Youthful leaders fight for space as Young Turks of 90s call the shorts from behind

ODM leader Raila Odinga (L) and former ODM Secretary General Ababu Namwamba (R). While announcing his resignation as ODM Secretary General, Namwamba cited “frustration” from the party. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

Way back in early 1991, a group of youthful politicians convened a series of meetings to push for change in governance.

Notable members included lawyers Paul Muite and James Orengo, politicians Raila Odinga, Prof Anyang' Nyong'o and Joe Ager. The aim of the youthful politicians – later joined by Dr Mukhisa Kituyi and lawyer Gitobu Imanyara – was to push for multi-party democracy in Kenya. At the time, Kenya was a one-party State.

The budding politicians, popularly known as Young Turks, devised a plan to rope in veteran politicians into the grand scheme of things. The plan was simple; have the older politicians – whom they believed the Kanu regime would find difficult to detain – act as the public face of the push while in actual fact having the younger leaders actively engaged in the struggle. In the words of Babafemi Badejo, author of Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics, "they knew they would still be the engine to pull the train of multi-party democratisation in Kenya’’.

In his narrative, Badejo credits formation of the original Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD), an opposition political movement, to the young politicians, who today are in their 60s and 70s. FORD’s public face then became Martin Shikuku, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Phillip Gachoka, George Nthenge and Ahmed Bamahriz.

Months later, the political establishment gave in to public pressure and agreed to multi-partyism. That was in December 1991.

On the front-line

Fast forward. About 25 years later, a number of political parties have approached things differently. This time by putting youthful politicians on the front line and letting the older group (the Young Turks of the 90s) work behind the scenes.

This experiment has borne a mixed bag of fortunes for the country’s political landscape. In some quarters, the resignation of former ODM Secretary General Ababu Namwamba is seen to represent the restive posture of today’s Young Turks. Within Wiper Democratic Movement (WDM), Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka is battling a distractive rebellion from a group of politicians from the lower Eastern region led by Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua.

The road hasn’t been smooth either for the leadership of the Jubilee coalition where parties like TNA (The National Alliance) are headed by youthful politicians. In URP, MPs Alfred Keter (Nandi Hills) and Oscar Sudi (Kapseret) were at some point branded rebels for daring to take on the party’s leadership.

In virtually all political parties, youthful leaders are fighting for space. Will this new crop of politicians shape the destiny of the country’s leadership? Homa Bay County Women Representative Gladys Wanga believes there is room for youthful leaders in Kenyan politics but, she argues, one must fight for space within political parties.

“When sharing out tasks, there is always the likelihood that the die will fall on older leaders because they are considered more predictable,” she says.

The MP takes issue with the failure by youthful leaders to bridge the political divide and use their energy to push national agenda.

While announcing his resignation as ODM Secretary General, Namwamba cited “frustration” from the party. Namwamba had been in office for about two years and was among a group of fairly youthful leaders appointed to positions in 2014 after the botched ODM elections.

Street protests

During demonstrations earlier this year to force IEBC commissioners out of office, it was essentially the “elder Young Turks” of the 1990s – Raila, Nyong'o and Orengo – who were at the forefront of street protests. When a select committee was set up to determine the electoral body’s fate, it was once again led by the Young Turks of yesteryears – Senators Kiraitu Murungi (Meru) and James Orengo (Siaya).

“The Young Turks of the 1990s had set clear objectives like wresting power from Kanu, pushing for multi-party democracy and agitating for media freedom. These leaders, buoyed by the charisma of seasoned politicians like Shikuku and Kenneth Matiba, were united in pursuing a common cause and had the support of the masses,” says Kisii University lecturer Prof Maurice Amutabi. But things have changed.

“Today, there is a sense in which people view the youthful leadership as opportunistic. You have a clique of leaders that don’t genuinely connect with the masses and many have elements of scandal in how they have acquired wealth,” Amutabi adds.

He, however, believes there’s need for the older crop of leaders to give room to younger politicians, a view Mombasa County Senator Hassan Omar shares. “The Young Turks of the 1990s are still in the political field,” he says. According to Omar, there’s a restive youthful group calling for generational change in leadership but which sometimes has to operate within a political space which does not welcome their opinions.

Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jnr aptly captures how youthful leaders are viewed in some cases gaining “little or no acceptance”, or viewed with “contemptuous disregard”.

“The youthful leader is seen as lacking wisdom. So you have older politicians sometimes making decisions on matters concerning you without consulting because subconsciously, they think they have a better view,” he says.

A look at major political parties prior to the 2013 polls shows TNA, for instance, with a younger crop of leaders like Johnson Sakaja (Chairman) and Onyango Oloo (Secretary General) holding large profile positions. ODM at the time had Nyong'o as Secretary General and Henry Kosgey as chair. Wiper was represented by David Musila (national chair) and Mutula Kilonzo (Secretary General). A study by the Centre for Multi-Party Democracy (CMD), found that even where youth are represented in political parties, their voices are not heard because they do not constitute a cohesive group that could command influence. The 2015 study titled “Youth in political party participation in Kenya” also found that where parties have Youth Leagues, they are weak and poorly funded, with unclear sources of finance and mandates.

“Since independence, the youth have been relegated to lower levels of political influence in political parties and never featuring at key decision making positions. Only elite members of theyouth were able to penetrate the party system and managed to propel themselves to national leadership by way of association,” says the survey.

For former Subukia MP Koigi Wamwere, the difference between the Young Turks of the 1990s and today’s youthful leaders is determined by how one defines leadership and what motivates those aspiring for office. “We felt there were problems that needed to be addressed and that we could push for that change,” he says.

Wamwere, a member of the “Seven bearded sisters”, says many youthful leaders at the time were willing to make sacrifices including their own lives in pursuit of a national cause. The “Seven bearded sisters” was a moniker used in reference to a group of radical politicians in the 1980s. Besides Wamwere, others were Orengo, Onyango Midika, Abuya Abuya, Lawrence Sifuna, Chibule wa Tsuma and Mwashengu wa Mwachofi. “Today’s leadership isn’t based on a cause, probably because we think society doesn’t have problems that need to be tackled on the basis of principles,” he says.

No cause

“While there are some leaders who genuinely look at such a platform based on what cause they can address, many see it as an avenue to get rich,” adds Wamwere. The seeming lack of staying power, according to Kenyatta University lecturer Dr Edward Kisiangáni, has seen the emergence of a crop of youthful leaders that has little or no capacity to commit to a cause.

“Many ascribe to political parties that have no values and cannot operate beyond ethnic lines. They have been sucked into the hero worship of party leaders and an intellectual grasp of ideology is lacking among many of them,” he says. He believes the system of education could be a factor. For Senator Martha Wangari, who was nominated on a UDF ticket, lack of consistency among the youthful leadership has hurt their profile. “It’s also hard for a young person to be the owner or driver of a party given what is involved in setting up such an outfit. This means most times youthful leaders are pushed to the periphery,” she says. So is there a cause that unifies the youthful leaders?

“We have done a lot in pushing the youth agenda through Bills on unemployment, education, public procurement and reproductive health,” says Wangari. Mutula concedes there was a thinking at some point among the young leaders to support each other across the political divide, but this failed. “Probably because of the fear that if you were seen associating with certain politicians, then you would be perceived as having defected or had been bought,” he says.

Former political detainee and ODM Director of Strategy, Wafula Buke likens the behaviour of some young politicians to the biblical story of manna falling from heaven. “Opportunities are not necessarily good when one is on a journey because they can derail you. Most of today’s leadership has been derailed by manna that dropped, courtesy of the youthful leaders of my time. We now have people who think they can evolve into leaders overnight.” he says.