Youth, don't be quick to anger, vet all leaders

Mombasa youths entertain themselves with music during a political rally held by Mombasa County Governor aspirant, Suleiman Shahbal at Kadongo in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

In the past, populism rode on fear and rage. Take the Roman Republic, for example. By the first century BC, it had ruled over millions of people along the Mediterranean’s shores for four centuries. Although it wasn’t a flawless democracy, citizens had a greater say in government.

But times were hard — decades of economic downturn, threats from the Middle East and political infighting had left them weary of their “uncaring” government. They wanted someone to seize control and shake up the Senate’s business-as-usual mindset.

Exploiting this tidal wave of fear and anger, Julius Caesar rose to the highest levels of political power. This success alarmed Rome’s old guard politicians, who tried all they could to stop him, but nothing worked. The more they vilified him, the more popular he became.

Today’s populism is fueled by low education levels and a system that prioritises passing examinations and job prospects over critical thinking and analytical skills. It becomes more appealing if people are not taught to question what they hear.

Perhaps recent examples are the 2016 Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit. According to a study, the more the number of residents in a US county with a high school diploma, the greater the shift toward Mr Trump.

Even when a slew of other factors was taken into account, such as income levels, income growth, unemployment, race, age, and immigration, education was the best match for Trump’s victory. A similar analysis of those who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum in local authority regions showed the lower the number of people with a degree, the higher the share of the vote to leave the EU.

Kenya appears to be in the same boat right now. The current political campaigns have exposed our society’s moral and intellectual decline, particularly among youth. They have little motive to be well-informed about manifestos and party ideologies. They don’t even inquire about the re-election scorecards of politicians or how their taxes have been spent in the last ten years. They make little effort to find new data and/or assess it poorly.

They are “political fans,” cheering on leaders and placing an exaggerated value on any facts that support their pre-existing political beliefs while ignoring or downplaying that which contradicts them. That is why most of them can be bribed to vote for a certain candidate, spend sleepless nights campaigning for them, be recruited as an internet charlatan, or join a gang to disrupt an opponent’s rally.

They’re angry the most. About what? They won’t tell you. Because they simply don’t know. We must not allow anger, fear and ignorance replace civic consciousness. Our democracy is a work in progress.

The writer is a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute