The youth who would shake-up Kenya’s political stage
Boniface who? Yes, Boniface Mwangi; the youth who would shake-up Kenya’s clearly obtuse political stage which has almost literally been dominated by two families in the past five decades and counting!
This is the name on the lips of some even as the campaigning for Kenya’s August 8 elections zooms to a close. A 34-year old photographer and activist, Mwangi is running for a parliamentary seat in Starehe, the capital city of Nairobi as a prelude to ascending the presidency of the parliamentary republic in East Africa’s largest economy
Dramatic and somewhat given to the theatrics of the moment, Mwangi has created a new political movement called Ukweli, with which he hopes to shake up the Kenyan political stage in a manner reminiscent of what the 39-year old Emmanuel Macron recently did in France. And for a closer local example, you may need to look to Joseph Malema and his Economic freedom Fighters band in South Africa.
Mwangi does not spare any moment to raise the stakes. And this indeed is the summary of his story this far. After growing up in abject poverty in Pangani and surviving by helping his mother sell books on the streets of Nairobi, he dropped out of school and took to photography.
And that was it: when the election violence took place in 2007, Mwangi was there clicking and later took his pictures on a countrywide exhibition, campaigning for peace and reconciliation: an activist had been born.
Understandably then, his campaign momentum has been laced with protests. He’s led donkeys down the streets in Nairobi to symbolise the nation’s fatigue with politics, littered the roads with polystyrene babies to call-out the immaturity of Kenya’s politicians and was briefly arrested for letting pigs loose in front of parliament to highlight the greed of politicians.
Translated into English, Ukweli, the name of his newly created political party, means truth, and Mwangi is standing on an anti-corruption platform and looking to encourage even more active participation in politics by estranged citizens in the manner of another Kenyan hero, the ‘home boy’ that rose to become president of the world’s largest democracy, Barack Obama.
But Mwangi clearly faces a tough task in his bid to win the Starehe seat. It’s held by incumbent President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance who this year are fielding Charles Njagua Kanyi, known as “Jaguar”, a well-known pop singer; while the other leading opposition party’s MP-aspirant is the businessman with deep pockets, Steve Mbogo.
In 1998 Mwangi’s received his first commission for photos of the bombed-out United States Embassy in Nairobi.
But it was in 2007 that Mwangi was thrust into the world’s spotlight.
His images of Kenya’s post-election violence — in which over 1200 people were killed — spoke to a reeling nation and revealed the crisis to the world. Afterwards, he traveled the country with a public exhibition of his photography, “Pitchamtaani,” to encourage reconciliation and healing after the violence.
Together with other artists and activists he launched PAWA254 in 2010, a youth movement railing against social injustice. Their hub in central Nairobi was their action base.
In Kenya the two main alliances, The Jubilee Alliance which supports incumbent President Kenyatta, and the opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance, dominate the political landscape.
These two alliances are well rooted in the public’s minds. This means a startup political party, like Ukweli, has the extra challenge of introducing itself to an electoral well-versed and conscious of long-standing organisations with established party machines and financial backing.
Kenyan politics is also still largely divided along tribal lines, with groups aligned to various mainstream parties. Mwangi will have to overcome these attitudes if he’s to win.
However, Mwangi’s alternative approach to politics has caught people’s attention. Instead of relying on wealthy individual donors, he’s crowdfunding his candidacy with small donations — and even had a truck donated to the campaign.
Mwangi also has huge reach on social media. His 700k followers on Twitter and 250k Facebook page likes could be key to tapping into Kenya’s staggeringly young and social media-savvy population — who increasingly disregard tribal identities. As ever, though, it’s difficult to know if these numbers will translate into actual votes.
As is the case with change-makers, sceptics worry Mwangi’s influence will be stifled by parliament, that he can be more effective on the outside. For voters, candidates have come to them before claiming to clean up corruption, only to be consumed by it.
Mwangi insists he wants to shake-up the system from the inside. Yet win or lose, he has left his mark on Kenyan politics, challenging the old order and providing some hope for those fed-up with the status-quo.
Boniface Mwangi, Ukweli’s candidate for Starehe MP