Reflecting on the divisions and conflict that arose during Kenya’s contested 2017 elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently said:
Uhuru and his main opponent in that election, Raila Odinga, closed ranks after the contest with a symbolic handshake and a pledge to reform the political landscape. And so was born the Building Bridges Initiative and a taskforce charged with examining the nine key challenges facing Kenya since independence.
Just recently released, the taskforce’s recommendations for constitutional change are being hotly debated. Among the issues somewhat buried in the 204-page report is a section on “inclusivity”. It calls for the meaningful involvement of youth in the country’s future. This includes taking up youth issues, like jobs, and putting young people in elected and appointed leadership positions.
This is hardly surprising. Young Kenyans – those aged 18-34 – now comprise more than half of the electorate. In fact, young people 34 and below constitute 75% of the country’s population. This demographic profile is often represented as a problem. For example, young people are reported to have made up 70% of the participants in the 2007/8 post-election violence. There are also concerns about youth radicalisation leading to militancy and terrorist activity.
Our recently published research sought to document the views of young Kenyans about politics, the state and the future. Our study was based on a survey of more than 4,750 students in the final year of secondary school in Nairobi, which is home to 10% of the national population.
The young people we surveyed in May and June 2017 were perceptive about the challenges facing the country, civically engaged, and hopeful about the future. Our data presents important insights on many of the high-stakes issues currently up for debate.
Our findings suggest that it is time to take youth seriously as politically important actors.
What they said
The survey sample covered girls (52%) and boys (46%); Christians (88%) and Muslims (10%). The diversity of ethnic groups included Kikuyu 28%, Luo 21%, Luhya 16%, Kamba 10%, Kisii 5%, Somali 4% and others. Participants came from diverse economic backgrounds too.
Below we summarise findings as they relate to the main themes of the Building Bridges Initiative report.
On corruption, shared prosperity, and safety and security
Nairobi secondary school students identify corruption and trust in national institutions among top issues of concern. Most strongly agreed that “there is too much corruption in Kenya”. Likewise, most youth strongly agreed with the statement that
there is too much inequality between rich Kenyans and poor Kenyans.
On that same scale, respondents overall were neutral when asked about their “trust in the Kenyan national government”.
Across ethnic groups, we found that Kikuyus reported the highest levels of trust in the national government and Luos reported the lowest levels.
Referring to the April 2015 attack by al-Shabaab at Garissa University in northeast Kenya, which left 147 people dead, we asked how often students had “worried about another attack like Garissa”. Nearly two thirds (60%) had worried about an attack at least once in the month prior to our survey. More than a quarter had worried about it four or more times in that period.
On divisive elections
Just over 20% of the young people involved in our survey reported that they had received money to participate in a political event in the previous 12 months. Male respondents, and those from the two lowest socio-economic quartiles, were most likely to report this practice in their communities.
On ethnic antagonism and competition
Kenya has more than 40 ethnic groups and inter-group friction and conflict has been pervasive. Inequalities along ethnic lines are an important factor and ethnic antagonism and competition have been particularly acute surrounding elections.
Did our respondents “think that the government treats people from your ethnic group fairly”? The average score across survey participants was neutral. Respondents agreed only very slightly more with the question of whether “people from your ethnic group are fairly included in opportunities to get a good education”.
In contrast, respondents tended towards agreeing when asked whether they “feel like people from a different ethnic group are given unfair advantages”. This highlights some feeling of unfairness. There were statistically significant differences among respondents of different ethnic groups. Kikuyu participants consistently responded with higher ratings on the fairness of government than respondents who self-identified as belonging to other groups.
Respondents reported very positive personal interactions between people of different ethnic groups. An overwhelming majority expressed willingness to accept someone of a different ethnic group as a friend (96.12%) and accept marrying someone of a different ethnic group (86.92%).
On lack of a national ethos
The young Kenyans who completed our survey expressed a very strong sense of belonging to Kenya – an average score of 4.23 on our 5-point scale. But the responses differed according to socio-economic background. Respondents from the two lowest socio-economic quartiles reported stronger belonging to Kenya than wealthier Kenyans.
In contrast, respondents felt a lesser, but still important, belonging to their ethnic group and a similar level of belonging to people who spoke their mother tongue.
On responsibilities and rights
Many of the respondents appeared to take their responsibilities seriously, alongside their rights. Most reported that in the past year they had “volunteered without pay on a community service project” (60.33%) and more than half were “a member of a community group or youth organisation” (54.53%).
Some had taken more difficult actions, such as reporting corruption to an official (10.13%). And 17.13% of respondents reported that they had “supported an organisation that fights for something they believe in even though it broke the law” while 7.34% confirmed that they had “attacked police that they saw beating someone unfairly”. Also 5.17% “continued to attend a demonstration that turned violent”.
Our most remarkable findings
Collectively, these findings echo the diagnosis of some of the main challenges facing Kenya as set out in the Building Bridges Initiative report. Other findings from our survey, though, challenge it and add nuance.
It is important to emphasise that, although “youth” are often referred to as a single category, not all young Kenyans are the same. Even among the group participating in our research, we saw patterns emerge between youth of different ethnic groups, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds.
These differences are critical in understanding both the challenges facing youth and how to engage them politically.
We argue that any effort to move Kenya forward to a positive future must take the power and promise of youth seriously and meaningfully include a diverse set of youth views and empower young people to act on them. It is not clear that the key recommendations of the Building Bridges Initiative, focusing largely on political elites, are sufficient to make this happen.
One of our most remarkable findings is that despite the disillusionment, sense of injustice, and insecurity that youth reported, our respondents still perceived that they hold a relatively high ability to effect change. Kenya needs them to do so.
Project director Simon Grinsted co-authored the research on which this article was based.
Elisabeth King, Associate Professor of International Education and Politics, New York University; Dana Burde, Associate Professor and Director of International Education, New York University; Daphna Harel, Associate Professor of Applied Statistics, New York University, and Jennifer Hill, Director of PRIISM; Professor of Applied Statistics, New York University