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Political inaction: Keyboard warriors have let down country

By Dominic Omondi | August 31st 2021

A while back, Kenyans on Twitter were inflamed by how the political class, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, blatantly flouted the Covid-19 rules by holding mammoth rallies.

They were particularly incensed by the decision by President Kenyatta to hold Madaraka Day celebrations at Moi Stadium in Kisumu, an event they described as a super-spreader.

Thus, the so-called keyboard warriors threw slings of hashtags at the head of state, faulting him for his dishonesty.

It was even worse that the State had denied Kenyans an opportunity to party through the night with the dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Then a few weeks later, Kenya staged the first World Rally Championship in Naivasha after a two-decade hiatus. The event, which attracted 30,000 local and international visitors, was greeted with excitement on social media for its blitz.

Celebrated for its hedonistic moments including bouts of drinking and raunchiness, the ‘Vasha’ event was extolled for its consumerism.

Photos of inebriated, mask-less people, jam-packed in flashy cars, barely raised eyebrows on Twitter in the four days of the rally.

This was a middle-class moment. Also known as the consumer class, this is a social group of educated and urbane individuals who tend to sneer at politics.

They hate politics, and often do not even vote, a ‘useless’ ritual they have largely delegated to the lower classes.

Yet, the negative consequences of poor policy decisions, says University of Nairobi Anthropology lecturer Khamati Shilabukha, affect the middle class more than those who go to vote.

“You pay your taxes, and then you also pay for private security, private school for your child and also pay the water bowser. Nairobi water company does not supply you with water regularly or reliably so you pay twice,” he says.

And the middle class will not complain. “They think that complaining is demeaning.”

Hervé Maupeu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pau and the Adour Region, says while Kenya’s middle class, like the global counterpart, can be defined by the material culture, their political demands remain at a different level.

Prof Maupeu, who has done several studies on Kenya, noted that since the 2000s, middle class politics in Kenya has been defined by disenchantment, “less with regards to the capacities of the State than with the level of honesty of the political caste.”

“As is often the case in Kenya, a country that is fascinated — if not obsessed — by rights, middle class citizens think that the solution is to be found in social norms,” he says.

In the real sense, the middle class is simply seeking “to negotiate their contested existence within a fragile national project.”

The 2012 study traced the history of Kenya’s middle class to the colonial period, specifically during the 1950s Mau Mau uprisings.

The middle class were the loyalists and, for being faithful to the colonial power, they enjoyed such benefits as having their land registered. They were also permitted to grow coffee, tea and pyrethrum.

This resulted in a schism, particularly among the Kikuyu, between the loyalists and the Mau Mau and this division, says Maupeu, continues to this day.

“This has produced a middle class that is particularly fearful of popular uprisings,” says the professor.

Yet this is not how the middle class around the world should be.

In 2013, the African Development Bank noted in a report that as people gain middle-class status, they are likely to use their greater economic clout to demand more accountable governments.

“This includes pressing for the rule of law, property rights, and a higher quantity and quality of public services,” the report said.

University of Nairobi economic lecturer Joy Kiiru says, the typical middle class watch the voting process on their TVs.

“Until they are threatened, that is when everybody comes out,” she says.

Unfortunately, like for many other Kenyans, the voting is influenced by the politics of ethnicity.

“Ethnic politics is what influences them to go and vote because they want their own. Because with their own there, they think that they will maintain the opportunities that they already have,” says the don.

Never mind that a study by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a public policy think-tank, showed that middle class workers pay more tax (Paye) compared to the national average.

Total annual Paye contribution by the middle class as a share of the total national Paye, the study found, increased from 20 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent in 2015.

And politicians mastered this game well. Because the middle class never complains, their needs - which tend to be weighty - have largely been ignored.

For long, the State has targeted petroleum products as a low-lying fruit in its bid to fund its empty coffers. Year-after-year, the government has hit motorists with more taxes, expecting very little retaliation.

In the current budget, for example, the State hoodwinked the masses by bringing down the cost of unga, wheat flour and sugarcane, but slapped more taxes on phone calls and internet.

The middle class spend a lot of money on calling and browsing.  

“For some reason they are in a comfort zone. When people want to take action about what they think is their socio-economic injustices, for example, they don’t come out,” says Kiiru.

“And if they really want to participate, they are more like the keyboard warriors who will rant so much on social media; who will correct each and everything on social media. They protest on Twitter, not in the streets.”

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