When Kenyan university student John Paul Mwirigi declared his intention to run for a seat in parliament and subsequently began his door-to-door campaign on foot, only a few gave him a chance.
But today, the 23-year-old, the sixth-born in a family of eight, will become Kenya’s youngest Member of Parliament after he was elected in the general elections held on 8 August to represent Igembe South, in the eastern Meru County.
All Mwirigi, who is studying for a degree in education at Mount Kenya University, needed to overrun his rivals was 18 867 votes. His rivals included ruling Jubilee Party’s Rufus Miriti, who had 15 411 votes, and veteran politicians such as Mwenda Mzalendo, who got 7 695 votes; Kubai Mutuma, with 6 331 votes; and Raphael Muriungi, who garnered 2 278 votes.
Another remarkable thing about Mwirigi’s campaign was that he did not have a fat bank account to fund his campaign. Instead he relied on well-wishers and motorcycle riders, who ferried him around, to gain favour with the people.
Mwiringi’s feat is a challenge to other young Africans to go beyond simply complaining and to seek elective positions if they want their continent to grow.
Inspiring the youth
Young people are happy to see a young man gain access to the ranks of parliament. A BBC post on Facebook announcing Mwirigi’s victory received over 21 000 likes, more than 400 shares and hundreds of comments from young people inspired by the news.
“John is inspiration to us young people who are struggling that we can fulfil our dreams if we believe,” wrote Madeda Harrison, who lives in Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa and studied international relations at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
“[I] wish Nigerian youths and the rest should borrow a leaf from this because we are tired of recycled leaders,” commented Okey Nwokem, a Nigerian.
Sentiments like these signal a longing for change.
Mwirigi himself believes his victory will inspire Kenya’s young people and, by extension, other young people across the continent.
“My joy is that the people of the constituency have realised that even the young generation can lead. I would like to confess that I did not use even a single coin; everything came from people here,” he told the BBC.
A young continent with old leaders
Though mainstream politicians in Africa, especially those in Nigeria, spend millions of dollars to win political office, young Africans do not necessarily need that. Instead, they have to find ways to reach out to people at the grass roots: people whose needs they understand; people whose ambitions and problems they have tasted and shared. Mwirigi contested as an independent candidate, yet he won. He never had a flashy campaign, yet he won. He campaigned on foot and later received support from motorcycle riders, yet he won.
Africa is young, so its people cannot continue to tolerate long-serving and ageing leaders whose penchant for longevity has left the continent in ruins. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda and José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola have all stayed in power for over 30 years.
The UN says the number of young people in Africa is ‘growing rapidly’, with about 226 million people aged between 15 and 24 in 2015. The organisation also noted that the continent has the youngest population in the world, with a median age of 19,5 years. In addition, by 2030, the number of young people in Africa is expected to increase by 42%. Yet, a special project on the continent’s presidents by the Voice of America found that the average age of sitting African rulers was 65.
It is this paradox – the world’s youngest population governed by largely ageing leaders – that forced David Kiwuwa, associate professor of International Studies at Princeton University, to ask:
Why is Africa so saddled with leaders who ought to be enjoying their retirement in peace and quiet, instead of in the unforgiving political corridors, campaign trails and taxing political brinkmanship that challenge even the youngest leaders? …Perhaps a broader explanation that cuts across their respective constituencies lies in the combination of political machinations, shrewd political brinkmanship through patrimonial networks, and corrupt practices. Undoubtedly, it is also their longevity in the executive office that has curtailed and stifled the emergence of credible and youthful successors.
Meet Kenya's youngest lawmaker, 23-year-old John Paul Mwirigi, whose agenda is, naturally enough, jobs for youth pic.twitter.com/RjR2RyQWAG
— TRT World (@trtworld) September 1, 2017
Victory from the jaws of defeat
Mwirgi’s success story stands out in an election that had its lows, with clashes reported in some parts of Kenya after opposition leader Raila Odinga claimed that figures showing current president Uhuru Kenyatta won were ‘fictitious’.
“You can only cheat the people for so long,” Odinga, son of the first post-independence vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “The 2017 general election was a fraud.”
Despite these allegations, on 11 August official figures released by the east African country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission showed that Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, garnered 54,27% of the ballots cast, while Odinga received 44,74%. Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election.
“It’s been a long wait for the last couple of days. But we were determined to be patient and wait for the final result, as indeed have now been declared,” Kenyatta said in a nationally broadcast speech following the announcement.
“As with any competition,” he added, “there shall always be winners and there shall be losers. But we all belong to one great nation called Kenya.”
Observers prayed that the pockets of protest and the number of deaths reported would not culminate in a repeat of the brutal ethnic violence that broke out after Odinga made similar claims of electoral cheating in 2007. In the wake of that tension, more than 1 000 people were killed and about 600 000 people fled their homes.
Whether Odinga accepts the outcome is still unclear – he has called for a UN analysis of the result – but young people observing the situation should not let this detract from the optimism that the election of Kenya’s youngest MP brings. If anything, Mwirigi has shown that dreams can come true when one does not give up.
“I had a dream in which I was tabling a motion in Parliament when I was in Form Three. That was when I started asking my fellow students to start campaigning for me since I would need their vote in 2017,” he told local media outlet Nation. “I have held leadership positions in school and in my neighbourhood,” he added.
Mwirgi has set his sights on promoting entrepreneurship, agriculture and nurturing young talent. “Since I come from a humble background, I understand the issues that affect the residents. My key agenda will be to transform the lives of the people,” he said.
Some of his constituents told journalists that they voted for him because they felt he knew their problems and would find solutions to them.
There is no better time for young people to take a leaf from Mwirigi’s book. And Mwirigi must continue to remain a source of motivation and inspiration by not allowing the spoils of politics to overcome his desire to improve the lives of his people.