Letter from Kenya: Too busy tweeting to vote?

 
A man walks past a large screen in Central Nairobi broadcasting the last televised debate for the 2013 Kenya elections on 25 February 2013

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Kenfrey Kiberenge considers whether middle class Kenyans' Twitter habitat impedes their attendance at the ballot box.

On 19 January, a Kenyan name was the top trending topic on Twitter. The name - "Waititu" - belongs to a shrewd Kenyan politician.

His full name is Ferdinand Waititu and he is the former member of parliament for Embakasi, a constituency in the capital, Nairobi.

On the said date, political parties were holding their primaries to nominate candidates to vie for various positions for the general election on 4 March.

With the presidential line-up having already been decided in boardrooms, the main focus on these primaries was on a new and powerful position of governors.

Ferdinand Waititu in court in September 2012 Ferdinand Waititu is a fiery politician who is facing charges of hate speech

A governor will be akin to a chief executive officer of the newly established counties.

And being the capital of one of Africa's most burgeoning economies, Nairobi governor is among the most appealing positions on offer.

The two leading political parties - Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta's The National Alliance (TNA) - were the main contenders.

For the ODM, a deal was struck a day before, handing the ticket to Evans Kidero, the former boss of a Kenyan sugar company.

For the TNA, the contest was between Mr Waititu and Jimnah Mbaru.

Two days before the primaries, Mr Mbaru, who used to head the Nairobi Securities Exchange, released his impressive 37-page curriculum vitae on social media.

In contrast, Mr Waititu, a streetwise politician who has been caught on camera roughing up people and throwing stones at police, even had a hard time proving that his degree certificate was indeed his.

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Since political parties are fashioned along ethnic lines - and because the middle class do not want to be branded as tribal - they often refuse to register as party members”

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In the following days, most Twitter and Facebook users across the political divide argued that the tech-savvy Mr Mbaru deserved the TNA ticket to go against ODM's equally tech-savvy Mr Kidero.

This way, whatever the outcome during the general election, Nairobi would be in safe hands.

On nomination day, though, Mr Mbaru lost to Mr Waititu by more than 11,000 votes.

Many Nairobians were outraged and took to social media to ventilate.

That is how Mr Waititu's name ended up trending on Twitter.

But the reason why Twitter's favourite candidate lost is pretty simple.

Those who vouched for Mr Mbaru on social media were nowhere near the polling stations.

Craze for shopping malls

Traditionally, most people in Kenya's growing middle class do not participate in party primaries.

The nomination rules dictate that one must be a registered party member to participate.

Since political parties are fashioned along ethnic lines - and because the middle class do not want to be branded as tribal - they often refuse to register as party members.

On the flipside, those in poorer communities do not mind being party members.

Election in numbers

  • 14 million registered voters
  • Eight presidential candidates
  • 99,000 police officers being deployed
  • First election under new constitution
  • Winning presidential candidates need 50% of vote + 25% in half of 47 counties
  • Voters will get ballot papers for six different elections
  • 100,000 people still living in camps after violence followed 2007 poll
  • Uhuru Kenyatta among the favourites despite facing trial at the ICC, where he is accused of crimes against humanity over last election

The poor will also endure extreme weather conditions to nominate their preferred candidate.

Often, the bait is a few hundred Kenyan shillings (up to £3.80; $5.80), which would not excite the middle class.

Those in the middle class will often give up after a few minutes and then tweet their frustration from the comfort of their living rooms or offices.

Unlike the general election, the nomination day is not a public holiday.

It would seem absurd to seek a day off to participate in party primaries.

This is not the case with the poor, most of them unemployed.

To be fair, though, most in the middle class are registered voters and will take part in the general election.

However, the candidates will have already been sieved at the party primaries and their natural first choices might be missing from the ballot papers.

The argument in some quarters is that the middle class in Kenya is so small it cannot fundamentally affect the outcome of the nomination.

A critical assessment of the situation on the ground, however, paints a slightly different picture.

Nairobi has been hit by a craze for shopping malls, coffee houses, top-of-the-range vehicles as well as trendy social events.

Kenyan electoral officials make final touches at the election centre's call centre on 1 March 2013 in Nairobi Kenya's middle class is estimated to make up 24% of the populaton

These are the symbols of a growing middle class, says Nairobi economist X N Iraki.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) defines the middle class as anyone spending between 23,670 Kenyan shillings ($275; £175) and 199,999 shillings per month.

A 2011 report by the bureau showed that the country's middle class made up 24% of the population - up from 19% in 2007.

The elite - spending more than 200,000 shillings a month - counted for 3.6% from 1%.

This leaves the remaining 72.4% in the working class.

Like the rest of Africa, life in Kenya is getting better each year but how it translates to stronger and equally representative political participation on 4 March and in years to come is a good question.

When will the two divides meet or find that common ground, whether it be on Twitter or on the streets?

Hopefully soon - because not only does Kenya need it, but it deserves it as well.

 

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