Rowdy youths

Police battle rowdy youths who had attempted to disrupt Deputy President William Ruto’s rally at Jacaranda grounds in Nairobi on January 16, 2022.

| File | Nation Media Group

Inside the underworld of political crowds for hire

What you need to know:

  • Nation reveals startling information about the extent of voter bribery and the normalisation of hirelings on the campaign trail.
  • Last year, Twitter influencers-for-hire funded by faceless agencies behind coordinated disinformation campaigns

Charged. Euphoric. Unruly. And violent. This is an apt description of crowds at political rallies, except most aren’t spontaneous.

Welcome to the underworld of hired goons for political rallies, the stock in trade in Kenya’s politics.

For John Juma, it’s once again the season to cash in. His services are most sought by politicians every five years. He styles himself as a youth leader in Kibera. In order to speak freely about the mobs-for-hire, and so as not to spoil his business, he asks that we use his pseudonym.

“If the rally is tomorrow, we will meet at night. In every constituency there are youth leaders, so they attend their meetings at night and spread to the youth leaders in every single ward,” he said.

“These ward youth leaders are the ones to mobilise the youths in that area. You are told by the politician we want 30 or 50 youths from each ward. Because I am a youth leader, sometimes I am given Sh200,000 or more depending on the work they want the youths to do, and I only look for 100 youths to do the work.”

“But if the politician wants the youths to insult, throw stones, or fight to disrupt the stronghold of their opponent, I usually demand more than Sh200,000.”

Juma will turn to the likes of Brian Saidi, 26, and Andrew Kibet, 27, also not their real names, from the Kibera slums.

These hirelings explain how the youth mobilisers find them and how much they demand.

“The youth leaders call us and tell us, ‘We have some work for you’. We will be told, ‘Nataka tu mwende mchachishe tu (I want you guys to go and cause a commotion). We call it bumburush. So we go for an hour or maybe the whole day, it depends,” Saidi explained. “The ones who hang on the cars are the youth leaders. We are the people on the ground, the youth leaders watch over us, so you have to work by shouting.”

But how much are they paid?

“It depends what the youth leader will tell us, how much he has been given, something we will never know. It also depends on which event it is. There are days when I get Sh2,000, there are those when we get Sh500 and sometimes they tell us we finish the work before they pay us,” Saidi said.

And there are some events that are more lucrative.

“I remember the events where I was paid good money. The swearing-in of ‘Baba’ [Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga] at Uhuru Park, when we went to pick up Raila from the airport and also when[Chief Justice David] Maraga nullified the election. We were given Sh3,000 each. These big ones they pay you before you board the car,” Kibet said.

Some of the youths involved must be intoxicated to keep up with the gruelling job.

“I give everybody Sh500 out of the Sh200,000, then I buy alcohol, bhang and for those who will eat lunch, we still have a budget there,” Juma said.

All over the country, there have been countless incidents of heckling at rallies. On January 16, Deputy President William Ruto’s rally at Jacaranda grounds in Nairobi was briefly disrupted by a rival group, prompting police to lob tear gas cannisters to disperse them.

The DP’s motorcade was also stoned in Kondele late last year. But the DP’s camp has also been accused of stage-managing attacks for sympathy and to portray rivals as violent. And, sometimes, the job can go wrong and people are injured or even killed.

“My best friend was shot in the head while we were on the streets. Now he is no more,” Saidi recalled in pain.

Mary Anyango Ouma, 45, from Ndhiwa constituency, Homa Bay County, said she travelled to Nairobi for the first time because of her MP.

“My MP brought us here. We did not pay for anything. We came in a bus. We have eaten and seen Nairobi and the way we came is the way we will go back,” Ouma said, giggling. 

Kabuchai MP Majimbo Kalasinga explained the concept of plastic crowds. 

“There are people who want to come and see who this person is. Then we have genuine people who come because they like you. Then we have hired crowds, who you will ferry with lorries, buses, boda bodas,” Kalasinga said. But how does one recognise a paid-for crowd?

“The ones who shout the loudest,” says activist Boniface Mwangi, who vied for the Starehe MP’s seat in the last elections.

“If you want to know that this crowd is generally natural, the noise will come from all the quarters. If you have hired crowds you might not be able to distribute it uniformly among the audience. So you find that maybe 1,000 people on the right are too noisy and then on the left they are quiet,” Kalasinga explained.

“You bring 300 people, you station where the vehicle is going to stop, they surround the vehicle and the moment your person starts talking, they start cheering,” says Rindikiri Mugambi, MP of Buuri constituency in Meru County.

Then there are the branded crowds for optics. “They are given money and T-shirts,” says Benson Musungu, youth coordinator for ODM. But are there fanatical followers who, when their leader asks to jump, they ask how high?

“Fanatical supporters will follow you without any pay and I think there is only one person who has fanatical supporters in this country, that is Raila Odinga. He has die-hard supporters because he has built that over a period of time,” explained Kakamega Senator Cleophas Malala.

On February1, during a Kenya Kwanza rally in Nairobi, gubernatorial aspirants Margaret Wanjiru (United Democratic Alliance) and Johnson Sakaja (Amani National Congress) clashed at City Park market. This is after rowdy youths disrupted Ms Wanjiru’s speech, prompting her to confront M Sakaja.

Some argue that the long reign of President Daniel Moi and Kanu perfected the art of crowds-for-hire and that others are only following that script. But Cyrus Jirongo, who formed YK92 to campaign for Kanu and President Moi in 1992, said they never used to be a big team.

“The lobby group I led in ’93 was just 23 young men. We were not a huge team as people would want to imagine,” Jirongo said.

Sam Nyamweya added: “They needed an organisation of young people like us to make sure that we help the party.”

But James Orengo, who was a fiery opposition politician at the time and is now Siaya senator, said the group was flush with money.

“And then comes YK92 and the thing that they were selling was money. They had lots of money to mobilise young people on the basis of what they were offering. The currency was not ideas but money,” recalled Orengo.

Former Subukia MP Koigi Wamwere, who gained popularity opposing the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, said money spoke a different language to people.

“People went there without a single cent and some came out with Sh100,000. Some even got half a million. That money was there for the taking, for those people who would become his disciples,” Wamwere said.

“The YK92 story was a scapegoat. We came in, did a clinical job, finished what we wanted to finish and moved on,” Jirongo countered.

But old habits die hard.

Stone thrower

A youth armed with a stone attempts to block Deputy President William Ruto's motorcade from accessing Kondele roundabout in Kisumu on November 10, 2021.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Many leaders who followed President Moi appear to have adopted and perfected his crowd-pulling strategy. Kieni MP Kanini Kega said it is important for a politician to have a responsive crowd.

“Any politician who wants to deliver a certain message would be happy to have a big crowd but, more importantly, a responsive one,” Kega argued.

“Look at William Ruto, he concentrates on crowds. Look at Raila Odinga, he is the master of crowds and therefore it helps in creating perception and swaying opinion,” Malala said.

“There are some people who are undecided in [the sense that]they don’t know who to vote for and they always want to associate with the winning team. Such people will use the measure of crowds to make a decision.”

And the mobs are also hired even on polling day to destabilise the strongholds of rivals in a voter-suppression strategy. MP Kalasinga said a majority of these goons don’t vote, and Juma explained what happens on voting day.

“On the eve of voting day, the same politician comes at night, tells us a certain area is a stronghold for the opponent, so that night he makes sure he goes to that stronghold of his opponent, gives the youth money and a lot of alcohol. So on voting day, most don’t have their identification cards,” Juma said.

Demand always necessitates supply, and when this occurs, an astute politician will instantly recognise who to approach.

“A politician is a very conniving person. He’s never go to an area where people have money and are educated. He treats those people as his enemy. But areas where people cannot afford soap, those are his people,” Juma said.

“I will take the money, use it, eat it but I will not vote. I only do this for money, nothing much like telling people to go vote. There is no day they will come and develop the youths in the area, let’s say build stalls for the youths and try to make an income from it,” Saidi said.

“No, they will leave you with that thirst for money so next time when they come you will still go because you have no option.”

Politics is about perceptions, said ODM Communications Director Phillip Etale.

“We don’t thrive on hiring crowds, we only mobilise and inform them. They will come without fail,” Etale said.

Another weapon used to attack political opponents is social media, just by creating a hashtag. Popular Twitter users Dominic Omondi and Boniface Mwangi explained how they make hashtags trend.

“I’m the biggest victim of hashtags. So, nowadays, anyone who is running for any office or anybody who is trying to malign anybody just creates a hashtag, pay some people [to make it trend] so that when you Google [your name], it comes up very dirty,” Mwangi said.

Most people involved in the Twitter attacks are 25 years and above.

“You know politicians have different ideologies, and they tend to argue. With us, a politician will come to us, let’s say attack so and so. So when you give us the data, we’ll go and verify on the ground then send it to the Twitter accounts of the individuals to go and share the information or the narrative,” Omondi explained.

So how much does it cost to have a hashtag online?

“Let’s say you are the politician we have negotiated with you. I will charge you Sh40,000. The minimum I’ve charged is Sh30,000. And with that, after creating the content, I will have like Sh10,000 to give to the 10 people who help me. I will give Sh1,000 each for that one hour of trending that hashtag or maybe Sh1,500 if it takes more than six hours to trend,” Omondi said.

Propaganda is part of politics, said former Cabinet minister Franklin Bett, now the chairman of the Agricultural Finance Corporation.

“Propaganda is part of politics, that I can confirm. Without propaganda, you may not win an election anywhere in the world,” he said.

Numerous politicians have hired skilful Kenyans to work in their media teams. They are responsible for photography, videography, graphic design, and social media marketing.

Photography and video tricks are also used as strategies to portray crowds as bigger than they really were.

“There are people who have now focused on some [specialised] cameras, whether they have concave lenses or whatever, that somehow spread the crowd or even have a multiplier effect,” said Kega.

“Any political photo must tell a story and therefore you do not do a close-up, and if you do, then that is the beginning of your problems. People want to see crowds and that is why I said you must enhance the art of iconography in political communication,” explained Malala.

Because men are constantly talking about politics, they are the least targeted, said political analyst Nerima Wako.

“A lot of times when politicians come into these bases, these communities, they will look for youth group leaders and they will look for women leaders. Men are always there, men are always constantly discussing politics and you don’t have to call them. Chamas play such an important role and people don’t realise,” Nerima explained.

“I have my youth leadership, I have my women leadership, I have other leaders. When I’m going to a particular area, I just call and say to my women leaders, my youth leaders, ‘I will be in this place, please make sure people attend’, and they will go out there and bring people,” says Westlands MP Tim Wanyonyi, who is vying for Nairobi governor.

Recently, the attention of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions was directed to a Facebook page under investigation called Lamu County Politics Unlimited Group. Several people who used pseudonyms wrote content that could incite hatred or contempt toward a particular ethnic group.

Last year, a booming shadow industry of Twitter influencers-for-hire funded by faceless agencies behind the highly coordinated harassment and disinformation campaigns aimed at changing the country’s political direction was exposed.

A total of 100 shadowy Twitter accounts were suspended. 

An investigation revealed that their accounts violated the platform’s manipulation and spam policies by tweeting pre-set hashtags intended to misinform the public or attack specific individuals. Twitter made the decision following a three-month review by American internet service provider Mozilla.

“We need to advise our youths: Some information is not there for you to publish. I get a lot of information, mtu anakupea pesa [you are offered money] to post something but mi huwa nakataa [I often decline]because that is not a good deal, and you will find yourself in a situation you cannot manage,” Omondi said.

As previously said, there are two sides to the coin when it comes to perceptions. For a politician, it’s not only about winning over the public; it’s also about painting a picture of your opponent as undesirable.

Even the brightest and most reasonable people may resort to hooliganism in a crowd, said sociologist Wafula Otiato.

“When you enter a crowd, you collapse your emotions into this animal called crowd and its contagion power is like an external force which has taken over you,” he said.

“Once you join a crowd, you lose your individuality. The crowd has the power to destabilise you, however bright you are, to the extent that now you become irrational.”

Additional reporting by Gitonga Marete, George Munene and David Muchui