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Kenya: The Writing's On The Wall

Nairobi graffiti calls for change, but are voters listening?
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One of Mwangi's vulture-politician murals near city market in Nairobi. Photograph by Clar Ni Chonghaile.

Nairobi, Kenya:

When Boniface Mwangi decided to take his call for change to the Kenyan people, he chose to do it on Nairobi’s walls. The award-winning photojournalist assembled a crew of graffiti artists and, over three weeks, they sacrificed sleep and risked arrest to pillory politicians in a series of no-holds-barred murals across the city.

Mwangi, who does not want his three children to witness the kinds of horrors he saw and photographed in the post-election violence of 2008, wishes to jolt Kenya’s youth into action ahead of the next polls due sometime between December and March 2013.

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The murals depict politicians as greedy, rapacious vultures who despise the people who elect them. One image reads: “MPs screwing Kenyans since 1963.”

The crude statement did not seem to offend many in the capital of East Africa’s largest economy, where criticism of politicians is commonplace but does not seem to translate into change at the ballot box.

“This is absolutely not shocking,” said Peter, a tall man in a tracksuit who described himself as “an ordinary Kenyan”. “That’s the tragedy. We get the leaders we deserve. Until we change, we, the common Wananchi (ordinary people), will continue suffering oppression.”

Tribal power

Many of Kenya’s politicians, who are among the best paid in the world, have been in parliament for decades despite the fact that many of them have been tainted by corruption scandals ranging from “lost” public funds to dodgy land deals.

But when it comes to elections, public scorn for the political elite seems to pale before tribal allegiances. Mwangi, and many others, accuse politicians of using tribal divisions to seize and hold onto power, a practice dubbed ‘negative ethnicity’.

The dangerous symbiosis between tribe and politics became all too apparent during the election in December 2007, when ethnic divisions were inflamed by political rivalries and claims of rigging. The explosion of violence that followed claimed around 1,200 lives, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.

It was the personal, intimate nature of the violence that shocked most. Neighbour turned on neighbour – burning houses, setting fire to a church full of people, raping women.

In the end, and with international mediation, Kenya pulled back from the brink. But many analysts, and ordinary Kenyans, say the underlying problems – inequality, deprivation and hunger for land – remain unresolved. And there is still bitterness, especially as no one has yet been brought to justice.

Personal gains before the needs of the people

Kenyans’ dissatisfaction with their politicians does not just derive from the violence that nearly sundered their country. Most Kenyans expect politicians to be dishonest, and corruption is a daily reality. Kenya ranked 154 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s 2011 corruption perceptions index.

Mwangi wants Kenyan voters to reject the ruling elite that he and many others see as self-serving, divisive and inept. But this kind of change is a daunting prospect in a country where progress – like the ratification of a new constitution in 2010 – is often obliterated by politico-tribal alliances in the voting booth.

 

Mwangi says that the next election will be critical, not least because Kenyan youth – the 12 million 18-to-34 year olds who account for around 67% of all those without jobs – are losing patience. He says there can either be a ballot revolution or something much more dangerous.

“We have about 68% of the population under 35,” he said. “They are unemployed, with lots of energy and they do nothing. So come next year, if we don’t get the ballot revolution, something has to give … that’s where we get to social revolution.”

Mwangi, who is in his late-20s and was named CNN photojournalist of the year in 2008 and 2010, is part of a demographic that some politicians describe as a ticking time bomb. Youths carried out much of the violence after the last election – many fear they will be encouraged, or even paid, to do so again.

Where are the legitimate candidates?

Part of the problem, Mwangi says, is that there is an absence of graft-free and able candidates to take the places of those now in office.

“The guys we think should be our leaders are not willing to vie (for office) because they say politics is dirty and so we need to cleanse our politics,” says Mwangi. “And the only way you can cleanse politics is to add more men and women of integrity to that parliament.”

To do that, Mwangi, who also founded the youth-led peace initiative Picha Mtaani, which means “street exhibition” in Swahili, aims to draw these people out.

“We are doing more youth forums and town hall meetings … We are trying to encourage men and women of integrity to vie for office because if they don’t vie, you’ll just find vultures on the ballot,” Mwangi said. However, it will be hard for independent candidates to match the coffers or entrenched appeal of perennial candidates.

Frontrunners

Kenya’s next election will be a landmark one for many reasons. Firstly, it will answer the question: have the ghosts of 2007/08 been laid to rest? It will also be the first time Kenyans will vote for senators, county governors, women representatives, county representatives and youth representatives – before they just voted for the president, an MP and a councillor.

But that may be as far as the novelty factor goes; the frontrunners to replace President Mwai Kibaki are from the old guard: Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo whose claims of fraud and vote-rigging in the last poll fuelled the violence; and Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta and the richest man in Kenya. Kenyatta, from the Kikuyu tribe, is also one of four Kenyans due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged roles in 2007/08 violence.

Kenyatta’s standing in the polls has actually improved since his indictment by the ICC as many Kikuyus view him as both a scapegoat and their tribe’s saviour. He is still in second place behind Odinga, but has closed some of this gap.

Other candidates include Martha Karua, a former justice minister who is nicknamed “the Iron Lady”, and independent candidate Peter Kenneth. They appeal to younger Kenyans, especially the voluble, educated and urban middle-classes who are very present on social media sites like Twitter.

Bated breath

But Nairobi is not Kenya and Twitter is not a political trend. It is difficult to gauge what the unwired young Kenyans outside the capital city will do. In rural areas, tribal loyalties are likely to carry more sway, and are already being exploited by some politicians as they campaign.

Karua addressed this tendency in an interview this month in Nairobi’s Star newspaper.

“I will say those who link politics to ethnicity belong to the dark ages. Kenyans want to move forward and are listening and assessing candidates on issues,” she said.

“A majority of Kenyans want to break away from the ethnic factor and look for a leader who can bring change to their lives and country, irrespective of their ethnic affiliations. The political elites are the reasons Kenyans have remained in tribal clashes every election year.”

The frustration with this political stasis is tangible. Even Mwangi wonders whether his team’s brazen messages will make a difference.

In early March, the graffiti team spent a night stencilling “Fukuza Mavulture Bungeni na Kura Yako” (‘Vote the vultures out of parliament’, in Kiswahili) across intersections throughout Nairobi. Boniface Otama watched the team work.

“Can you see the youth are suffering because of our leaders?” he said. “I want something different for my son. When I was small I was told I am the leader of tomorrow. Now, I can’t see the leaders of the future.”

That’s what Mwangi wants to change, but he knows it is asking a lot.

“I wonder how long it will last,” he said as he stood staring at a freshly painted stencil in the darkest hours before dawn.

Asked if he thought the politicians would notice, he said, in an uncharacteristically low voice: “They don’t care. They are insensitive.”

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Comments

While I appreciate and commend Boniface Mwangi's efforts to root out corruption and lay it into the Kenyan MPs for their ineptitude, I have to protest about his analogy with vultures. Vultures are highly effective scavengers offering free ecosystem services, consuming carcasses rapidly to prevent the spread of diseases. Kenya has lost 70% of its vulture population from posioning, habitat loss, persecution and energy infrastructure. Six of the eight species that occur in East Africa are facing an extinction threat. Vultures are the most threatened group of vertebrate animals on the planet. They are revered in Tibetan and Zoroastrian culture for disposing their dead and the vulture was a symbol of "motherhood" for upper Egypt during the period of the Pharoahs. In Hindu Mythology, Jatayu, the Vulture God sacrificed his life to save an Indian Goddess. Mr Boniface Mwangi, as it is, we are having a very difficult time tryign to save these species from extinction. We really need to appreciate them and to create an awareness about the vital ecological services that they provide. Don't elevate Kenyan MPs to the majestic status of vultures.