/ 7 August 2017

As Kenya’s votes, its youth are more than just a cliché

There had been “isolated cases” of voters being denied access
There had been “isolated cases” of voters being denied access

Over the past two years, a decisive youth vote has effected changed in Nigeria, Ghana and the Gambia. Can Kenya’s young population do the same?

In Nigeria, data from the Independent National Electoral Commission shows that, in the 2015 elections, students were the second largest voting bloc in the country and young people below the age of 30 are the largest percentage of the voting population in the country.

Ghana, which held its own polls in December 2016, has 58% of the population under the age of 24, and according to the According to the Commonwealth’s Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016, Ghana ranks 31st for youth participation in politics.

In Gambia, where an electoral miracle kicked out a parasitic dictator, youth constitutes at least 60% of the population. Anecdotal evidence from media and observers prove that the election results reflect the energy of their passion.

It can seem like a cliché when people talk about the power of the youth demographic bulge across Africa. But while that bulge often tacks negative with the economy (Gambia’s youth unemployment stands at 38%; Ghana’s stands at 48%), the one place where its full power comes to bear is in elections; especially free and fair elections.

Kenya will be seeing these same trends as it goes out to vote tomorrow. 78.3% of the population is aged 35 and below, and about half of the 19-million registered voters are in the same age bracket, underlining the often repeated point that Kenya has one of the youngest electorates in Africa.

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, both running for president, understand this reality viscerally. With one out of every five young people under 29 unemployed in the country, they understand that youth agitation is all but certain to drive turnout.

The polls underline the urgency. In January, three months before the National Super Alliance announced Odinga as its coalition candidate, an Ipsos poll placed him at 30% to Kenyatta’s 47. But just last month, that margin has narrowed remarkably, with Odinga at 42 and Kenyatta at 47.

In this election, every vote is sure to count. And young people are keenly aware of this. As they should be.

In Nigeria, the overwhelming success of the youth vote has energized a population that went to the streets to protest in February this year, an electorate that sought the recall of a Senator in May, and an active civil society that successfully pushed reluctant national legislators to enact a #NotTooYoungToRun Bill that has slashed down the age that young people can contest the governorship, legislative and presidential elections.

When youth see evidence that their voices matter, and their votes count, they become energized and find the empowerment to pursue and secure large-scale political and social change.

As I have noted in my upcoming book How to Win Elections in Africa, the continent’s intimidating youth population has the capacity to enact large-scale constitutional reform, to activate massive national judicial battles that force public officials to modify behavior or step aside and to build youth-led national movements actively involved in social and political engineering that handicaps corrupt governments and tips the balance of power in favour of citizens.

But the first step towards this is the confidence of electoral victory.

And this step isn’t just for the young people of Kenya, but for all of Africa’s young people who are watching the youth vote bloc either reward deserving establishments or unseat failed establishments everywhere from Nigeria to Ghana, Rwanda to Gambia. As the walls come crashing down, citizens of oppressive regimes get confirmation that changed is possible, and that true democracies are achievable.

It is crucial that Kenya’s youth demonstrate the power of their potential at the polls tomorrow – and in the days and months and years that follow. Africa’s future aspirations depend on it.