Simon Kihara perches on the edge of a concrete slab at Jeevanjee Gardens, a public square teeming with young people in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. This is one of several spots in the city where the young and unemployed gather to hang out.
Like thousands of other graduates in Kenya, Kihara’s dream was to kick off his career in computer science soon after graduation. Instead, a year later, he is still struggling to find work.
“I imagined things would not be this tough,” he says.
It’s this daily struggle, and the current administration’s failure to live up to promises to provide a million jobs a year, that Kihara says will play heavily on his mind as he casts his vote in the country’s election on August 8.
“They needed to have prioritized creating more employment opportunities for the youth the way they promised in the campaigns five years ago,” he says. “That hasn’t happened.”
Youth unemployment in Kenya stands at 22.2% and is likely to be one of the major deciding factors for Kenya’s massive youth population as voters head to the ballot box.
Around 80% of Kenya’s population is younger than 35, according to one study, and the country’s young people (those between 18 and 35) make up 51% of its 19.6 million registered voters.
So both candidates are campaigning hard to win the youth vote.
President Uhuru Kenyatta is promising to create 1.3 million new jobs, reduce the cost of living and create a more inclusive economy by reducing economic inequalities.
Raila Odinga, who is vying for the presidency for the fourth time, is promising to fight corruption, create jobs for young people and set up programs to improve food security.
Like Kihara, many young people are frustrated by what they see as the current administration’s failure to live up to its promises.
“The government has failed to develop policies that focus on the empowerment of the youth,” says 22-year-old flower seller Dennis Mugunti. “Young people like me are frustrated because we don’t have jobs and the cost of living is very high.”
Munguti says he is disappointed that the current government has failed to tackle corruption and create a more supportive environment for new businesses. He says he will be voting for Odinga.
“I am a NASA [National Super Alliance] supporter,” he explains, referring to the coalition Odinga leads. “With a new government, I hope things will change for the better.
Charles Otieno, an administrative assistant at a private hospital, is also hopeful that fresh leadership may hold the key to a better Kenya.
“It may be foolhardy to say that Kenyatta’s administration has done nothing,” he says. “They have done a lot to improve the country’s road and rail infrastructure. It’s also now much easier for a common person to access government services.
“However, they have failed terribly in fighting corruption and in delivering on the promise to create jobs for the youth,” he says. “You can see many idle youths around you. There are no jobs and the cost of living is high.”
But in Thika, an industrial town 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) from Nairobi, the mood is different. For young people like Naomi Wanjiru, who runs a clothes shop, Kenyatta is the only choice to guarantee continued progress in Kenya.
“The President has built us roads, has fulfilled the promise of laptops to primary school children,” she says. “His administration has also enhanced electricity connectivity to almost all villages in the country.”
“Maternity services are free of charge at the public hospitals just as he promised – I have never paid a single cent to access these services,” she adds. “Those who say he has underperformed are doing so because they want to appeal to their supporters.”
Gerald Gitau, a 29-year-old electrician, echoes these sentiments: “The President already has my vote. He doesn’t even need to ask me to vote for him.”
“We never used to have electricity here, but this area was connected to the grid during his time. It was a big boost to my business,” he explains. “I also think all those who say there are no jobs are either too lazy, too choosy or just love to (be) idle.”
Statistical dead heat predicted
Despite the fact that young people are a key voting bloc in the country, Raphael Obonyo, convener of the Youth Congress of Kenya, is doubtful that their numbers alone will be enough to swing the vote.
“Although their numbers, interest and agency could determine the election outcome, youth are boxed into the various ethnic and party enclaves, [so] they might not be able to consolidate their numbers as a constituency,” Obonyo says.
“Because of the ethnic nature of our politics, there is very little focus on the manifestos. Kenya is yet to conquer ethnic-based mobilization and adopt the issue-based mobilization that could provide answers to many challenges affecting the country.”
With polls predicting a statistical dead heat between the two leading candidates, voter turnout is likely to play a major role in the final result.
As the campaign draws to a close, Kenya’s young people are hopeful that the elections will be peaceful, so whoever wins can start working on the task at hand right away.
“Too much politicking has not been good for the country,” says Wanjiru, who runs the clothes shop in Thika. “But I believe that life will get better once we allow our leaders to work without too much political interference.”
“The day Kenyans will understand that leaders do not actually hate each other, but are only after their political interests, is the day they will learn to live like brothers and sisters.”