that would supposedly determine the rest of their lives.
During Moi’s regime, university students would truly shake up the status quo.
“The 90s university students were really looking for a chance to lead, explore, rebel, the dictatorial system,” Nerima recounts.
“So they used the universities, to learn and organize, in ways where some had to be banned and even them being involved in a coup. Students were so active, in terms of national leadership and participation and that has changed.”
“Students today don’t know much about their history. Even when Raila [Odinga] speaks and talks about how he went to jail for this country, a typical average young person doesn’t understand that fight. Or understand Raila as an activist. Or why he pushes for democracy and why we changed our electoral management body from ECK to IIEC to IEBC.”
A contrast is made between Siaya Senator James Orengo, a revered politician and former student leader at the University of Nairobi (graduated in 1974) and Babu Owino, who was also a student leader at the same varsity (graduated in 2012), and now a Member of Parliament.
Senator Orengo is famous for leading the monumental 2017 case that nullified election results for the first time ever in Africa and only the third time in the world, while Babu Owino is famous for being involved in a nightclub scandal where he shot one DJ Evolve after reportedly comparing sizes of guns with the deejay.
But Karwitha would like for society not to judge the entire youth population based on a few cases.
“This idea that youth is one cohesive political bloc with the same aspiration, it’s just not true,” she says.
“So many of us share the same age demographic but we don’t share similar aspirations, we don’t share similar values, we have very dissimilar end goals of what we want the world we’re living in to look like. And it would be great for us as young people to go into those divisions even more and oppose this idea that just because someone is young, it means we share similar interests. Even on social media we see young people calling out other young people a lot. And that’s important. Just because we’re young, doesn’t mean we should share similar values.”
A major trait indicative of how polarized the youth are is in the different ways they engage in politics, based on their social setting. According to Nerima, the apathy is majorly from middle to upper class settings.
But those from rural areas and the lower class setting would be spotted at political rallies, registration queues and campaigns. Not for the love of their nation but for want.
“The people that actually make it to the rallies are a high indicator that they are not employed. You find that the middle class or upper class, they’re the ones who are saying, I don’t know, I just want to lock myself out. That population is quite small, compared to the broader population which lives below the poverty line and those are the ones who don’t have access to as much education.”
“So you’ll find that is the generation that will be taken advantage of. That’s the generation that is selling their voters’ cards. The same generation that’s choosing the leadership that’s going to affect the middle and the upper class.”
“And I do see a lot of youth selling their votes and now it’s gotten to a point where [even] university students are selling their votes for different reasons. Lower class because that’s the only way they’re going to get resources that day to eat. But [for] university students, I’m not going to vote anyway so I might as well just make a few shillings out of this.”
“That’s scary because they don’t realize that we are looking at a ripple effect where the generation, or the class of people who would be asking questions, who would be to make sure we have better representatives, who would understand the role of these representatives are now completely disengaged.”
But Nerima and Karwitha agree on one thing; the electoral process should be led by ideologies. Not individuals.
“If people were to organize behind issues and not behind a political champion, if we all participate actively in issues we are passionate about, then we actively actually increase participation in the democratic space in a way that’s real”- Karwitha.
Denmark citizens would for instance rally behind climate change over immigration rights in their 2021 elections. The country is said to traditionally record high voter turnout.
“Voting is absolutely the most important aspect of participation, and people need to realize that voting does not only have to do with a presidential candidate. It’s as low as the MCA. And that MCA should be the most reachable leader that you have. Even when you go and talk about access to employment, or health, health is devolved. Access to employment is devolved. So the very thing that you feel is an issue to you, for young people, it’s an opportunity no matter where we sit. We’re all looking for opportunities,”- Nerima retorts.
Opening channels of intergenerational collaboration is hence called for to learn and unlearn from each other. While the older generation may have to get off the high horse position, castigating the youth as a “lost generation” with a bleak future, the young may also want to adopt a more collaborative approach, opting for negotiations over demonstrations as a viable mode of political participation.
To shun being disengaged as a nation altogether works towards perpetual patriotism that endures beyond the Olympics season when all Kenyans are suddenly proud to be Kenyan.