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On Tuesday 9 August, Kenyans went to the polls to vote in what one columnist called “The Most Boring Election.” As the general election approached it was suggested that the youth could provide a critical swing vote in a neck and neck race between the two main presidential candidates, veteran politicians Raila Odinga and William Ruto.  Seventy-five per cent of Kenyans are under the age of 35; the youth eligible to vote made up 40 per cent of the electorate.

Both candidates were not oblivious to the power of this voting bloc. For example, William Ruto made “hustling” a cornerstone of his campaign. Drawing on his experiences as a young man selling chickens, Ruto’s campaign slogan, “Every Hustle Matters”, was a direct appeal to the youth vote.  Ruto buttressed his campaign slogan with a promise to create a Sh50 billion (US$417 million) credit fund for hustlers and to get rid of political dynasties like the Odinga and Kenyatta families. In opposition to Ruto’s bottom-up vision of development, Odinga attempted to capture the youth vote with the promise of a social protection programme that includes a monthly Sh6,000 ($50) basic income grant for vulnerable households and free education from pre-primary to university. Both candidates promised to put an end to corruption.

Despite these campaign promises, Kenya recorded its lowest voter turnout in 15 years. The youth, in particular, were absent from the ballot with one election observer noting “We were concerned about the low registration of younger voters. We were expecting six million new registered voters but only three million turned up.” One reason why the youth do not vote is because they are cynical about politics. Politicians are not just seen as corrupt, but institutional politics itself is seen to be corrupting. Another is that the youth, despite being the largest demographic, are underrepresented in the political landscape, causing them to disengage from democratic structures and processes (only 2 out of 349 parliamentarians are under the age of 30). Others point out that disinformation, the current cost of living crisis and a lack of technology to make voting easier further exacerbated low turnout amongst the youth. Regardless of the reasons, there seems to be a belief that Kenyan youth are apathetic towards politics. However, we should be careful not to equate apathy towards mainstream political structures with a disinterest in politics and social change.

The disenfranchised majority

The youth are a disenfranchised majority both economically and politically. Economically, the youth in Kenya struggle to access secure employment and basic necessities for everyday survival. For example, young people make up 80 per cent of the 2.3 million unemployed. When young people do manage to find work, it is often in the informal sector where the lines between “legal” and “illegal” are blurred and income is sporadic and precarious.

This economic exclusion is also intimately linked to political marginalisation. In the last three decades, rural poverty and economic hardship have driven large numbers of people to urban areas where they often end up in informal settlements. More than 60 per cent of Nairobi’s population live in informal settlements that make up just six per cent of the land – the majority of whom are under the age of 30. In these spaces, there is a lack of access to basic services and infrastructure. Moreover, the youth are often over-criminalized and subject to police brutality. A report by the Mathare Social Justice Centre documented 803 extrajudicial killings by the police between 2013 and 2016 – most of the victims were young men. Therefore, the youth often experience a form of exclusionary citizenship where their rights are regularly undermined and, as a result, there is an obvious disintegration of the social contract between the youth and the state. Against this backdrop of a lack of formal employment and limited representation in institutional politics, the youth recognise that they need to make claims to economic distributions and political power in novel ways to respond to their marginalisation.

Apathy towards the vote is not apathy towards politics

In the lead-up to the elections, the youth and community activists in Kibera and Mathare, the two largest informal settlements in Kenya, campaigned relentlessly for peace. Artists, thespians and activists held regular, lively community meetings and peace walks to encourage cohesion and solidarity within the ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. At one peace walk, young thespians belonging to the “Social Justice Travelling Theatre” performed a satirical play on the streets of Mathare. The actors, in character as politicians, made lofty promises like, “I promise to pave the road all the way to your door, to build a swimming pool in your bedroom,” eliciting much hilarity from the audience which no doubt found them quite relatable to the current moment.

When young people do manage to find work, it is often in the informal sector where the lines between “legal” and “illegal” are blurred and income is sporadic and precarious.

Other youth groups hosted football tournaments, put on choreographed dance shows or hosted gospel concerts. This is one example of how the youth engage in political acts using art, music and youth-oriented social networks rather than traditional party politics. Ariadne Vromen views this type of political participation as, “acts that can occur, either individually or collectively, that are intrinsically concerned with shaping the society that we want to live in.” Here, the groups were not envisioning change through the electoral process, but rather encouraging post-election peace by pointing out that politicians only pay attention to the youth when they need a vote. If the youth perceive politicians as using them, is the apparent “youth voter apathy” then not a radically political act?

Another example are the “hustlers” that Ruto romanticises. Hustlers are often associated with the youth living in informal settlements who have to engage in multiple forms of precarious work to make ends meet. Hustling embodies the admirable ability of the youth to shrewdly improvise in order to survive, yet it is also an act that blends political activism with everyday activities. For example, hustlers in Nairobi’s informal settlements often engage in basic service delivery like garbage disposal, provision of water and sanitation services and distribution of solar lighting – basic services that are usually under the purview of the state. Here, hustlers may not perceive themselves as practising politics, but through their provision of basic services, they question the state’s authority by appropriating its constitutional responsibilities. After all, these hustlers, through their everyday acts of survivalism, are pointing out the failure of the state to fulfil its duties by stepping in to fill the void – is that not a political act?

Hustling embodies the admirable ability of the youth to shrewdly improvise in order to survive, yet it is also an act that blends political activism with everyday activities.

Finally, this is not to say that the youth do not engage in campaigns that are more easily identified as political. Moving away from party politics, the youth are engaging with civil society and grassroots activism in droves. In Mathare, the Mathare Social Justice Centre has set up a network of over 20 smaller centres to monitor human rights abuses in the community and to protest injustices. The social justice movement also seeks to advocate for access to basic services and for ecological justice. Other organisations like the Slumdwellers Federation and Ghetto Foundation are similarly mobilising the youth for collective action campaigns and spurring civic education. There are also a plethora of youth-led development groups that advocate for women’s rights, access to healthcare and engage in environmental programmes.

Interacting with the lives of the youth, especially in low-income areas, shows that they are not apathetic to what is happening in society. On the contrary, they are politically astute and acutely aware of the inequalities that surround them. Recognising their shared marginalisation, the youth are sceptical of politicians who promise solutions to their problems and consciously choose not to interact with hegemonic political structures. Instead, they are developing new forms of politics that are intimately linked with everyday activities, kinship networks and popular culture. And while it is not clear whether these alternative forms of politics will spur meaningful change, what is clear is that the youth are not apathetic.