During the 2013 presidential election campaigns, Mr Peter Kenneth, the then MP for Gatanga Constituency, fired up youthful voters through a direct appeal to them to vote for their future instead of relying on old-time politicians who had been lying that they had the youth agenda at heart.
His was an electrifying campaign, and he even coined a few sonorous phrases in sheng to lure the then young generation to back his quest for the presidency, telling them they could make it. “Vijana tunawesmake”, they assured everyone they met.
The targeted voter bloc lustily cheered Mr Kenneth on, but when the votes were counted, he had garnered a paltry 72,786 against Jubilee’s 6,173,433 and Cord’s 5,340,540. And it is not even known how many youths actually voted for him, for such information is not easy to come by in the aftermath of an election.
Clearly, they had let him down with a thud, though many had been singing his praises as a fresh voice that promised a brighter future, and even threatened to derail President Kibaki’s illustrious career.
Well-oiled civic education
Five years earlier, just before the 2007 election, a movement meant to mobilise the youth vote was launched with great fanfare. Dubbed ‘Vijana Tugutuke; Ni Time Yetu’, the movement set the youthful generation’s imagination ablaze.
It was time, they argued, they sent home the old guard who had failed the country, and took the country’s affairs into their own hands. This was a well-oiled civic education outfit financed by a local non-governmental organisation and endorsed by the then Electoral Commission of Kenya. The enthusiasm was palpable.
However, by the time the elections came around, the enthusiasm had waned and very little of that movement was heard of any more. Some conspiracy theorists opined that its leaders had been compromised by the ‘Deep State’, hence the silence, but the more likely reason was that by then the country had more urgent things to think about, the most important being the deep division among Kenyans, which eventually led to the pre- and post-electoral violence.
Nevertheless, in its defence, Vijana Tugutuke was not an abject failure; it did succeed in raising the number of those eligible to vote by a whopping 57 per cent, which was no mean feat.
The only problem is that there was no evidence that this higher number of new voters succeeded in sending more youthful representatives to Parliament, probably because, at the last minute, they resorted to the time-worn template – voting for political parties on ethnic lines.
Now, here we are, 15 years after Vijana Tugutuke, and our politicians are still trying to lure the youth using the very same tactics that failed in the past. There is no doubt that both the Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja political formations have been trying to woo the youth vote through familiar lavish promises and populist rhetoric.
But now there is a difference; they have received a jolt from a newcomer, Prof George Wajackoyah, whose outlandish proposals have caught the fancy of youth, sending them into a frenzied search for ways to contain the threat.
It must, therefore, have come as an added shock when earlier in the week it was revealed that only 40 per cent of eligible voters are between 18 and 35 years of age. This simply means that a full 60 per cent are folks who may have voted in the past and are likely to do so again.
Breaking this into more easily relatable figures, it means that of the 22,120, 458 registered voters, only 8.8 million are youths, leaving the field clear for the 13 million-plus older folks to decide the race. The main contenders should have seen this coming. Young people simply refused to register.
If we assume that apathy does not discriminate, it simply means that this election may be decided by fewer than 20 million souls and therefore relying on the youth vote would not be very wise.
After all, young people are notoriously reluctant to queue all day to elect politicians who only retrieve and dust up the “youth agenda” after every five years. It’s going to be tricky especially for those parties that have based their entire manifesto on the yearning of youth for change – any change.
In the meantime, I am not convinced, like so many pundits seem to be, that only Kenya Kwanza will lose young voters to Wajackoyah, attracted by his extraordinary economic “blueprint”.
Those in Azimio comforting themselves thus could be in for a surprise because, after all, voter apathy cuts both ways. Those cheering during campaigns may, indeed, be doing it because they have nothing else to do, but it is also possible that many will vote because they believe in the message. In that light, complacency on the part of Azimio would be grossly imprudent.
What is more important is for all the parties concerned to try and understand why youths don’t vote at all despite all the noise they make on social media platforms. Could it be that they see nothing in the whole election ballyhoo for themselves whoever they vote into office?
Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]