NAIROBI, Kenya — It was a sight to behold. Scores of young people, excited and expectant, gathered in Nairobi, chanting slogans and waving banners. But it was no entertainment: They were there for a campaign rally. In the months leading up to Kenya’s elections on Tuesday, the scene was repeated across the country. Here, it seemed, were the future custodians of the country taking a lively interest in the political process.
But appearances can be deceptive. Some, it turned out, attended only on the promise of payment; others were paid to gather crowds from nearby. The actual enthusiasm of the country’s young, in contrast to the contrived air of engagement, is rather cooler. While those age 18 to 35 make up 75 percent of the population, only about 40 percent of people from that cohort have registered to vote.
For some, this lackluster showing was evidence of worrisome apathy among the country’s youth. And sure enough, the early signs from Tuesday’s vote, where turnout across the board was low, at around 60 percent, suggest that the young stayed home in large numbers. But the charge of apathy misses the point. For many young Kenyans, refusing to vote is not a result of disinterest or indifference or even ignorance. It is instead — as Mumbi Kanyago, a 26-year-old communications consultant, told me — a “political choice.”
You can see why. The two leading candidates in Kenya’s election, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, who are neck and neck in the early count, are both established members of the political class. They sit at the apex of a system that has failed to counter endemic youth unemployment, skyrocketing debt and a rising cost of living. In the eyes of many young people, expecting change from such stalwarts of the status quo is a fool’s errand. If the choice is a false one, they reason, better to refuse it altogether than collude in a fiction.
On the surface, the two candidates seem pretty different. Mr. Ruto has branded himself a “hustler,” sharing stories about how he sold chicken by the roadside before his rise through the ranks to businessman and political leader — a back story that has earned him support from members of the working class, despite allegations of corruption. Mr. Odinga, by contrast, is political royalty. This is his fifth attempt to win the presidency, and his years of experience and exposure have earned him a kind of star power few can match.
But the differences obscure the underlying similarities. Mr. Ruto, the newer candidate, has been deputy president for nearly a decade. Mr. Odinga is not only the country’s most famous opposition leader but has also been backed by the current president. Both candidates profess — often when animatedly addressing crowds — to care deeply about the electorate and its troubles. Yet in the eyes of many young voters, both belong to the same flawed system. They have no faith that either could seriously change things for the better.
With good reason. In the dozens of conversations I had with young Kenyans, one refrain kept coming up: Politicians are out for themselves, not the country. In their view, self-interest and financial advancement are why politicians seek office. There’s something to it, certainly. The country regularly ranks poorly in corruption scores, and the two leading parties have members accused of graft and corruption in their ranks. The candidates like to talk about tackling corruption: Mr. Ruto has said he would deal with the problem “firmly and decisively,” and Mr. Odinga has branded corruption one of the “four enemies” of the country. But given their tolerance of dubious behavior, these promises fall flat.
Kenya can ill afford such self-serving leadership. Parts of the country are experiencing what the United Nations has described as “the worst drought in 40 years” in the Horn of Africa, with some 4.1 million people in Kenya suffering from severe food insecurity. The cost of food and fuel, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has risen sharply. If that were not bad enough, the country — in part because of the government’s borrowing spree over the past decade — is heavily laden with debt, and inflation is at a five-year high. But in response to this troubling situation, the candidates have offered little more than bickering and bragging.
In the absence of substantial policy, there could at least be symbolic representation of the young. But there too things are lacking. In 2017, Kenyans age 18 to 34 made up roughly 24 percent of all candidates. Less than a tenth of them won office, under 3 percent of the total. With such a tiny number of young people making the cut in electoral politics, who could blame the young, without representation or recourse to a more responsive state, for turning away?
Still, young people in the country have found other ways to engage in political work — in community projects, mutual aid programs and social centers. One example is the Mathare Social Justice Center in Nairobi, which aims to promote social justice for the community living in Mathare, an area historically subject to police brutality, extrajudicial killings and land grabs.
In this way, Kenyans are in step with other developments on the continent, where young people have sought alternative means to make their voices heard. For instance, young Sudanese have been bravely organizing and leading protests since October last year, demanding a return to civilian rule. In Nigeria, the young are at the forefront of a movement against police brutality that erupted with the enormous #EndSARS protests in 2020. And young people in Guinea played a huge part in the 2019-20 mass protests against the president’s attempt to run for a third term.
Of course, the right to vote and participate in elections is a hard-won privilege, which many around the world are denied. But demanding that people vote, no matter how limited the candidates, is akin to exhorting people to joyously crown their oppressors. Citizens, after all, have the right to choose. And democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box.